Following the withdrawal of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, the media and U.S. politicians have placed a high degree of focus on Afghan women. Experts say this trend is not a new one; for more than two decades, U.S. media has assigned the U.S. military the role of “savior.”
“The category of the Muslim woman as an object of rescue has served imperial agendas,” Ashwini Tambe, the director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The George Washington University said. “By terming Muslim women as being in need of rescue and then setting them up as helpless victims, it has incited and justified the intervention.”
Leading up to the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, much of the rhetoric involved focused on the plight of Afghan women in an effort to justify the war. “I’m not denying that women in Afghanistan had issues to confront. But the problem is that it became framed as a problem that only the West can solve,” Tambe said.
This can be seen from the language used by American journalists and political elites going back two decades ago. The 2001 New York Times article “Behind the Burka: Women Subtly Fought Taliban” told the story of Parigol Abdulrasou, a 50-year-oldAfghan widow who had been unable to leave her home without a male relative under Taliban rule until living under American-backed Afghan forces.
“Even now, she wonders how she will be able to earn enough to feed her family. ‘It doesn’t make any difference who rules here,’ she said. ‘We are hungry,’” the article read.
“On Saturday, though, she came on her own to Herat’s main hotel to look for a person powerful enough to help her get food for her family from relief shipments entering the country,” the article continued. “She assertively corralled journalists and buttonholed government officials — male officials. It was a mission she could never have undertaken under the Taliban.”
“Now, at least, she is free to beg,” the article concluded.
Zaynab Quadri, a Ph.D candidate studying private military contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan at The George Washington University said the language used in the New York Times article is an example of the “imperial feminism” used by media in the West when referring to Afghan women. She said the media focuses on certain aspects of life, like the burqa, instead of the effects of the U.S. military and an “ethically questionable war.”
“It’s just easier to say Afghan women because that’s something everyone can get behind. The imagery is so stark, with the burkas and the coverings,” Quadri said.
Since the Taliban seized power this past August, fears of harassment have kept many female journalists away from work. Less than 100 of the 700 female journalists in Afghanistan are still working after several media outlets ceased operations.
The New York Times has responded to these events by portraying Afghan women as “desperate” and waiting to be “rescued” in another article. Quadri said that this kind of wording doesn’t tell the full story. While Afghan women were promised aid, she said, it’s important to consider how they were put into a position where they needed aid in the first place.
“It’s not to say that Afghan women don’t have real gender-based, security issues,” Quadri said, “but they also have a lot of issues with Americans.”
Despite what the New York Times published, Afghan women have been taking stands against various oppressive regimes in Afghanistan for decades. For instance, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has spoken out against the Taliban regime of the 1990s and U.S. occupation.
Various government officials have also used Afghan women as justification for the invasion. Former First Lady Laura Bush said in a 2001 radio address that because of the United States’ “recent military gains” in Afghanistan, “women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.” She said in the same address that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
In 2016, Bush used the same rhetoric in an op-ed published in The Washington Post, that said she “welcomed” former President Obama’s decision to “maintain a U.S. military presence through 2016 and beyond.”
Afghan women were also victimized in the 2001 clip of Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) donning a burka while discussing the treatment of Afghan women by the Taliban on the floor of the House of Representatives, saying that “the restrictions on women’s freedoms in Afghanistan are unfathomable to most Americans.”
Benjamin Hopkins, a historian specializing in the history of Afghanistan and British imperialism at The George Washington University said this sort of action and language is mainly a “tactical political ploy.” Hopkins added that painting Afghan women as helpless victims is “only used as a weapon.”
“For American Society, for American politics, and for American consumption, Afghan women are little more than a commodity at this point,” Hopkins said.