For at least two years now, an email petition has been circulating on
feminist and progressive lists about the horrifying plight of Afghan women
under the Taliban. If it came to me once, it came twenty or thirty times.
Every time I saw it arrive from one more well-meaning friend, I gritted my
teeth in frustration that it never mentioned the culpability of the United
States, and the obligation of people here to expose and oppose our own government's
role in creating the situation in Afghanistan. I even wrote a response, which
I circulated only in a very limited private way. I wish I had been a better
and smarter feminist.
Now the Bush administration has joined the ranks of North American feminists concerned about the rights of Afghan women; and the murder of thousands, possibly tens of thousands, by bombing and starvation, is being justified in part as a response to the Taliban's harsh treatment of women.
Could we have done more, or differently, in advance to prevent our concerns being used as justification for genocide? The answer might help us look critically at the ways we support women's rights around the world in relation to the economic, military and political aggression of the United States.
That email petition, if we had done our homework, could have described the situation of Afghan women within the context of the history of U.S. intervention and prepared us to understand that U.S. government and corporate forces have had longstanding ambitions to control Central Asian resources.
It could have said that the United States moved as early as the 1960's and early 1970's, through its proxies in Iran and Pakistan, to destabilize Afghanistan. Long before the Soviet invasion, the United States feared that emerging secular reformers would ally with the Soviet Union (very likely, since they shared a 1,000-mile border). The U.S. therefore supported fundamentalists who opposed land reform, secular law, and women's rights. In 1975 Pakistan, which was receiving hundreds of millions in U.S. military aid and could not conceivably have acted alone, armed an early Taliban-like group for an uprising against the moderate constitutional reformer and modernizer Daoud Khan, a cousin of the ex-king and no communist.
As feminists, we would have served ourselves and the world far better if we had learned, and taught, that the United States intervention, later claimed to be in response to the Soviet invasion of 1979, actually preceded it by at least four years, and that U.S. arms and money made possible the victory of the Taliban. The consequence of the United States and the Soviet Union fighting their proxy war with the bodies of Afghan people was a bloodbath in which 2 million were killed, 5 million made refugees, and budding economic reform and women's rights wiped from the face of the country along with the urban middle class which supported them. The devastation and poverty resulting from that war are the reason that 7.5 million Afghans are in danger of starvation without massive relief efforts, which are blocked by the U.S. bombing.
The CEO of the U.S. corporate oil giant, Unocal, testified before Congress in 1998 that a corporate consortium planned to build both oil and gas pipelines across Afghanistan as soon as the political structure was favorable, so that Caspian reserves could be sold in East Asian markets for American profits. Whether the pretext is anti-terrorism or anti-communism, the underlying assumption of U.S. policy continues to be that the land, resources, and political choices of Central Asia belong by birthright to the corporations of North America. This is the global practice of white supremacy.
If we had said all that in the petition, feminists and others would now be clearer about why the U.S.’s overthrowing the Taliban and installing in its place a government invented to suit the needs of the United States not only makes a joke of international law, but cannot possibly benefit the women of Afghanistan. Whether it is the Northern Alliance or the ex-king or a band of angels, no government put in power by and for the United States can represent or serve the people of Afghanistan. This has been demonstrated by history.
It’s not too late for feminists to learn and teach these lessons. This history is still unfolding, not only in Afghanistan, but in the entire Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Watch for the subtext of U.S. and white entitlement whenever and wherever states are branded "rogue," and their leaders demonized. Watch for the history of destruction of progressive forces and economic choices by colonialism and neo-colonialism, wherever a conflict is labeled "ethnic" or people and customs are called "backward." As with the Taliban, we do not have to like or support those states and rulers to recognize that our best contribution to the women living under them is to get our own feet off their necks, so they themselves can deal with their local oppressors.
Our reluctance to face this history is proportional to how hard it is to accept our responsibility for the suffering caused by our country, and to find in (or despite) our privilege as North Americans the strength to resist effectively. As North American feminists, our support of women in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East has to begin with opposing the poverty, war and backwardness visited upon them by U.S. government, military, and corporate power. If not, our outrage at the pain of the women of the world can be used by the cynical forces that are at this moment claiming to save Afghan women by destroying them.
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