At the end of a live BBC interview in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 31, 2021, correspondent Secunder Kermani asked the founder and president of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, “Do you feel safe here [Kabul] as a woman’s rights activist?” Seraj, in her seventies, answered, “I don’t really know what is the meaning of that word. Feeling safe is not something that I have done in Afghanistan for the past 20 years so I cannot tell you. Right now, I am neither safe nor unsafe, so we’ll see what happens.”
Seraj’s comments come on the heels of the end of the 20-year American occupation of Afghanistan after the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, 2021, under President Biden’s orders. Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from the country were mostly consistent with the terms specified in the Doha Agreement, a peace deal made between U.S. and Taliban leaders, signed by the Trump administration in February 2020. The Doha Agreement, which did not include any representatives from the Afghan government, or women for that matter, was widely critiqued by Afghans who were eager for its reappraisal by the Biden administration. In particular, Afghan women’s rights leaders warned that negotiations with the Taliban whose laws devalue women’s lives—limiting their public roles, policing their behaviors, and threatening their safety and well-being more broadly—would reverse the gains women had made in education, the work force, and in politics. Indeed, Afghan women activists and politicians who had publicly criticized the Taliban were increasingly subjected to violence over the course of 2020.
Today, these Afghan women’s warnings have already begun to come to fruition. For example, female journalists and staff across more than 100 Afghan media organizations have become subjected to violence and harassment, and the majority of them have stopped working as a result. Additionally, in certain areas in Afghanistan, women are required to be accompanied by a male escort in order to attend university. These facts have been scrupulously documented across U.S. news media in recent weeks, through reports that attest to the dire conditions of Afghan women under the Taliban. These headlines are replete with descriptors of Afghan women as silenced, desperate, and waiting for “rescue.” They are also accompanied by familiar images of women in blue burqas, garments that cover the whole body, including a mesh fabric for over the eyes, which saturated U.S. media in the months and years immediately following 9/11. These familiar headlines and images, central to War on Terror discourse, depict Afghan women as hapless, downtrodden victims of Muslim extremists, whose hardships are laid bare for the (white) American gaze.
To be sure, Afghan women do face deadly conditions under Taliban rule, and they are worthy of the collective attention of the international community. Yet U.S. media concern for them has always been voyeuristic in nature. Detailed media descriptions and images that often linger over details like burqas and the prohibitions on make-up and nail polish, while glossing over the deadly impact of U.S. bombs, have been framed by a white savior complex in which saving Afghan women specifically from the Taliban is cast as a feminist moral imperative. This was the case in 2001, and such depictions continue to serve as a basis for white American feminist groups to cultivate and perform their public anguish and sympathy over the plight of their “Afghan sisters,” while also appealing to their own sense of moral superiority. American attitudes towards Afghan women, generated and sustained by these media representations, have had profoundly violent consequences. As anthropologists Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood have shown, in 2001, American feminist groups like the Feminist Majority played a critical role in facilitating public support for U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan with no reflection or acknowledgment of how war unequivocally destabilizes society and harms women.
In other words, the abuse of Afghan women under the Taliban regime took center stage in the justification for the U.S. War on Terror. While the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was initially framed as retaliation for the terrorist attacks on September 11, the trope of the subjugated Muslim woman provided the means through which to manufacture moral authority for it. This was certainly the effect of then-First Lady Laura Bush’s presidential radio address in November 2001, which she delivered on behalf of her husband, George W. Bush, who bears responsibility for starting the war in Afghanistan. In her remarks, Mrs. Bush not only painted a grim picture the reality of Afghan women’s lives, but also issued a warning about the grave implications this reality would have on U.S. citizens: “The plight of the women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control. Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror, not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan but also because, in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.” By using the plight of women in Afghanistan as a visceral image of what the future might look like for American women lest the Taliban were defeated, the First Lady imbued a moral urgency on the War on Terror. She went further in that radio address to declare: “The terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries, and they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Equating the War on the Terror with the moral imperative to save Afghan women undoubtedly contributed to near unanimous support in Congress and among the U.S. population for the military invasion of Afghanistan.
Fifteen years later, in 2016, during a period when more Americans were questioning why the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan had continued for so long and were beginning to view it as a mistake, Laura Bush continued to justify the military presence on behalf of Afghan women. She wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post and made the rounds on national news outlets to praise then-President Obama for continuing the American occupation and to promote her book, We Are Afghan Women. The book, a collection of Afghan women’s stories published by the George W. Bush Institute, includes an introduction written by the former first lady, explaining that she had always been fascinated by Afghanistan even as a little girl because it was the most “exotic country” she could think of. In her rhetoric, we see the voyeuristic quality of thinking about Afghanistan as a foreign land far removed from American culture, priming the U.S. imagination to marvel, in decontextualized horror, at women who are subjected to unspeakable harms by their men and religion. This posturing renders Afghan women ideal candidates for liberation by the benevolent white savior, a role that Laura Bush has eagerly embraced. Within this framework, we are primed to understand Afghan women’s stories of resilience and “defying the odds,” such as those documented in the Bush Institute’s book, as possible only through the U.S. military occupation, once again equating military intervention as the ideal mode of saving Afghan women.
The issue with the framing of the benevolent U.S. military, committed to saving Afghan women from the Taliban, is what this narrative obscures. By all accounts, conditions for women under the Taliban are horrific. But when media accounts focus on the Taliban’s Islamic extremism as the only aspect of their rule worth reflecting on, they treat their rise to power and their violence as a tragic inevitability. This framing effaces the broader geopolitical context in which the Taliban came to power in the first place, and the central role that the U.S. military played to facilitate it. In fighting a proxy war against the Soviets who were occupying Afghanistan between 1979-1989, the United States supplied Afghan rebels—the mujahideen, the precursors to the Taliban—with both weapons and training. It is relevant then, that the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets led to the complete destabilization of Afghan society, resulting in tremendous loss of civilian life and a power vacuum in which the Taliban then seized power.
Yet these facts have not been foregrounded in politicians’ rhetoric or in mainstream media narratives as a crisis in Afghanistan unfolds today in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Spencer Ackerman recently put it, “The United States tends not to attribute its brutality to any of the circumstances that it comes to bemoan when they manifest in the world. And Afghanistan is certainly a tragic example of that … after 9/11, the United States, in its political and journalistic and intellectual elites, generally speaking, refused to accept that there was a direct and tragic and awful historic consequence of its destabilization of Afghanistan in the 1980s.” Rather than reflect on America’s history of violence in Afghanistan, much of the U.S. media has again elected to focus the plight of Afghan women, and the moral imperative to save them from the Taliban. Afghan women and their suffering function as a spectacle to deflect from a deeper historical and political reckoning with how the last several decades of U.S. foreign policy has wreaked havoc in Afghanistan. The fact is, the U.S. suffered a military defeat at the hands of the Taliban, despite the $2.3 trillion invested in the 20-year occupation, and the loss of 2,448 American service members’ and 47,245 Afghan civilian lives. Afghan women have been collateral damage through it all.
The focus on the suffering of Afghan women deflects attention from the more difficult questions about what the U.S. actually set out to achieve in the longest war in our history. Moreover, the characterization of Afghan women in need of saving prevents us from taking seriously their grassroots efforts to resist and challenge the Taliban, today and between 1996 and 2001. Following U.S. withdrawal from their country, Afghan women have been protesting in the streets for their rights. They have also articulated their own ideas about how world leaders could serve as allies to them. Yet many Afghan activists have felt that the U.S. and other international partners have excluded them from opportunities to substantially engage in the planning for the future of Afghanistan, stemming from failure to see them as full agents as opposed to as perpetual victims. Over the course of the last 20 years, Afghan women have made significant gains under U.S. occupation, especially in Kabul and other urban centers. At the same time, over the course of the last 20 years, Afghan women and their families, especially those in rural areas under Taliban control, have endured continued violence by U.S. drone strikes. Put another way, discussions of how to secure a safe and prosperous future for Afghan women cannot be reduced to terms of U.S. military presence or withdrawal. After all, as prominent women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj remarked above, women in Afghanistan have never been entirely safe either under U.S. occupation or under the Taliban.
As Americans continue to reflect with concern over the fate of women in Afghanistan, it is worth reflecting on the complicity of the U.S. government and media in enabling the conditions that put them and Afghan society more broadly in grave peril today. As we grapple with this history, we as Americans should show generosity and support toward Afghan refugees amid this unfolding humanitarian crisis. At a time when many leaders are framing the prospect of refugees as something to be feared, understanding the U.S.’s role in the destabilization of Afghanistan is critically important in order to understand that welcoming Afghans, rather than “saving” them, is the real moral imperative.
Tazeen M. Ali is an assistant professor of religion and politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research and teaching focus on Islam, gender, and race in America.