Monday, 3 October 2011

Madeleine Bunting's "tragic but necessary" betrayal of Afghan women

Madeleine Bunting is in typically hand-wringing form in the Guardian, pooh-poohing any suggestion that the war against the Taliban either did or could have had anything to do with the oppression of women. It was all, she suggests, pro-war propaganda - "the conflation of western aggression and women's rights has underpinned the last 10 years of conflict":


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 .


Notice how, for Maddy, the fact that the treatment of women under the Taliban was used by the US and British governments as part - if only part - of the justification for war is of greater consequence than the condition of women itself. The fact that the video was largely ignored before 9/11 is more significant than the fact that it was eventually taken seriously. And she's soon on much more congenial ground when laying into the clumsiness of Western imperialists who don't take into account the cultural factors at play in Afghanistan:


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.


Now there's a paragraph worth savouring. 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. And so on.

Worse than that, she imagines Afghan culture to be something like a biological given. There's a contrast between the national culture - "traditional" "rural", "ethnic", "entrenched", "conservative" and all the rest and the various attempts to introduce change, which even when spearheaded by native Afghans are "foreign, imported modernisation" that "open up divides", are corrosive and create "anxieties about the transmission of conservative values". It's all very fatalistic. As though the Afghans are culturally-determined robots rather than human beings as capable of change and advancement as anyone else.

There have, though, been moves over the past decade to improve the situation of Afghan women. Girls are going to school. In Kabul and some other major cities, some women manage to have careers. There hasn't been enough progress by any means. Neither burkhas nor child marriage are close to being eliminated; and domestic violence is still routine. But there has been some improvement, whereas if the Taliban were still in power there would have been none. Women would still be being shot in the head for "immorality" in Kabul's football stadium if the Taliban's' mate Osama bin Laden hadn't overreached himself ten years ago.

It's trivial to argue that improving women's rights was not the main point of the war, or that its importance was exaggerated in Western propaganda. Security - Western security - was always the main priority. Obviously. Even in the United States military decision-makers remain overwhelmingly male and think of women's' rights (if they do so at all) as at best the icing on the cake. Self-interest and hypocrisy abounded, as it always abounds, among politicians. All that is less significant, in my view, than the fact that it should have been appealed to at all - that Western public opinion cared that women were oppressed in Afghanistan. That says a lot about how our democracies now function.

Of course, if you work for the Guardian, feminism matters, but not nearly so much as anti-imperialism: so it's much safer to bemoan Coalition attempts to make it easier for those mothers who wish to do so to get to know their children a bit before being pushed out into the workplace than it is to get to grips with the true horrors of a genuinely misogynist society.

Bunting seems more than sanguine about the prospect of Afghan women being sold out as part of a deal with the Taliban:

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 long term 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.


But then, 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.