Sisters doing it for themselves?

Women's equality in Afghanistan cannot be created by Western diktat.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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German foreign minister Joschka Fischer opened the Bonn meeting designed to organise a new Afghan government by saying that the interim administration must guarantee ‘the rights and dignity of women’ (1) – while UK prime minister Tony Blair says that international aid to the post-Taliban government will be conditional on the restoration of women’s rights (2).

And such pressure seems to have paid off. The delegates to the Bonn talks agreed a package securing the rights of women to education, work and a role in politics (3), and two women are among those named in the interim administration due to take office on 22 December 2001 (4). Women’s names will be put forward for the traditional tribal council that will take over six months after that.

These moves have been described as a victory for a new, modern Afghanistan, furthering the cause of women in Afghan society. But while using the threat of withholding aid may persuade individuals to parrot the virtues of women participating equally in the structures of power, it is unlikely that this will lead to a wholesale change in the position of women in Afghan society.

Imposing a commitment to women’s rights in this way turns the problems in Afghanistan upside down. The fact that women are restricted from participating in public life is primarily a consequence of the low level of development of Afghan society. Women have never had an important public role in strongly Islamic rural Afghanistan – and women in more secular, urban areas lost the positions they gained in the 1970s and 80s after 1989, when, during years of civil war, Kabul was bombed back to the dark ages, most of the middle classes left and the Taliban Islamic scholars walked into the void (see Lifting the veil, 30 October).

That the West threatens to withhold aid if the participation of women fails to improve seems to assume that women’s position in Afghanistan is the result of male chauvinism – with the West effectively saying, ‘you change your views, then we will help your country develop’.

Indeed, the involvement of women in political life is seen as a prior condition for the economic and social progress of Afghan society. ‘The provisional Afghan government must include women’, says the influential US feminist group, Feminist Majority: ‘The presence of women in the government is a necessary condition – although not sufficient in itself – to ensure the civil, social, human, juridical and political progress of a noble, long-suffering country.’ (5)

But when, in human history, has women’s political participation preceded the development of a society? Tony Blair has called the Taliban’s attitudes to women ‘medieval’, and demands that the new administration amends its ways. Apart from the doubtful historical accuracy of this analogy, it exposes the ridiculousness of the call: would Blair walk into a medieval village and demand that villagers change their backward attitudes? (Or would he seek out the exiled King to tell him to tell the villagers to change their backward attitudes?)

It is unlikely that pressuring Afghans to change their ways will lead to substantial progress in the position of women in Afghan society. Why, then, is the West so enthusiastic? It seems to be less about the reality of people’s lives in the third world than about constructing an Afghan government in line with Western taste.

This approach is not without precedent. Since the 1970s, overseas development policy has been increasingly linked to the issue of women’s rights. This partly reflects the influence of feminism in the West, and shifts in the kind of development policy promoted by the West. Women’s rights came to be seen by the United Nations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as an absolute principle that should be encouraged by the West in all third world societies.

Changing culture was seen as crucial to improving the lot of women. So the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979, ‘targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations’ (6). This view was related to a shift within Western feminist thought during the 1970s, away from understanding women’s position in society in terms of social structure, and towards understanding it in terms of interpersonal relationships and cultural attitudes.

But in general, the commitments to changing gender attitudes in the third world remained on paper until the 1990s, when, centred around the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, a number of NGOs and governments began to work seriously on implementing the theory. One project of this era was that of an Oxfam-funded Belgian-led NGO in Mexico, which published a book exploring women’s sexuality and relationships (7). Domestic violence hotlines were set up in Peru – so shanty town women might not have been able to feed their families, but at least they could report their husbands’ bad behaviour.

The common thread underlying these projects looks like little more than imposing the preoccupations of Western feminists on to third world societies – with attention shifting from the issue of third world development and its relationship to the North, on to the problem of male chauvinistic attitudes in the South.

Afghanistan has been a testing ground for the women’s rights approach to aid. Afghan aid worker Mohammed Haneef Atmar has outlined how, since the takeover of the Taliban in 1996, ‘humanitarian assistance has become the primary tool with which to fight gender discrimination’ (8).

The consequences of aid agencies practising gender-equality conditionality have been dire. The World Food Programme, the largest provider of food aid in Afghanistan, made assistance beyond life-saving spheres conditional upon the Taliban changing its position – ‘the losers have, of course, been Afghan women and their families’, says Atmar. And UNICEF’s withdrawal of support from boys-only schools has effectively ‘extended to boys the Taliban’s ban on female education’.

Not only have these policies caused suffering to the people of Afghanistan – they have not brought about gender equality. Mohammed Haneef Atmar notes that aid conditionalities failed to ‘[secure] the policy shifts that donors seek’ – while Patricia Grossman, consultant on human rights issues in Afghanistan, said ‘it would be a mistake to assume that humanitarian organisations can moderate the behaviour or policies of the core Taliban leadership – or that of any other group for that matter. In the last five years since the Taliban took power, there has been no evidence to suggest that engagement of that kind might lead to real change’. And changing the attitudes not just of a specific regime, but of broader society, is more difficult still: witness the surprise of Western journalists at the ‘liberated’ Afghan women who continue to wear their burqas despite the Taliban’s collapse.

Attempts to instil values from without failed for the simple reason that it is impossible just to impose a culture, without changing the underlying structures of society. As long as Afghanistan remains the Islamic, rural, fragmented society it is today, women will not participate equally in the structures of power. Indeed, by upsetting existing relationships through outside intervention, attempting to impose Western values upon Afghan society is likely to have a destructive impact.

Yet women’s rights have become a key part of the West’s intervention in Afghanistan. Blair has invoked the Taliban’s treatment of women as one of the reasons for bringing down the Taliban regime; the UK and USA’s first ladies Cherie Blair and Laura Bush launched near-simultaneous attacks on the burqa, just as the Taliban was falling apart. Now, Blair calls upon women to explain the need to reconstruct Afghanistan: ‘We have an obligation to the Afghan people, perhaps especially to the women in Afghanistan, that we should not and must not run away from but that we must fulfil.’ (9)

The West might be confused about many aspects of its intervention in Afghanistan – but the need to defend the equal esteem of women is one of the few things it can still believe in. It is, effectively, the West’s last civilising mission, standing alone after belief in Western civilisation, religion and the old moral standards is no longer strongly held. Western elites find it increasingly difficult to project the superiority of Western culture and values – and those who try, like Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, are soundly reprimanded. Tony Blair and George W Bush never stop saying how much they respect Islam, calling for a multicultural dialogue between different groups.

While relativism abounds, one of the few areas where a line can be drawn is at treatment of women. At a lecture at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London, influential human rights barrister Helena Kennedy talked about the importance of sharing cultural values and developing an understanding dialogue between different groups, refusing to admit that there was any such thing as universal values or culture. When asked if there was anything worth passionately fighting for, she named opposition to female genital mutilation (FGM) – and her tolerance really snapped when an African man in the audience suggested that FGM should be left to the choice of individual women. Male members of the African elite, lectured Kennedy, had a responsibility to change the attitudes in their society against this practice.

A consensus around the treatment of women unites both left and right. On spiked, Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek raised substantial criticisms of multiculturalism, pointing out that ‘multiculturalist tolerance’ was ‘okay in so far as this other is only a question of food, of culture, of dances’, but ‘what about clitoridectomy?’ (10). Meanwhile, right-winger Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the UK Spectator, criticises multiculturalism, ‘[that] is to adopt a cringing and uncritical attitude to every manifestation of every culture except one’s own’. The example he uses to illustrate the problems of Western non-judgementalism is the Muslim community’s treatment of young girls (11). How can we not judge, he seems to say, in the face of this?

In his speech to the Labour Party conference in October 2001, Blair pledged to ‘reorder this world around us’ according to Western ‘values’. But in these relativist times, women’s equality has become one of the few principles that Western elites can stand by and feel they can impose upon the third world. UK journalist Polly Toynbee has written about Western ‘global moral authority on universal rights and women’s equality’. Before fighting began in Afghanistan, she demanded that the Northern Alliance sign a contract to keep to these principles (12) – because, as she later explained, ‘It means demonstrating that human rights values are indeed universal and not Western’ (13).

But imposing the principles of women’s rights on Afghanistan is unlikely to help Afghan women. Firstly, in the name of Afghan women the US alliance has brought down the Taliban, leading to the disintegration of Afghanistan into a patchwork of rival warlords – many of whom are supervised by the West. No doubt the Taliban was bad for women’s rights, but a society where rule is established by force not politics (be this the force of local militias or of US fighter jets) surely makes absurd the idea of anybody having a ‘right’ to anything.

Secondly, it is hard to see how imposing a UN-approved administration with two women on a highly Islamic country will improve popular attitudes towards women. As has been frequently pointed out, Afghans are extremely hostile towards ‘foreigners’ – perhaps understandably, given that the country has been the battlefield for other people’s conflicts from the British Empire through to the Cold War. These women are as likely to appear as the new infidels as they are the genuine representatives of the Afghan people – and will further discredit the Bonn design-a-government of which they are part.

It is not as if there is a strong indigenous movement demanding women’s participation in government. A Pakistan-based member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told me that she did not expect women to participate in government in Afghanistan, because ‘women are not considered human beings’ – ‘in such a country, being realistic, we are not thinking of women’s participation in the coming government of Afghanistan’ (14). Surely a necessary precondition for women participating equally in the structures of power is them actually wanting to do so?

So while Western donors may be patting themselves on the backs for their ‘historic’ victory for women’s equality, the wish does not transpose into reality so easily. The last Western civilising mission of women’s rights may well yet end up on stony ground.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Lifting the veil, by Josie Appleton

Nothing to lose but their burqas?, by Josie Appleton

An Englishwoman in Washington, 20 November 2001, by Helen Searls

Aiding the Afghans?, by Bernadette Gibson

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) With Many Absent From Talks, a Kabul Meeting Is Suggested, New York Times, 28 November 2001

(2) Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2001

(3) Guardian, 20 November 2001

(4) Afghan factions sign landmark deal, BBC News Online, 5 December 2001

(5) See Feminist Majority statement

(6) See the UN summmary The United Nations and the Status of Women

(7) ‘A hidden agender’, Living Marxism, July/August 1995

(8) Humanitarian Exchange, September 2001. Click here to download a copy of this issue in .pdf format

(9) We must stand by Afghans – Blair, BBC News Online, 20 November 2001

(10) ‘The one measure of true love is: you can insult the other’, by Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann

(11) ‘The abuse of women’, Spectator, 27 October 2001

(12) Behind the burka, 28 September 2001

(13) Limp liberals fail to protect their most profound values, 10 October 2001

(14) Lifting the veil, by Josie Appleton

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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