American officials often justified the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by an argument about liberating Afghan women. In the dust and haze of the Bush administration’s lies this seemed just one more handy pretext. It is therefore somewhat surprising to see just how much the fate of Afghan women continues tos preoccupy the US adminstration and legislature, with hearings being held on a regular basis referring explicitly to Afghan women. Despite its certainlygood intentions, this fixation on liberating Afghan women has a couple of exasperating aspects to it, foremost of which is the entirely distorted perspective on the US role in helping trample any advancement for women in countries with reactionary regimes.
In the past, the US tried extremely hard and often successfully to squelch any communist or socialist regime in Third World nations, including Afghanistan. Yet communist or socialist regimes typically did a great deal to abolish traditional legislation that kept women out of work and out of the “community”. For these regimes, the “women’s question” was closely associated with larger issuess of social justice, class equality and the progress of the working class (or whatever other formerly oppressed group was put forward). There are good reasons to critically discuss how effective these policies were in promoting women’s freedoms, as rather often radical feminism was denounced as hostile to the working class and feminists ended up in dissidence. Some argue, probably not entirely incorrectly, that the main aim of communist women’s politics seems to have been to move women from the home to the factory without really conceding positions of male power and influence.
However, the association of women’s politics with larger issues of social and political justice as well as economic redistribution had two healthy side-effects:First, the “women’s question” was lifted out of the morass of biological or cultural arguments about women’s “nature” and set into a political and socio-eocnomic context. Second, women’s status was changed from within the political system and with economic and social rewards for the families that followed the party line. By targeting communist or socialist regimes in the name of a supposedly better and more progressive ideal – liberalism – the US destroyed this association and it did so in two ways.
First, the US supported the most reactionary groups in society to fight against the communist or socialist government of Afghanistan up to the point of literally lifting them on to the throne. History will judge whether the losses for women’s freedoms provoked by these US-sponsored counter-revolutions were more than just “collateral damage”. It is quite obvious today that the losses for campesinos in general were intentional goals of the strong Latin American lobbies in the US, and hence, not so-called collateral damage rom the US contra strategy but rather an intended consequence.
However, supporting reactionary groups was not the only way that US hysteria with communist regimes in the Third World destroyed advances of and prospects for women’s freedoms in these countries. By crushing these regimes and imposing some sort of reactionary (neo?)liberalism in these countries, the US largely contributed to dissociating women’s question” from larger questionsof social and econmic justice. The “women’s question” became a stand-alone issue, and, in the best liberal tradition, one of rights rather than one of status, recognition and equality. As a question of rights, the “women’s question” all of the sudden was a human rights issue–and just as other human rights issues, it became a yardstick for civilizational and cultural progress, and so drowned again in the swamp of culture and nature.
What is more, particularly in those countries where the US intervened militarily in the post-Cold War era, the “women’s question” was now part of the “clash of civilizations” (which remains an ideology only Al Qaeda and the Tea Party believes in) and a marker of imperialism. As the reactionary forces the US had fed through during the Cold War turned upon their former masters, they obviously turned upon the “women’s question”too, partly because, yes, they were reactionary, but partly also because women’s emancipation had become part of the cultural package of US imperialism. Therefore, when the House and Senate now babble over women’s freedoms in Afghanistan, they are just reinforcing the dwindling spin against women.
But this is yet not the nauseating aspect of this. One can still concede that those NGOs and legislators advocating more women’s rights and protection in Afghanistan do so in full awareness of this history,yet still assumethat it is better to bang the drums for Afghan women now. What is exasperating in this is much more basic: the complacency and smugness that makes them believe they know best what Afghan women now need, and whatever it is they need, that it can only be achieved if the US promotes it…it is exactly the same complacency and smugness that made Cold War warriors chase communists in the Third World back then.