When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on August 16th, 2021, there was a sense of Deja Vu. Decades after 9/11, just as scholars had become able to criticise the white feminist saviour narrative that justified the ‘war on terror in the name of saving Muslim women, it seems that history is repeating itself. I came to see the horrific news on the mainstream news channels — CNN, Sky News, and the BBC — showing the appeals of Afghan female artists and journalists. They broke into tears and begged for protection from NATO and from the western world that had promised to protect them from the Taliban two decades ago. To me, this feels like the same kind of heightened media concern for the salvation of Muslim women that paved the way for the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Afghan women felt betrayed that the US has been negotiating with the Taliban behind the backs of the Afghan government for the sake of so-called ‘peace building’. Activist Mahbouba Seraj, the founder of Afghan Women’s Network, posed a question to the men of the world who are in power, “are we… just the pawns in your hands?”[i] The US betrayal was confirmed when President Joe Biden claimed that ‘nation building’ was not their agenda in the first place. There is some truth in that, in the sense that despite the American use of the myth of women empowerment to justify the Afghan war, this was not their genuine interest. Therefore, the hypocrisy of the US civilising mission has been exposed. However, Biden’s claim is also a pure lie in that sense that, ‘Nation building’ in the name of giving freedom to Afghan women, to choose to wear nail polish without fear, was precisely what justified the US civilising mission and the aim of the US invasion in Afghanistan as the then-first lady Laura Bush highlighted.[ii] She even published a book named’ We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope’ in 2017. It was published by the George W. Bush Institute and contained the stories of 28 Afghan women that clearly conveyed those same promises. However, the recent negotiations between the US and the Taliban and the shirking of their nation-building responsibilities constituted a betrayal to many who believed the US narrative.
Nevertheless, descriptions by Afghan women of the horrifying acts carried out by the Taliban during the previous regime and during its recent aggressions as conveyed through the western media are disturbing and paralysing. Stories are emerging that the Taliban fighters are forcing young girls over 15 to marry in many Afghan villages. In June, a senior Taliban leader ordered that single women aged 15 to 40 should be married to the Taliban fighters after they took control of the northern province of Takhar. A man from the Rustaq district of this area was ordered to hand his 15-year-old daughter over to the fighters.[iii] When the Taliban took control of Kandahar in July, a fighter took the female employees from their workplaces and told them to send their male relatives to work these posts in their place. Despite Taliban spokesmen’s assurances that the new Taliban government will allow women to work and receive education, most women do not believe this. Many fear that the explicit demand for ‘wives’ shows a more extremist Taliban rule than its previous one and that they might have been influenced by ISIS, which practised sexual slavery on women in Iraq and Syria.[iv] Women have already been told publicly to cover their faces for the sake of their own security. The new generation of women raised in the last two decades lived their lives in a different way to the previous generation who experienced Taliban rule. They fear they will lose it all. My social media newsfeed has been flooded with white/liberal women crying their eyeballs out over the Taliban and what their taking power means for Afghan women. There is also genuine sympathy and care from women around me, searching for ways to help them.
I am scared too. I am scared for Afghan women and their rights. This kind of regime change is always bloody, and considering the Taliban’s record, it is indeed impossible to believe that this change of power will not involve the loss of women’s lives and freedom. But my fear for Afghan women does not exclude the decades of poverty and thousands of deaths caused by the war and its long history of being colonised. In particular, it does not exclude the US destruction in the name of the war on terror. I can see that Muslim women in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia,[v] in the western world, in Uighur camps, Rohingya women,[vi] non-Muslim women, women of colour, and queer women need solidarity and support in their struggles. I can’t stop thinking about the Rohingya women raped repeatedly and living inhumane lives on the margins in Bangladesh. While I had the same sleepless nights I am having now after reading about the horrific experiences of the women in the Uighur camps,[vii] I didn’t see many white women crying or caring about them. This selective caring says something about the uses of these concerns and the commodification of this caring.
In 2013, Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod dismantled the salvation rhetoric used by western feminists to promote the rescuing of Muslim women from Islamist fundamentalism in her book titled ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’[viii] Now all the mainstream western media reporting on the Taliban victory in Afghanistan have apparently decided that the Afghan women do indeed need saving. However, the fact is that Afghan women do not need protection; they need urgent support. The impulse of ‘saving Muslim women’ and feeling sorry for them, while at the same time being blind to the profound gender and structural inequality within western society is reproduced by the colonial knowledge empire. This saviour rhetoric is inherently linked to the narratives of the civilising mission of colonial hegemony. It presumes western superiority in terms of a unilinear hierarchy in gender inequality. It assumes that western society has defeated the subordination of women and that the women of the global South need to catch up. It assumes that progress can only be achieved by following the path the white western women took. It completely ignores the different types of patriarchal inequalities that exist in different societies. It is a way to look down on Muslim women with a white supremacist gaze. It completely ignores decades of post-colonial feminist work exposing the dangers of this white feminist saviour complex.
British colonial rule and its saviour image hadn’t completely faded away when I was a child. I grew up hearing,’ but they gave us railways, education and discipline!’ Post-colonial critiques have at least established the concept of ‘colonisation of the mind’ by now and dismantled the saviour image of European colonisation. Spivak’s quote about how the “white man was saving brown women from brown men”[ix] became one of the most used and common phrases within circles of intellectuals and academics. I was not born during British rule, but I experienced these post-colonial critiques, and I am old enough to have experienced the consequences of 9/11 and American exceptionalism, such as the liberalising mission to save Muslim women through the Afghan war.
In opposition to the widespread fear that women’s human rights would be violated following the Taliban victory, a few renowned scholars and leftists interpret the Taliban win in Afghanistan as a means of emancipation and a new start for the Afghan people. Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher famous among many male scholars that I know, is already imagining a “return of the repressed in its proper form of collective emancipatory engagement.”[x] Similar interpretations are coming from so-called post-colonial male scholars who see the Taliban occupation as an end to the long history of colonisation in Afghanistan, from the British invasion to US imperialism. These scholars and leftist intellectuals are entirely oblivious to the fact that the so-called freedom of Afghanistan, even if it is the case, is only freedom for less than half of the Afghans. Afghan women and sexual minorities who have been fighting for decades for their liberty are entirely erased from this narrative as if they do not qualify to be the oppressed others.
Moreover, it totally fails to see colonisation as a process that does not end with the change of power. This position deliberately ignores the decades of anti-imperialist feminist and queer theories and post-colonial feminist critiques that have problematised the erasure of marginalised genders from both white colonial and brown nationalist narratives.[xi] It fails to see that colonialism can be maintained by people of any skin colour, any nationality. In response to these gender-blind false narratives of decolonisation, Priyamvada Gopal tweets, “Invading, making a mess, then leaving the natives to bloodshed and dispossession is part of the apparatus of empire, not its end.”[xii] Gopal argues, “any proper engagement with ‘decolonisation’ must involve a critical assessment not only of colonialism but also those other intersecting oppressive regimes from patriarchy and caste to religious chauvinism and bondage.”[xiii] The Taliban is a creation of colonisation and imperialism with the intersecting regimes of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism; they are not anti-imperial agents. In the name of an anti-imperialist position, these (mostly) male intellectuals ignore the dangerous impact of religious fundamentalism on women.
Afghan women have been fighting for their rights against both imperialist and fundamentalist oppression. Beyond the western salvation rhetoric, the only way to help them is to stand in solidarity with their struggle. Globally most feminist positions are in line with this, raising their voices against both imperialist and fundamentalist oppression. Nandini Dhar, for example, explains in her Facebook post, “That a world divided into and between imperialists and fundamentalists doesn’t leave space for many of us to take any active sides. You condemn both. The question is not one of EITHER-OR. The question is of NEITHER-NOR.”[xiv] Feminists worldwide reject both the position of the white feminist saviour narrative that functions as the handmaiden of imperial war and the so-called gender blind leftist interpretation that erases women from the narrative. Their voices, however, remain ignored by the majority of the mainstream media.
It is time to end the saviour narrative and build transnational feminist solidarity that will not be used to commodify the vulnerability of Afghan women for the sake of the war machine. It is time to be aware of this and to stop repeating the same history. It is time to move away from the imperialist/colonialist powers, their white feminist allies and the gender blind leftists who consider the Taliban to be freedom fighters. Building anti-colonial feminist solidarity, which can make more noise than the western saviour narratives and the left-chauvinistic interpretations, might be the first step towards achieving this.
[ii] ‘Washingtonpost.Com’, accessed 19 August 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/laurabushtext_111701.html.
[iii] Tamar Lapin, ‘Horrifying Tales of “Forced Marriages” Emerge in Taliban-Held Areas’, New York Post, 17 August 2021, nypost.com/2021/08/17/taliban-held-areas-see-emergence-of-forced-marriages/.
[v] ‘Saudi Arabia: 10 Reasons Why Women Flee’, Human Rights Watch (blog), 30 January 2019, www.hrw.org/news/2019/01/30/saudi-arabia-10-reasons-why-women-flee.
[vi] Brian Sokol, ‘Rohingya: Shrouded Maternity’, UNICEF Connect, 24 May 2018, blogs.unicef.org/blog/rohingya-shrouded-maternity/.
[vii] Matthew Hill, David Campanale, and Joel Gunter, ‘“Their Goal Is to Destroy Everyone”: Uighur Camp Detainees Allege Systematic Rape’, BBC News, 2 February 2021, sec. China, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55794071.
[viii] Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2013).
[ix] Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, Patric Williams and Laura Chrisman (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994).
[x] ‘Slavoj Zizek: The Real Reason Why the Taliban Has Retaken Afghanistan so Quickly, Which western Liberal Media Avoids Mentioning’, RT International, accessed 23 August 2021, www.rt.com/op-ed/532207-zizek-taliban-retake-afghanistan-reason/.
[xi] Lata Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, Cultural Critique, no. 7 (1 October 1987): 119–56, doi.org/10.2307/1354153; Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’; Mariá Lugones, ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism’, Hypatia 25, no. 4 (2010): 742–59; Jasbir K. Puar, ‘Homonationalism as Assemblage: Viral Travels, Affective Sexualities’, Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais 3, no. 1 (2015): 319–37.
[xii] Lata Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, Cultural Critique, no. 7 (1 October 1987): 119–56, doi.org/10.2307/1354153; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Judith Butler, Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging. (Seagull Books, 2007), www.amazon.com/Who-Sings-Nation-State-Language-Belonging/dp/1906497834; Mariá Lugones, ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism’, Hypatia 25, no. 4 (2010): 742–59; Jasbir K. Puar, ‘Homonationalism as Assemblage: Viral Travels, Affective Sexualities’, Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais 3, no. 1 (2015): 319–37.
[xiii] Priyamvada Gopal, ‘The Afterlife of Insurgency: Dissent, Dialogue, Decolonisation’, Identities, 27 September 2020, 748, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1070289X.2020.1816334.
[xiv] Nandini Dhar, ‘Facebook’, accessed 23 August 2021, www.facebook.com/nandini.dhar.3386/posts/587825915832014.