In her radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, First Lady Laura Bush declared, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Immediately after her speech, the US State Department released an 11-page report on the Taliban’s “War Against Women,” launching the Bush administration’s promise to fight the subjugation of women around the globe. This figurative war would later snowball into two very real and destructive wars in the Middle East.
Despite this rhetoric, such conflicts never ended up helping women. As we face the real prospect of another Middle Eastern war on the horizon, the same pattern seems to emerge in the agenda: liberating women in the Middle East. To not repeat past failures, the United States must reevaluate its true intentions in the case of Syria and learn from its mistakes to improve its strategy to alleviate women’s suffering.
When the War on Terror first began, the Taliban, an Islamist militant group, was using an extreme interpretation of Sharia law to govern Afghanistan. The group used their view of Islamic teachings to justify their enactment and enforcement of laws such as those that banished women from working, receiving an education and leaving their houses unless they wore a burqa and were accompanied by a male relative. In addition to being restrictive, the regime’s actions also were detrimental to women’s health as the Taliban banned male doctors from caring for female patients while also prohibiting female nurses and doctors from working. As a result, many women died from treatable illnesses. To those watching from abroad, the Taliban’s retraction of the rights and freedoms of women seemed intolerable and many felt the responsibility to take action.
Laura Bush was only one among people who used their sentiments about the oppression of Afghan women to justify their endorsement of the War on Terror. In their essay titled “Feminism, the Taliban and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency”, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood describe a scene from March 1999 that portrays this trend. Celebrities, including Jay Leno, Kathy Bates, Geena Davis, Sidney Potier and Lily Tomlin, turned out in flocks to attend an event hosted by the Feminist Majority that raised money for the fight against the “Taliban’s brutal treatment of Afghan women.” Leno had “tears in his eyes” when he spoke on the suffering of women and, following the collective chant of “’We are with you,’ tears were streaming down many cheeks.” As awareness of the plight of Afghan women increased in the United States, so too did the popularity of the opinion that American involvement in Afghanistan was necessary to, not only fight terror, but also end the Taliban’s mistreatment of women.
The power of the noblitiy of fighting the Taliban’s brutal mistreatment of women provided a precious gift to America — a point of unity. The notion that Americans were fighting abroad to liberate oppressed Afghan women created a common ground that conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, activists and Hollywood stars alike could agree upon and take pride in together. The Bush administration harnessed this and used Americans objections to the oppression of Afghan women as a feminist rallying point for the country’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even as civilian casualties mounted and the prospect of a significant military gain looked bleak in the progression of the war in Afghanistan, the public support for the war remained high, refusing to be affected by the increased human suffering in the region. President Bush argued that because of US “military gains in the area,” Afghan women were no longer imprisoned in their homes. He failed to acknowledge the stark reality that many Afghan women no longer had homes to be in. No matter how violent the images of the war in the media became, the stubborn argument that the War on Terror was the war for women’s rights persisted among politicians in the government and among the public.
As of 2014, the War on Terror has cost the United States 350,000 human lives and $4.4 billion in war expenses. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of reported civilian deaths due to the war in Afghanistan was 16,179 — with women and children making up the majority of these casualties. But deaths and injuries are not the only scars the war has left behind. In its attempts to assure security from the Taliban in rural areas, the United States created programs that built up village watch groups’ capacities. When these US-backed militias spent more time harassing, abusing and robbing the villagers than providing any kind of protection, these programs were ended. But the questionable practices of US allies continue: According to Alex Arriago, director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, “There are even more documented cases of women raped by members of the Northern Alliance than there are by the Taliban.”
In its effort to assist a subjugated population, the United States, in many ways, only changed the forces working against women. This story of unintended consequences is very similar to that of the larger story of US involvement in Afghanistan. The US funding of extremist militants in Afghanistan as a response to the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979 is now widely accepted as having led to the rise of the Taliban to power. It is often forgotten that in 1985, after meeting with the leaders of the Taliban, President Ronald Reagan said, “These gentlemen (the Taliban) are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”
Unfortunately, it may be that history is repeating itself — the United States may once again have created a paradox where its efforts to alleviate suffering will only change the form but not the existence of the oppression at its roots, perhaps even perpetuating this violence and subjugation. Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies suggests that the US and Iraqi governments, by releasing many al-Qaeda prisoners from jail, created “an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower” — which he believes led to the emergence and strengthening of ISIS. Furthermore, US support of forces attempting to oust Bashar al-Assad from Syria during the Arab Spring helped to create circumstances that were all too favorable for ISIS to rise to power.
As the United States and the world have watched the violence in Syria and Iraq escalate to a level where it can no longer be ignored, so too has the use of feminist propaganda risen — especially in the reporting of the conflict in the media- to justify military intervention.
In an op-ed she wrote for the Huffington Post titled “ISIL’s Abuse of Women and Girls Must Be Stopped,” US ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues Catherine Russell made an explicit call for military action in reference to ISIS’s selling of women and girls into sexual slavery. In an effort to legitimize US military actions, Russell claimed, “These are women and girls who pleaded to be killed in airstrikes rather than be brutalized by ISIL.”
While the ambassador’s claims may give voice to a number of women, they express extreme sentiments, such as a plea for death, that do not express the feelings of all in the region. Absent in the rhetoric about saving women in Syria today are the voices of these women who speak through civil organizations, such as the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, and strongly oppose US airstrikes to combat ISIL, which they believe perpetuate sectarian violence in the region and only worsen the conflict.
Women’s oppression is a serious issue that the world faces on a day-to-day basis that isn’t geographically contained to one area, such as the Middle East, or one religion, such as Islam. This struggle cannot be used as a justification for US military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. As we enter a period of escalating conflict in this region, it is important that we do not construct feminist facades to justify military action only to forget the population we swore to protect once boots hit the ground. When discussing strategies to combat violence against women in Syria, the discourse must include an honest examination of roots, origins and true interests behind any plans of action as well as space for the voices of these women in question.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.