For a while now Sally Armstrong has been documenting the situation of women in Afghanistan through her books and documentary. She recently spoke at the University of Guelph fundraising breakfast and Guelph, Ontario’s Guelph Mercury covered the talk given by Armstrong – a journalist, it seems, on a mission.
Now anytime the idea of a non-Afghani, Western/Northern person trying to save Afghani women is presented I can’t help but wonder if long lasting solutions are being sought, and usually they are not. The micro-level problems are highlighted at the expense of another culture and/or religion while the macro-level causes of the problems are completely ignored and those who are at fault at the macro-level are rarely held accountable. Unfortunately, this is how this Guelph Mercury piece read. The Guelph Mercury reports that Armstrong is
swinging against the international political correctness that is keeping Afghan women under lock and key.
Together, Armstrong and the Guelph Mercury paint a bleak picture of the condition of women in Afghanistan.
Of the Taliban Armstrong says
“They murder them in public, in front of their children, by shooting them in the face”
Of the situation of women in Afghanistan the Guelph Mercury says:
And though there is a small but growing group of Afghan women who are working to improve conditions, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Eight years after the Taliban was brought down, women are still being kept behind walls, kept out of schools, kept in purdah and kept out of civil life, she said.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the suicide rate is higher for women than it is for men.
About 85 per cent of the women are illiterate, a state they equate with blindness.
Though schools for girls have now opened, they receive no funding from the Afghan government
I do not doubt that situation for women in Afghanistan is dire. I do doubt however that the problem is as simplistic and black and white as is depicted by this oh-so-common narrative.
As much as I dislike the Taliban, and as much as I despise their view of women, I also recognize that even they are not the monolithic entity Western media depicts them as. To assume all Taliban members would do such horrendous things as shoot women in the face denies the possibility in our mindset and discourse that perhaps dialogue and educational opportunities could arise with at least some of them. It also is only one step away from generalizing about all Afghani, and even all Muslim, men. Additionally, the men who make up the Afghani Taliban are Afghani men. The men who make up the Taliban are their men. They are the brothers, fathers, sons, cousins, etc. of the same women so many here in the West want to “save.” How will painting these men as monsters actually help Afghani women? By simply criticizing their actions with one sweep of the criticism brush we are not helping Afghani women at all and further alienates the men in their lives. We are not recognizing the relationships, as well as possible dependencies, Afghani women have with Afghani men. We are refusing to recognize that Afghani women may have male allies in their midst.
A better way would be a less patronizing and more nuanced way. Understanding not only their cultural and religious context as well as how they ended up as they are – a.k.a. colonization – would be necessary. The British (who condescendingly created Afghanistan’s borders) forcing opposing ethnic groups to live in one country resulting in years of civil war and the subsequent devastation of the economy and education of the country, the imperialistic invasions by Russia and the US, and now the US’s “war on terror”, have all had devastating effects on Afghanistan and its people. They have created situations and realities that make resources that we take for granted, and based on the exploitation of which we make our judgements, very difficult to attain in Afghanistan. As a result of such devastation the women have suffered most, as is what usually happens.
If women in the West do want to help Afghani women they would be better off questioning the tactics and purpose of their governments’ current “war on terror”, one of the effects of which has been the further radicalization of many young Muslim men who have felt targeted and victimized by this war. A war in which we too, as Canadians, are involved. To deny the role this war has played in worsening the situation of women in Afghanistan would be the real injustice. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, understanding the effects of this war on the people of Afghanistan, including on the situations and motives of the men of Afghanistan, is necessary in changing the situation. Since you critcize international political correctness, I would say that challenging your own government’s role in the perpetuation of these dire situations for Afghani women may be the truly non-politically correct thing to do, Ms. Armstrong.
Culture and patriarchy do indeed play a role, and they should be challenged as well. However, they are being challenged and resisted by the women of Afghanistan. The Guelph Mercury says that
…though there is a small but growing group of Afghan women who are working to improve conditions, there is still a lot of work to be done.
But the work of these women should not be discounted. Organizations like RAWA have been working for Afghani women for years now. Additionally, if the country were not in a war with Western forces then there would most likely be more such groups. However, years of civil war and foreign invaders and occupiers have made this difficult.
Although Armstrong, and people like her, may have good intentions, their approach comes across as insulting. Helping is not a bad thing. But it should not be done with the assumption that there is something wrong with the people one is helping. Whether it be the assumption that the women one is helping just aren’t capable of helping themselves (instead of criticizing and trying to change the macro-level forces which may hinder) or whether it be the assumption the men of that culture are all oppressive monsters, both taint the altruism with self-righteousness and condescension. And that doesn’t help anyone. To have real change macro-level factors, which hold back entire nations, need to be challenged, questioned, and changed. Otherwise, all other solutions will be temporary as the people will still be facing macro-level oppressions.