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"Dust in the Eyes of the World"

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Issue: 40 Section: Foreign Policy Afghanistan Topics: Women

October 19, 2006

"Dust in the Eyes of the World"

Feminists debate logic of "humanitarian" war

by Anna Carastathis

Is the military deployment in Aghanistan – which some Afghan feminists are calling an occupation– improving the lives of women?
The claim that the war in Afghanistan will liberate Afghan women has been circulating since before the bombs began to drop, on October 7, 2001. By mid-October of that year--the day before World Food Day--the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 7.5 million Afghans had no access to food and were at risk of starvation. A few months later, on January 29, 2002, during his State of the Union address, George Bush jubilantly declared: "Today, women are free and are part of Afghanistan's new government." In July 2006, it was reported that the war had created 2.2 million refugees and at least 153,200 internally displaced people. It is estimated that between 12,541 and 25,308 Afghan people have died in the war.

Global opposition to the invasion of Iraq was mobilized even before the war began; by contrast, the war in Afghanistan, spun as a humanitarian effort, is the war relatively few Canadians seem to want to--or know how to--audibly oppose. Canadians take pride in themselves for not following the United States into an illegal war in Iraq, but not many questions were raised about Canada taking over the US mandate in Afghanistan (which allowed the US to focus its military and resources in Iraq). Part of the reason for this is that the war in Afghanistan – named 'Operation Enduring Freedom' – was, from the beginning, promoted as war that would restore the women's rights by deposing the Taliban.

In a recent article published in the Winnipeg Free Press, Penni Mitchell, a prominent Canadian feminist who is managing editor of the national feminist magazine Herizons, suggests that the war in Afghanistan is doing just that. In fact, Mitchell argues that the Conservative government is failing to make the same commitment to human rights in its domestic policy that is embodied in its deployment in Afghanistan, referring to the government's decision to close the Court Challenges Program, which provided litigation support to individuals seeking to challenge a federal law on the grounds that it contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mitchell writes: "Human rights of linguistic minorities and women are worth Canadians fighting for in Afghanistan, but advancing the rights of minorities and women in Canada's courts are a luxury Ottawa says it can little afford." In an article published on October 15 in The Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig points to the same disjunction. Referring to Harper's attack on Status of Women Canada, emblematic of his socially regressive domestic policy, McQuaig quips: "for women, the good news is – burqas are out. The bad news is – so are careers [for Canadian women]."

At present, 2,300 Canadian soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan, of whom approximately 2,000 are actively engaged in combat as part of the International Security Assistance Force, currently led by a Canadian general. In an interview with The Dominion, Mitchell acknowledged that "Canada should re-focus its mission" in Afghanistan, and said, "It is clear that women in Afghanistan want greater security, they want girls to be able to attend school, they want a justice system that will protect them, not warlords who will rule by violence and intimidation."

But the question is, will the military deployment – which some Afghan feminists are calling an occupation– achieve these ends? When I pose this question to Roksana Bahramitash, she asks, by way of reply: "What is the historical evidence to show that war has ever liberated women?" Bahramitash is a feminist scholar at the Centre for Developing-Area Studies at McGill University and at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University, who produced a documentary on Afghan women, "Beyond the Burqa," in 2004. She says that the notion that the US and Canada are emancipating Afghan women by bombing them is a dangerous fiction produced by a "war propaganda machine" that feminists need to undermine. She worries that some feminists have forgotten the historical roots of the North American feminist movement in anti-militarist and anti-racist struggles, and are now "supporting a neoconservative agenda."

Rather than positing Canadian military intervention as the solution to Afghan women's problems, Bahramitash urges feminists to make connections between Canada's foreign policy and its domestic policy. Unlike Mitchell, who sees a contradiction between Harper's domestic and foreign policies, Bahramitash argues that both emerge from the same ideology: "The policies are not separate. Neoliberalism [at home] and neo-conservatism [abroad] are part of the same package." To see this, Bahramitash suggests that we need a feminist analysis that sees that race, class and war are inseparable factors in women's experiences. And we need to understand how, transnationally, feminist struggles are unified. Take, for example, the issue of participation in formal political institutions. "As a feminist," Mitchell says, "I do consider that having women occupy 28 per cent of seats in [the Afghan] government is… an improvement." It's not clear, however, that Canada has much to teach Afghan civil society in this regar;d only 20.8per cent of members of the Canadian Parliament are women. "To assume that the struggles for women's rights are fundamentally different is a major problem," Bahramitash says. Also dangerous is the assumption that Western women or governments know what Afghan women's actual needs are. Bahramitash warns that feminist support for the Canadian military deployment in Afghanistan "feeds into Islamophobia" because it is based on the paternalistic "Orientalist assumption that Muslim women are victims (not agents) who need their Western sisters to help them," says Bahramitash. Instead of attempting to define Afghan women's needs, Bahramitash says that Canadian feminists need to pressure their own government to "change its mandate from military deployment to peacekeeping" and to re-allocate the resources it currently expends on the war to reconstruction, human security and decommissioning of weapons. In this, she echoes the concrete demands of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which has been mobilizing Afghan women in resistance to war and occupation since 1977.

Ultimately, Bahramitash suggests, Canadian feminists need to relate to Afghan women as "agents of transformation" of their own conditions. After all, as RAWA puts it, "Real emancipation of women can be realized only by themselves." To claim otherwise, they say, is just "throwing dust into the eyes of the world."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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