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Ruhi Khan

September 2nd, 2021

Afghanistan and the colonial project of feminism: dismantling the binary lens

0 comments | 60 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Ruhi Khan

September 2nd, 2021

Afghanistan and the colonial project of feminism: dismantling the binary lens

0 comments | 60 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Afghan women are not just victims of conflict but also of rhetoric. Ruhi Khan, ESRC Researcher in LSE’s Media & Communication department, argues that we need to break away from binary viewpoints on Afghanistan, probe deeper into coloniality and the history of feminism in the global south and include it into the larger geo-political feminist epistemology. 

A young woman – just 27 years old– was beaten to death in the centre of Kabul by a mob. Her ‘crime’? She called out a religious vendor (mullah) selling holy verses on paper which he promised were powerful spells promising the heart’s desires. The mullah was agitated that a woman had challenged him and falsely accused her of desecrating the Holy Quran. Soon a mob joined the chorus and started pelting her with stones and sticks, kicking her and hitting her. They tied the badly beaten woman to a car and drove it around until she succumbed to her injuries. Her broken body was thrown along the riverbank and torched.

This was not a witch hunt in the remote hamlets of Afghanistan. Nor did this happen under the Taliban rule. This crime happened in March 2015 in the ‘liberalised’ Afghanistan under the watch of the allied forces and close to the palace of a ‘progressive’ President.

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 Farkhunda Malikzada’s story is important to understand the perils of the binary viewpoint that the world has of Afghanistan. When America sold the justification for the war in 2001, women became the central focus. How the Afghan women were subjugated and oppressed by the Taliban made global headlines. Their only savour, we were told, were the Western forces that would set them free by establishing a government that looked out for the women and a rule of law that protected them. We were given only two choices – oppression by the Taliban or freedom by the Western invasion. There was no room for an alternative.

Farkhunda was a student of Islamic law and wore the veil, but she was also brave enough to stand up to a man against what she believed were un-Islamic practices. The barbaric actions of the mob captured on video, the incompetence of the Afghan police who stood by and watched the attack, the indifference of the hundreds who cheered or mutely witnessed the atrocities unfold, the sheer brutality of this gendered violence shows that little had changed in Afghanistan when it is not looked at through the rose-tinted glasses of the Western aid agencies.

When America sold the justification for the war in 2001, women became the central focus.

Farkhunda’s killers were not the Taliban, but city folks – from the custodian of a religious shrine to street vendors, from the Afghan police to a 16-year-old boy who was part of the bloodthirsty mob. Many did not don religious attire or sport turbans and long beards, but were clean shaven and wore jeans and tee shirts, some were educated and some grew up in a US-occupied Afghanistan with its liberal dose of women’s rights. Yet they were culpable of committing a murder over a rumour. The new Afghan legal system failed to give Farkhunda justice.

However, in an unprecedented display of feminist solidarity, Farkhunda’s burial saw women carrying her coffin chanting ‘We are all Farkhunda’ and over 1000 people – both men and women – attended the funeral. But the spectacle of her murder, the re-enactment of the crime, the twist and turns of the narratives around it, the global outrage (however meagre) propelled this story to be exploited by many for their own socio-political gains, with little focus on structural changes that could prevent another Farkhunda.

If Farkhunda’s murder teaches us one thing, it is that there are no binaries in Afghanistan: The West is not the saviour of Afghan women. And the Taliban is not the only monster.

If Farkhunda’s murder teaches us one thing, it is that there are no binaries in Afghanistan: The West is not the saviour of Afghan women. And the Taliban is not the only monster.

Colonial Project of Feminism

The binary thinking of the ‘saviour’ and the ‘monster’ can be traced to colonial discourses dominated by what is often termed the ‘white saviour complex’. This sentiment was clearly evident in the American First Lady Laura Bush’s radio address to her country in November 2001: ‘Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’

By terming the American military attack as heroic and a much-needed intervention to protect the women of Afghanistan from the men within their fold, the First Lady affirmed the subjectivity of the White western male saviour by exploiting the psychological subjugation of the Brown Afghans. Indeed, here the subjects of the Global South– the Afghan women and girls– are simply used as objects to confirm the White subjectivity through a sense of gratefulness to the ‘White Saviour’.

This also exemplifies a clash of civilisations discourse, which is aided by creating a visual palette – in the form of photographs and videos– that juxtapose the self with the Other. Women’s oppression served as an excellent marker to constitute this visual binary. Images began floating in newsprint and television of Afghan women in short skirts alongside those now in full burqa, or of Western women enjoying a music concert with veiled young girls huddled together outside a closed school.

The struggles of the white, heterosexual, elite, western woman have gained currency as the only history of feminism setting itself up as a role model for the rest of the world. Any woman who does not fit this image is deemed oppressed and in need of saving, making her a white man’s burden and the white feminists’ cause célèbre. Hence it is important to deconstruct the normative western feminist notions of gender and bring into focus indigenous understandings of gender from the global south and include it into the larger geo-political feminist epistemology.

The struggles of the white, heterosexual, elite, western woman have gained currency as the only history of feminism setting itself up as a role model for the rest of the world

The women behind the veil

The image of the Afghan woman draped in the head-to-foot burqa became the justification of a military action. The idea that Afghan (read Muslim) women needed saving became the central focus. The identity of global south women is constructed through the western lens and their agency disavowed within a global discourse. This is highly problematic if not understood in a historical and contextual framework. It also reinforces a sense of Western arrogance that their way of life is superior and unchallenged. This binary of the West and global south is simplistic in its construction as it fails to consider that the West is also shrouded in intersectional structural inequalities and gendered violence.

Few understand the country of Afghanistan – its demography, politics or culture. The US and the Taliban were not always pitched on opposite sides. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 got American presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan supporting and arming the resistance fighters (mujahideen) who have now become the Taliban. In fact one of the US’s closest ally was mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, infamous for throwing acid on the faces of women who did not wear the burqa, while the US turned a blind eye.

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Many of the Afghan population live in villages and hamlets where the tribal leaders hold a huge sway. Occupation by one foreign force after another – British, Russians, US and its allies – has only fuelled a revival of extreme religious bigotry as a mode of what they term ‘self-preservation’. The foreign occupying army has been equated with ‘liberal thought’ and the resistance against both has been building. The global discourse (or lack of) on Afghanistan’s economy and politics coupled with corruption and disregard for the rural poor has left a gaping hole that the militant Taliban filled.

To many women living in the remote mountainous hamlets of the ravaged country, food and healthcare are priorities over education and employment. Mini-skirts and music concerts are not the aspirational goals for many Afghan women. And not all women who wear the veil are subjugated. Making it the central focus of liberation of the Afghan women alienates those who find comfort behind the layers of the garment. Issues around women’s education and employment opportunities were largely focussed on select cities while corruption and unfair practices in the government were widespread.

It is impossible to isolate gender from the many cultural and political intersections through which it is constituted and maintained, and it is therefore important to understand and include the ‘complexities of compoundness’ to explore the diverse experiences of differently positioned women and to make visible the collaboration that exists between systemic gender violence and the power equations that exist between individuals and groups for or against feminist causes and their intersectional differences.

The binary of the ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (as scholar Gayatri Spivak eloquently puts it) is a narrative that needs to be challenged as it erases the history of feminisms within the global south.

Afghanistan’s feminist rulers

“Independence belongs to all of us that that is why we celebrate it. Do you think, however, that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So, we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible, in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam”
― Afghan Queen Soraya Tarzi, 1926

These words of Soraya Tarzi (1899-1968), Queen consort to King Amanullah Khan but better known as the Human Rights Queen of Afghanistan, paved the way for a new Afghanistan in the 1920s. She was born in the Ottoman-controlled Syria to exiled parents Asma and Mahmud Beg Tarzi, who in the early 20th century returned to Afghanistan at the behest of King Habibullah and started the first modern newspaper- Seraj-ul-Akbhar. It gave voice to women under the banner ‘Celebrating Women of the World’, edited by Asma. Ideas of women’s education and liberty were often discussed. King Habibullah’s son Amanullah fell in love and married Soraya in 1913.

After Habibullah’s assassination in 1918, Amanullah took to the throne and successfully defeated the British in the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919. The newly liberated Afghanistan saw a new constitution – one that also saw women being liberated from the regressive traditional cultural norms. Amanullah treated Soraya as a partner in his endeavours to modernise the country.

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In a dramatic public event, the royal couple introduced the idea of ‘popular feminism’. King Amanullah made a powerful speech stressing that Islam did not ask women to wear the veil, at the end of which Queen Soraya publicly tore her veil. Many other women then followed suit. New reforms made wearing the veil optional in Afghanistan.

Reforms by Amanullah’s government included abolishment of slavery and the banning of child marriage, polygamy, revenge killing and “bride prices”. Soraya was the first woman minister for education, started a school for girls and sent her two daughters to it. She also began the first women’s magazine in Afghanistan called Ershad-I-Niswan (Guidance for Women). She founded a grievance centre for women suffering from domestic violence and created a special task force – a kind of an all-women secret service- to monitor men who abused women. One of Amanullah’s sisters founded a hospital and another started an organisation that supported women suffering from oppression. In the 1920s, none other than the Royal family of Afghanistan sowed ideas of feminism by leading from the front.

It is little wonder that women in Afghanistan earned the right to vote after the country won independence from Britain in 1919, one year before women in the United States were allowed at the polls and almost a decade before women in the UK gained the same voting rights as men. Amanullah also introduced a social insurance to provide pensions linked to old age and disability, sickness and maternity benefits and workers compensation (a decade before the US).

To encourage women’s education, the royal couple helped facilitate 15 women to go to Turkey to study in 1928. In fact, the King and Queen received honorary degrees from University of Oxford during their tour of Europe in 1927-1928. However, this tour also backfired. It was widely suspected that the British leaked photographs of the tour to the traditionalists in Afghan villages, who used them to instigate the rural masses against the royal couple.

More reforms on the return and in particular a separation of the state and church (mosque in this case) and a Western judiciary (instead of the Shariah law) led to more angst against the monarchy by the traditionalists. Amanullah soon faced a coup by the tribal leaders and the royal family had to flee to Europe in 1929. Soon all their reforms were reversed and the new patriarchal ruler stripped women of their hard-earned rights.

Soraya and Amanullah’s story and those of others like them are often lost in grand Western narrative of feminism that has always only visualised global south women as subjugated and oppressed, and men as tyrants and barbaric.

In 2020, Time magazine posthumously put Soraya Tarzi on the cover of the 1927 edition calling her a ‘progressive royal’ acknowledging her contributions to the women’s cause in Afghanistan. But Soraya and Amanullah’s story and those of others like them are often lost in grand Western narrative of feminism that has always only visualised global south women as subjugated and oppressed, and men as tyrants and barbaric. The two Afghan Royals were forging a path of progress for women in Afghanistan, yet it was a journey cut short, not just by the religious bigots but also by the British whose political interests superseded women reforms.

Support the Afghan women

It is heart-breaking to know that the generation of girls that grew up believing that they were free to pursue their dreams and realise their potential will now have to hide their degrees and give up their professions as their futures remain uncertain.

By occupying Afghanistan for two decades, the US, UK and allies are duty bound to save the Afghans. A deal has been struck between the Taliban and the US that benefits their political and economic interests, but does this include safeguarding the rights of women and the vulnerable – not just on paper but in practice? What would be the consequences should the Taliban renege on its promises? Who will be held accountable?

The Western leaders who once rallied support for the invasion of Afghanistan on the ‘women’s liberation’ card, now seem to have abandoned those very women who were promised safety and security as they enrolled in education institutions, joined the workforce and took up political positions. Today as the expats flee, many natives are left behind, waiting to be killed.

As Taliban establishes its rule in Afghanistan, the future of the country is unpredictable and the situation for women is frightening. Many are expecting to be at the end of a barrel of a patriarchal gun – both figuratively and literally. Remember Malala Yousufzai? The next one may not be a survivor.

We, as global citizens, need to rally our support, pressure our governments and the international agencies to protect the Afghan women and other vulnerable citizens. We need to open our borders and our minds to break through the binaries of rhetoric thrusted on us and demand a better outcome – an outcome that enables an orderly transition, safeguards the vulnerable and does not turn back the clock on gender reforms.

Women in Afghanistan are counting on our support. We cannot abandon them now.

This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credits

Image 1: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash

Image 2: Andre Klimke via Unsplash

Image 3: Isaak Alexandre Karslian via Unsplash

About the author

Ruhi Khan

Ruhi Khan is a journalist and an ESRC researcher at LSE working on feminism and new technology. She manages the department’s research project – COVID-19: A Communication Crisis – Ethics, Privacy, Inequalities– and also edits the Media@LSE blog. Her book Escaped was published in March 2021.

Posted In: Media representation

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