05 October 2011

When women betray their own gender

Here’s the gist of Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian article: Western imperialists cynically used the oppression of women by the Taliban as a pretext to carry out the US-led Afghan War.

Bunting isn’t anti-women’s rights; she’s anti-fighting-for-women’s-rights-while-also-shooting-and-bombing-their-oppressors. Now this may seem like a fair enough position to take. Spreading the idea of gender equality shouldn’t require the invasion of another country and subsequent mass killing of its people. Yet Bunting affects a concerned pacifism that disturbingly slips into cultural relativism.

Regarding the initial enthusiasm for the Afghan War, she writes:

Key to this largely supportive public opinion was how, over the course of a few weeks in 2001, a war of revenge was reframed as a war for human rights in Afghanistan, and in particular the rights of women. It was a narrative to justify war that proved remarkably powerful. A cause that had been dismissed and ignored for years in Washington suddenly moved centre-stage. The video of a woman being executed in Kabul stadium that the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan had offered to the BBC and CNN without success was taken up by the Pentagon and used extensively. The Taliban's brutal treatment of women, the closure of girls schools: all were used to justify military invasion and close down debate.

Alright, so the Bush administration overemphasised the oppression of Afghan women to sell its war to the American public and its allies. Valid point. But Bunting then pulls out the ‘you-don’t-understand-the-culture’ card, presumably to shame her readers into seeing the ‘other side of the story’.

Over the last decade little attention has been paid to understanding Afghanistan and its history. The country had experienced various attempts during the 20th century to bring progress to Afghan women. These ended in failure, prompting deep resistance because they were seen as foreign, imported modernisation that corroded traditional Afghan identity. The issue of women's rights opened up divides between the urban and rural populations and between different ethnic groups in an already fragmented country. The position of women has been deeply politicised in this war-torn country. In conservative rural areas, powerbrokers built up their legitimacy with appeals to traditional values. Girls' education was a particularly sensitive subject, provoking anxieties about the transmission of conservative values and the functioning of kinship groups. Such entrenched social systems cannot be re-engineered by outsiders, however well-intentioned.

Bunting indulges in the usual West-bashing (what naïve, arrogant fools were we for trying to impose our liberal values on a stubbornly conservative culture!), but nowhere in her article does she explicitly condemn the horrible treatment of Afghan women by the patriarchal culture she discusses. That’s right, the ‘culture’ Bunting refers to isn’t one that women have created, contributed and consented to as the equals of the men. As the Heresiarch points out in his criticism of Bunting’s article, specifically the paragraph quoted above (his emphasis):

Nowhere in it does Bunting acknowledge that her paean to Afghan culture is entirely male-centred. When she talks of culture, she means male culture. When she writes that attempts – for example by Afghanistan's last king – to improve the lot of women encountered “deep resistance because they were seen as foreign, imported modernisation that corroded traditional Afghan identity”, what she means is that the reforms encountered deep resistance from men. When she suggests that “the issue of women's rights opened up divides ... between different ethnic groups”, what she really means is that it opened up divides between the male leaderships of different ethnic groups. Girls’ education was a particularly sensitive subject among men, provoking male anxieties about the transmission of conservative values and the functioning of kinship groups.

If conveniently ignoring (or at least downplaying) the misogyny present in Afghan culture wasn’t bad enough, Bunting goes on to suggest that by waging war in Afghanistan, the West actually made that misogyny worse:

What has also been ignored is any understanding of how Afghanistan's long history of conflict affected gender roles. There is plenty of research on the impact of conflict on women, who are increasingly among its primary victims. They experience violence from both enemies and friends. The common pattern is that conflict polarises gender roles: masculinity becomes more aggressive and women are idealised as “the bearers of a cultural identity”, in the words of the World Health Organisation. Their bodies become part of the battle field. This is as true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as of Afghanistan. In the latter, foreign intervention ultimately only exacerbates such deeply destructive trends.

So now it’s the fault of the West that Afghan girls get acid thrown on them if they dare to go to school. That’s what happens when interfering do-gooders try to “re-engineer” “entrenched social systems”. Nevermind that such a social system denies an entire gender its basic human rights and could do with some positive re-engineering.

Going by the following paragraph, Bunting is prepared to sacrifice the right of Afghan women to the same quality of life and opportunities that she enjoys for the sake of security, if not peace, in Afghanistan.

On Monday Oxfam brings out a report urging the international community not to trade in women’s rights in a peace settlement with the Taliban. It calls for a longterm commitment to support women. I admire and understand the sincerity of their intentions but question whether women’s rights should be an obstacle in the process of a settlement. And I’m sceptical as to whether foreign powers are in a position to impose negotiating terms. A degree of security in Afghanistan – it hardly merits the word peace – may cost women’s rights as it did in the 1990s, and many Afghan women may regard that as tragic but necessary.

“Many Afghan women may regard that as tragic but necessary.” How delighted these women must be to have such a staunch champion like Madeleine Bunting. Bunting can afford to make these sorts of sagely comments on Afghanistan because, as the Heresiarch notes:

She doesn’t have to live there. And when Western troops do eventually leave Afghan women to their fate, as will happen soon enough, she won’t even have to think about it.


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