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Threat to Afghani women’s health mars any rhetoric of liberation

October 26, 2009

October marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Despite the general consensus that the U.S. and it’s allies–Canada, of course, included–are floundering in the fight against terrorism, and despite increasingly heavy troop casualties and deaths–save the tens of thousands Afghani civilians who have lost their life to the conflict–we’re asking for more, more, more: and are likely to get it. The New York Times reported this week that NATO has given generous support to U.S. General Stanley A. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, a plan which includes a large “surge” of troops into the country. While NATO ministers made clear that they only supported McChyrstal’s “assessment” of the situation in Afghanistan, and not necessarily the troop increase, this pat on the back may give Obama and the U.S. just what is needed to ask their allies to support more troops on the ground.

The war has become so much a part of our daily headlines that we often forget why we entered Afghanistan in the first place. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), during an October 7 interview with Democracy Now!, reminded listeners that part of former President George Bush’s pitch to U.S. law makers, the public and potential allies was to overthrow the Taliban not only to combat global terrorism, but in order to help liberate women of Afghanistan. Strange as it seems, Bush, a president notorious for his constant attacks on funding for women and children’s program in the U.S., sold a $3.6 billion a week war by touting women’s rights. And even more strangely: we bought it, and continue to buy it today, in the form of books and speaking tours spouting the new-found freedom of Afghani women post-Taliban and continued political rhetoric. Despite the fact that everything else in Afghanistan may be going down the crapper, we appease ourselves by saying that at least the women of Afghanistan are free.


Can we really justify the war in Afghanistan under the guise of "women's liberation" when considering women's and children's health indicators?

It is undeniable that the Taliban was an extremely repressive regime, especially for women, whose rights and movements were heavily restricted and dependent upon their male-counterparts. While the recently adopted Afghan constitution boldly states that “the citizens of Afghanistan–whether man or woman–have equal rights and duties before the law,” the daily lives of the country’s women may not have improved as substantially as we would like to believe. Political rhetoric and promises are one thing: but the on-the-ground, day-to-day situation is another, especially with regards to health. For those of us who believe that health is an essential human right, it’s difficult to see women in Afghanistan as able to live free, independent lives under the NATO invasion. Despite billions being poured into the country, the health indicators remain some of the worst in the world: according to the UN’s IRIN news service, every 30 minutes an Afghan women dies during childbirth (Afghanistan has one of the highest levels of maternal mortality in the world); 87% of Afghan women are illiterate; up to 80% of Afghan women face forced marriages; and the country’s average life expectancy for women is 44 years. The World Food Program estimates that 7.4 million people–nearly 1/3 of the population–“are unable to get enough food to live active, healthy lives.” On top of little access to medical facilities and patriarchal domination, women in Afghanistan are stuck in the cross fire of NATO missiles and internal fighting.

Does this seem like liberation to you?

Speaking on October 7 on Democracy Now!, Zoya, a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, said: “Unfortunately, in the past eight years…with billions of dollars poured into the country, and with the tens of countries present in Afghanistan…we feel that there’s no positive change in Afghanistan. “…Today we see that women are suffering from different sides…from one side from the Taliban and from their rules and laws and from their suicide bombs, and from the other side, the US-NATO bombs…We notice, that during the past eight years, they killed more civilians than Taliban and terrorists.”

It’s time for us to stop defending the war in Afghanistan under the guise of liberation. Afghanistan isn’t a mess simply because of the Taliban–which, despite our best efforts to believe otherwise, still controls a majority of the country; nor is this mess rendered fixable by the regime’s downfall. For women, true liberation could occur if the billions NATO allies spent on missiles and mortar were spent towards education, housing, food and hospitals. While women’s lives are daily threatened by lack of basic necessities like food and water, we can’t continue to congratulate ourselves for helping to stem the tide of patriarchal domination. We’ve replaced the Taliban’s repressive stance towards women with a U.S.-led one, in which we do not prioritize women’s right to health, and instead further threaten it. Women’s liberation in Afghanistan has to be Afghani-lead; but this will not occur if their daily lives are occupied with sickness, and cut short at age 44. Poor health indicators stems any internal movement for liberation: and the best first step to achieving better health would be the end of our military threat to it.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. marakardasnelson permalink*
    October 27, 2009 9:44 pm

    With regards to my focus on women rather than men: I have done this because of the U.S.’s initial justification of the war in Afghanistan with regards to “the liberation of men.” You’re correct, however, to include both men and women, as this points to the fact that the war was also justified by the liberation of Afghani people; and I would argue that having such short life expectancies for both men and women would show that despite NATO’s continued presence and billions of dollars poured into what is mostly a military operation, the Afghani people are far from “liberated.”

    With regards to withdrawl: I think the question that “Zoya” pose to you is: why is NATO in Afghanistan in the first place, and are they achieving the goals that they set out to achieve? With regards to both the liberation of women and the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban, the answer would be, for the most part, a resounding “no.” I agree that the Taliban is a terrorist group–a horrible terrorist group–and that Afghanistan is far worse for their presence. However, I am still not convinced–and perhaps even less so eight years later–that it is NATO’s job to “fix” this; and what’s more, that our presence is making the country any safer or more secure.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    October 27, 2009 11:55 am

    Your post does a great job of highlighting the gap between the lofty rhetoric about liberating the women of Afghanistan and the rather grim reality on the ground. However, I think it’s worth remembering that a lot of the problems you mentioned in your post aren’t exactly specific to women. According to the UN figures given here, female life expectancy in Afghanistan is 43.9 years… and male life expectancy is 43.8. To me it seems odd and unnecessarily divisive to focus only on the female side of a problem that affects the whole population. Even male literacy, while substantially higher than female literacy, is still dismal.

    The thing about putting resources into health and education in Afghanistan, as opposed to those missiles and mortars, is that there’s no sense in building a hospital or a school if the Taliban can just shut it down a month after it opens. The presence of military forces, either Western or Afghan, is an essential precondition for accomplishing anything else. That’s why, although I normally have a lot of time for RAWA, I think the remarks by “Zoya” in the Democracy Now piece you mentioned (I assume you actually meant to link to this one) were basically unrealistic. I don’t blame her for being more or less equally angry with the Taliban, the warlords of the old Northern Alliance, and Western forces, but if Western countries withdraw their troops the Taliban and the warlords will presumably run rampant. I’m not completely opposed to withdrawal myself, but we have to be clear about the likely consequences.

  3. marakardasnelson permalink*
    October 27, 2009 7:51 am

    Hi Renee,

    Thanks for your comment. It seems that attacks on RAWA for being too radical, too feminist, or “socialist” (this often used–but seldom correctly–“attack”) are not too dissimilar from criticisms of women’s groups across North America and the world, who must constantly defend both their ideologies and practices. Given the wide scope of women’s repression in Afghanistan, largely documented by RAWA (, a more radical voice is needed: one that is able to document the crimes perpetuated by the multiple actors ruling the country and the resulting suffering for it’s female citizens. Such voices are needed even more in times of severe violation of women’s and human rights; at a time when getting accurate reports of what’s happening “on the ground” is remarkably difficult given the large amount of military intelligence currently in the country, I think there is no better time to recognise and listen to the outcries of RAWA. We must defend them in solidarity as women fighting for the right to be feminists–and to not be ashamed by what has now become a four-letter word–and in solidarity as those who care about the defense of human rights.

  4. October 27, 2009 7:44 am

    Thank you for this timely and important piece – I am so glad you featured the voice of RAWA (did i get the name right?). When i cited this women’s groups views in an earlier post to this site, one Canadian blogger derided my doing so. There seems to be an interesting backstory in Canada and in the US about which women’s groups in Afghanistan are held to be “legitimate” and which are deemed to be “too socialist/too feminist/too fill-in-the-blanks” which always strikes me as both uncharitable and wrong. On the one hand we claim to be “there for nation-building” (what Richard Holbrooke reminds us was “pacification” during another “empire excursion”) and on the other, some in this country would cherry pick which grass roots organizations are “worthy” and which are not.

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