Fallout: The West’s top-down feminism in Afghanistan


Fallout: The West’s top-down feminism in Afghanistan

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Last week, Franc evacuated five women who were “threatened” by the Taliban from Pakistan to Paris. The two years during which the Taliban have been in power in Afghanistan have seen a sharp crackdown on women’s presence in the public sphere, their access to education and their ability to have employment outside the home. In some cases, women have been fired from their government jobs and paid just to stay home.

Enter France, apparently the newly minted savior of a whopping five women. The reason they offered safety to these women was that they had occupied significant positions in their communities which made them targets in Afghanistan. According to French authorities, these women were living in “hiding” in Pakistan since after the US withdrawal. According to French immigration authorities more women would similarly be removed from Afghanistan in the future.

In this story of five “saved” women lies the reason why US/NATO could never ‘liberate’ Afghan women as they had promised 22 years ago. If Afghan women had been such a priority for France or any other country in the US/NATO coalition, then some efforts would have been made to make the country truly self-sufficient by building its capacity to trade on the global market. Instead, US/NATO did little more than create an aid economy that employed Afghan women as translators or at various Western NGOs. When the US pulled out two years ago, this artificial economy collapsed leaving the women helpless against the Taliban.

It is also true that the version of women’s empowerment that was fed to Afghan women during the occupation was one better suited to upper middle-class women in Western countries and not Afghan women living in mostly rural areas. The consequence of imposing this top-down feminism was that it was culturally anomalous and did not transplant successfully in Afghan culture. Central to this top-down imposition was the belief that women empowerment had more or less been invested by the West. If Afghan women had been assisted in creating a ground up version of women empowerment, the entire structure would not have collapsed like a house of cards as soon as foreign forces departed the country.

Using the rescue of a handful of Afghan women to occupy the headlines cannot and should not permit the French to gloss over the mistreatment of Afghan refugees already in their country. 

Rafia Zakaria

France in particular is very insistent about imposing a white upper middle-class version of feminism on everyone else. It is notable that in the same week that France chose to rescue these Afghan women, they implemented a law in all of France that would force Muslim schoolgirls to wear short dresses to school, which go against their religious sensibilities. Nearly 21 years after the headscarf was banned in the country, the French are still in search of subjecting French Muslims to new bans. The cumulative message is that one can only be an empowered woman if they follow the diktat of the French state which seeks to overrule the bodily autonomy of women by telling them what they should wear and when they should wear it.

Then there is the glaring issue of Afghan refugees in France in general. While it is always a good move for a country to provide Afghans a haven where they can be free of threats from the Taliban, this good intent should be applied equally to Afghan refugees that are already in France. There have been reports of several camps in and around Paris where Afghan refugees, both men and women are living in abject conditions. According to the refugee NGO InfoMigrants these refugees have been sleeping in the open for months and have resorted to woodsmoke for warmth during winter. Sanitation facilities are nonexistent and children in the camp have to use makeshift amenities. The camp is also home to Karime, an Afghan woman who has a broken leg and who fled Afghanistan after she was raped by the director of a psychiatric facility where she worked. There are many more like her.

Using the rescue of a handful of Afghan women to occupy the headlines cannot and should not permit the French to gloss over the mistreatment of Afghan refugees already in their country. It should also not allow the French government to elude accountability for its discriminatory treatment of its Muslim population in general or from its refusal to address growing Islamophobia in the country. The Afghan women evacuated from Pakistan cannot find a haven in France if the country continues to allow white nationalist and Islamophobic hate groups to proliferate all over.

Opening borders to refugees is always a welcome move that reiterates our common humanity. The evacuation of the Afghan women to France is a positive step but it should come as part of a pro-refugee and pro-diversity effort that treats already present Afghan (and other) refugees with respect and dignity.

Saving Afghan women is a catchy slogan, but it should not become an effort that popularizes the notion that these women can only be empowered if they leave their own country. If the Taliban are persecuting women today it is because US/NATO have failed in eliminating the Taliban and fulfilling the promises they made to these women nearly two and a half decades ago.

– Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.

Twitter: @rafiazakaria

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