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Was Afghanistan the First “Feminist War”? Examining the Role of “White Feminism” in the Longest U.S. War

StorySeptember 02, 2021
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With the official end of the War in Afghanistan, we speak with Rafia Zakaria, author of “Against White Feminism,” about how U.S. officials used the plight of the women in the country to justify the 2001 invasion and subsequent occupation. “Feminism has been delegitimized in Afghanistan because it is associated with an occupying force,” says Zakaria. “Now Afghan women are left to pick up the pieces and deal with the Taliban.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: But we also want to bring into this discussion Rafia Zakaria, author and columnist who’s written a new book. It’s called Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption — that looks, in part, at the role of women in the push for the United States to attack Afghanistan.

Rafia, welcome to Democracy Now! You’ve called the U.S. War in Afghanistan the first “feminist war.” If you can go back in time and elaborate, take us through it?

RAFIA ZAKARIA: OK. So, first of all, thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure to speak with you and be on Democracy Now!

The story of this war, which I call the first feminist war, begins, obviously, in the years before 9/11 happened, when feminist organization called Feminist Majority was running a campaign to end gender apartheid in Afghanistan. And towards the end of the ’90s, this campaign really gained traction, because it was championed by the wife of Jay Leno, and she attracted a lot of celebrities, like Meryl Streep, to the cause. Now, when —

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mavis Leno.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Mavis, yes, sorry. And now, when 9/11 happened, the U.S. was looking, you know, for, I mean, in a lot of cases, revenge, but also for an argument that would justify its invasion of Afghanistan, given that none of the 9/11 hijackers were actually from Afghanistan. So they kind of latched onto this program that was already part of the Feminist Majority. And the leaders of the Feminist Majority actually consulted with the State Department and with the White House before the invasion was announced. They were present when Colin Powell made the announcement for the invasion.

And the reason I call it a feminist war, the first feminist war, is because, until then, U.S. feminists at least had functioned as a check on the state. They were against war. They were against unjust invasions and interventions. But when this happened, you know, the large feminist organizations and prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, supported the incursion into Afghanistan, saying that this would establish democracy, which ultimately would be good for women’s rights. And that’s what they did. You know, they essentially allied with the U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan and allowed for feminism to be used essentially as a cover story for what was a strategic intervention based on U.S. national interests.

So, the consequence, of course, is what we see today, what your previous guest spoke about, which is that feminism has been delegitimized in Afghanistan because it is associated with an occupying force. And I would say that the reason 200 — you know, Afghanistan, Afghan women will be set back 200 years is because of that, is because this sort of misuse of feminism, largely led by white and Western women who wanted to sort of modify Afghanistan in their own image, in ways which they saw best, has completely failed.

And now Afghan women are left to pick up the pieces and deal with the Taliban and, you know, hopefully — because, I mean, I don’t argue with the fact that changes have happened for women. The part I really get upset about is that, you know, all of those changes took place because of this fragile aid economy that the United States created by pumping a lot of money into the economy and creating a sort of NGO-level workforce of Afghans that catered to the Western presence. And now that the U.S. has left all of that, you know, the house of cards has collapsed. And so, all of those people that were serving NGOs or various, like, government arms of the U.S. are essentially not — I mean, they don’t have jobs. They’re not going to — and, you know, the vast majority of them are not going to be able to leave.

And I pin this to white and Western feminism, because it refused — it absolutely refused — because, as you know, as you’ve been showing on your program, there were people saying this for over a decade — well, for me, two decades. But there was no — even up to 2011, 2012, there was no room at all within the American public sphere, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, to say that, you know, this is actually hurting Afghan women.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mahbouba, could I ask you to respond to what Rafia has said? The way in which women were used as a pretext for the U.S. invasion and the fact that the advances that have been made in Afghanistan for women have largely been as a result of the foreign aid economy, could you respond to that?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ: I mean, Ms. Rafia is being a little bit unfair, I believe, on this situation. I know that there was — you know, that did happen in Afghanistan. There is no doubt about it. But at the same time, it is not that, you know, only that is the result of it. It’s not like that.

The women of Afghanistan, first of all, from the point of view of education alone, I mean, there are so many more girls right now that they have gone to school, graduated from schools, and they are ready to take their lives and keep on going. There are so many — you know, the same way teachers and doctors and nurses and engineers and — you know, these are all because the universities were open, because women were allowed to go to a part of their higher education, not necessarily to the United States or to Europe, but to other countries in Asia, also to do and go and do their — complete their education. So, that whole thing really, really changed, was changing. And if we would be given a little more of a chance, I’m sure this would have taken root in Afghanistan, and it would have become that majority that we needed in order to really bring about a change in the whole life of the Afghan women. I know it did not happen that way because it was cut short.

And then, also, but at the same time, you know, based kind of — you know, taking a part of what she’s saying in her beliefs, to me, also, in a way, it’s going to show me, as an Afghan, and, I hope, to all of my sisters, that they are here in Afghanistan or the ones that they are outside, for us to see what we are going to do from here on. Because, you see, Afghanistan is Afghanistan. There are the educated women in there, so far, the ones that have been — not all of them left Afghanistan. Not all of them can leave Afghanistan. So, there is going to be that second category of people that they are educated. And hopefully, the education is something that we will fight for and it will continue. And for me, too, it’s interesting to see what is going to be happening without the push of the West and the women and the money of the NGOs and all of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to just this past July, when the former Republican President George W. Bush, of course, responsible for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, responded with a rare criticism of U.S. policy in Afghanistan today during an interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle. This is what he said.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm. … I’m sad. And I spend a — Laura and I spend a lot of time with Afghan women, and they’re scared.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here he refers to first lady Laura Bush. In November of 2001, right after the invasion, Laura Bush delivered the president’s weekly radio address, the first time a first lady took over the president’s weekly radio address. This is an excerpt.

LAURA BUSH: I’m Laura Bush, and I’m delivering this week’s radio address to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban.

AMY GOODMAN: And it wasn’t just the first lady — of course, a Republican. In October of 2001, Democratic Congressmember Carolyn Maloney of New York wore a burqa during a 2001 speech to Congress on Afghan women’s rights.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Anyone who is familiar, prior to September 11th, with how the Taliban treat women should have recognized that the Taliban are capable of doing just about anything. The Taliban have controlled 90% of Afghanistan since 1996, when they unilaterally declared an end to women’s basic human rights. The restrictions on women’s freedoms in Afghanistan are unfathomable to most Americans. Women are banished from working. Girls are not allowed to attend school.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Carolyn Maloney on the floor of the House, wearing a full burqa, her face covered, as well. Rafia Zakaria, you document this. But if you can talk about the significance of how this was used immediately, as much or more than going after Osama bin Laden, in the justification of the U.S. invasion, and then what’s happening, as Mahbouba Seraj says, looking at today, what has to happen?

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Well, first of all, I’d like to, you know, respond to something Mahbouba said about this kind of thing, the education, quote-unquote, “will take root” in Afghanistan. I think that is the problem of the approach, is that it’s a top-down, trickle-down approach, which was devised by white, middle-class, Western feminists and then kind of delivered to Afghanistan as an export, rather than an indigenous feminism in Afghanistan.

I think the failure is that, yes, Afghan women might be educated, but they don’t have the political capacity to safeguard the rights that they have won, in the past 20 days. And the reason for that is this idea of empowerment as something excised from political, radical struggle. You know, women in Afghanistan were never able to do that in the past 20 years and develop a —

AMY GOODMAN: Rafia, we have 20 seconds.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: OK. So, but in terms of the burqa, I mean, those are the theatrics of the West, right? It’s this horrible equation that if you’re wearing the burqa, you’re oppressed; if you suddenly take it off, you’re free. And you see — it’s truly tragic to see that repeated again, 20 years after the initial invasion and as the U.S. draws down. I mean, the burqa is not the indicator of the —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us. Rafia Zakaria’s new book is called Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. And thank you to Mahbouba Seraj in Kabul, president of Afghan Women’s Network. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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