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March 4, 2009

Saving The Women Of Afghanistan

Addario Saving Afghan Women.jpg

by Contributor John Lucaites

President Obama’s declaration that we will remove all combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2010 is something of a moment for celebration (if leaving a country that we occupied and brought to its knees under false pretenses can be seen as a moment of joy). The pleasure of that announcement, however, has to be mitigated a good deal by the fact that he has also committed an additional 17,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan (on top of the 32,000 already there).

Al Qaeda is ensconced in the caves and hills of the Afghanistan mountains and the Taliban does arguably pose a national security threat to the U.S., though whether it is a winnable war or not—or what a victory here would actually look like—are certainly open question (just ask the leaders of the former Soviet Union … if you can find any of them). But what is troubling is the way in which we seem to have convinced ourselves that the reason we having been fighting this war, at least in part, has been to save the women of Afghanistan.

To be sure, I have no doubt that Afghani women are treated in ways that are horribly inhumane and cannot possibly be justified in any way by appeals to cultural differences or long standing traditions. But there is a continuing and nagging cultural meme that presumes to justify U.S. military presence in Afghanistan as somehow connected to securing the human right of these women.

It’s not part of the official rationale for our being there as far as I know (though I do recall Laura Bush making such a public appeal a few years back), but the concept nevertheless floats along within the public discourse in vaguely connected narratives and cultural associations that functions as a sort of moral imperative for our presence there. And here’s the point: it does this in a way that distracts attention from the larger public debate we should be having about our national interests and regional concerns and how we should go about accomplishing them.

The presence of this meme was given visual prominence this past week on the front page of the NYT as part of a story (and a slide show) dedicated to the idea that talk of women’s rights in Afghanistan is starting to take hold and with the implication it is a direct effect of the U.S. defeat of the Taliban in 2001. The lead photograph (above) is of a seventeen year old woman by the name of Miriam, who had been forced to marry a forty-one year old blind man at the age of eleven and was then beaten and otherwise abused because she failed to conceive. She eventually fled and found refuge in a woman’s shelter.

Afghan Girl.jpg
“Afghan Girl.” National Geographic, June 1985

The narrative is full of pathos, and one would have to be cold hearted not to be deeply affected by it, but what distinguishes it from numerous other such stories one can find on the internet is the image that anchors the report, a photograph that bears distinct resemblance to the photograph of the now famous “Afghan Girl” by photographer Steve McCurry that graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and again in 2002, and has been a persistent sign of U.S. concern for the plight of women and war refugees caused by the Soviet aggression.And so instead of focusing attention on the fact that we will increase our military presence in Afghanistan to nearly 60,000 troops, we are encouraged to a state of self-satisfaction in the knowledge that we have somehow done better than the evil empire that preceded us in a war that seems never to end.

But there is more. For one week earlier, the NYT reported on the plight of Iraq’s war widows. According to the United Nations 10 percent of all Iraqi women aged 15 to 80 are widowed—740,000 in all—and without the resources to sustain themselves, often forced to resort to begging, prostitution, or “temporary marriages” required to procure even a modicum of state support.

Many if not most of these women were widowed by sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion and at least some—there is no way of knowing exactly how many—have lost their families to American gunfire and missile attacks, such as Nacham Jaleel Kadim, age 23, who lost both her twin sisters and her husband.

If we are truly concerned about the plight of women in the Islamic world, perhaps we should start here.

Cross-posted/adapted from No Caption Needed.

(images: Lynsey Addario, Steve McCurry and Johan Spanner for the New York Times)

  • GDavid

    This “problem” with Afghan women has been going on for years. I remember when the US first went into Afghanistan and when Taliban rule had been “removed,” I read about the atrocities these women faced. For a brief, fleeting moment, I remember a public concern, as you indicated in your post, and I guess as we got bogged down in Iraq (or maybe because Americans have a short attention span) this topic disappeared as quickly as it appeared in the headlines. The question is how do we get people interested again? What about the women organizations here in the US? Are they doing anything? How do we get pass writing about it and get some action going? Visit me at

  • Nigel Lendon

    Her name is Mariam. Bad start. Suggests inexperience – driven by what political positions?

  • lucaites

    Thanks for catching the typo. Michael, can you correct that?

  • Rhodo Zeb

    Hello, one problem is that, even if we (i.e. Westerners) do manage to focus our energies on this problem in Afghanistan, our ability to affect change for these women is still quite limited. We have not had good results by dictating our sense of morality, and need to use other means. Even carrots (as opposed to sticks) may well not be effective if the appearance is of open coercion.
    I don’t have the answers, but I do want to mention that we simply cannot impose our sense of justice. It will not work this way. We must use other tactics, I believe.
    I just wrote a note about this the other day in regards to the cease-fire in the Swat Valley, hope no one will mind my putting the link here.

  • Nigel Lendon

    Michael, what are you signing up to? This guy strings together a string of platitudes to what political agenda? This is neither visual analysis nor political insight (“the Afghan girl”"…has been a persistent sign of U.S. concern for the plight of women and war refugees caused by the Soviet aggression.”) Oh please! “caused by the Soviet aggression”? Was it not the rule of the Taliban which brutally reversed one of the few progressive changes brought by the socialist era? But what is the lucaites position? Hands off? No support for the NATO intervention? Let the warlords sort it out?

  • Saleema

    Oh please. Our concern is not with the women. It’s a mask to to divert people’s attention away from other stuff. If the US really cared about Afghanistan’s women then they would have doen something back during the Soviet war. Let me direct your attention to the movie Charlie Reese. Remember how he was brought to tears at the end of the movie when he tried to get our government to open up schools in Afghanistan? He got a resounding no. That wasn’t just hollywood drama. At that time 90% of the population was illeterate!!! Did you hear that? 90%!!!! (Just got the statistc from Tariq Ali’s latest book, “Pakistn in the flight path of American Power”) That’s a lot of ignorant people walking around with guns. That’s the reason why they act like animals and slaughter each other as well as outsiders.
    I wish it weren’t so, then the plight of the women and the children would be much better, probably not perfect, but much better.
    To all the feminists out there, here’s a big hint. If you want to change the conditions of the Muslim women around the world then be respectful of our religion and don’t tell us to uncover our hair or to start walking around in mini-skirts. There are plenty of such women who are abused and used and killed and raped, etc,. right here in America, too. Focus on the real issues. No one should be forced to cover up but no one should be told to uncover as the western feminists imply is the first step towards freedom. That’s why you don’t make friends in the Muslim countries among women. The best way to help women in Muslim countries is to work with women’s organizations there. There are a plenty in most countries.
    Sure not all cultural practices are ok, but Muslims get pissed off when you start insulting us and telling us to live the white man’s way minus all the benefits.

  • Mickey

    I completely agree that western feminism (American white feminism) has a huge wholes in it. It very often can come off as ignorant witch leads to a kind of naive racism. It makes a ton of negative assertions about men and then forcing the less powerful of men in society to be forced into a corner where they embrace chauvinism and then feminist say “I told you so.” I’m speaking metaphorically about the how feminism is a driving force behind racism amongst African Americans hear in the US.
    The culture needs to change in Afghanistan but they way we bring about “change” (pun intended) is not only going to be done with more troops. After all, we are taking about a country that has only known war and poverty for half a over century maybe they would like to solve those problems first.
    then they can worry about feminism but I can’t stand it when people assume that because we hear in America make our women where thongs instead of bee keeper suits, that the whole world has follow. it took us 200+ years to get rights for women has we still have not got it completely down. Chauvinism is still alive and well. and for get about them not being able to read there are women in Afghanistan that can’t even count there “enumerate” I had no idea there was such a word but apparently there are people that don’t have the ability the count.
    and to the other person who said that is was “soviet aggression” that caused all these problems that is crap. like we didn’t use the world as our own little chess bored during the cold war. If you could call it cold I would say it was hot war that was only fought in countries we don’t care about. but the US is also very much to blame for choosing to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.

  • lucaites

    Nigel:You really ought to respond to the post as written. It is about the U.S., (nor the “socialist era” –whatever that might mean … talk about platitutdes!) and its presumed commitment to democracy and democratic decision making. And more to the point,it is about the photograph, the issue being that the recent Times representation reprises (visually “quotes,” if you will) an earlier image designed to invoke an affect (without actually making the argument-and thus making it harder to understand why it is problematic) to justify our invasion. The problem is that the U.S. is not now nor ever has been in Afghanistan for the women (or to promote the progressive agenda of socialism) and yet the Times article misdirects attention. There is nothing here that argues against the NATO “intervention” or says that the warlords should have their way … but it would be nice to have that discussion don’t you think? But we don’t because the public attention is misdirected.

  • Rhodo Zeb

    Wow quite a debate sprung up after I commented. I don’t have the answers, but I do believe that first there must be stability and peace. Only then can a society and culture develop.

  • Nigel Lendon

    “you really ought to respond to the post as written” – where to begin? your position is so hard to discern… you zoom clip a detail of one contemporary image, you find it coincidental with an image made and published in the circumstances of 1985, and you surround it with non-sequiturs. Do you have an argument, an analysis, a position with which to engage? Then let’s talk…

  • Sosorry

    The girl who escaped her blind captor shows abuse within our limited window. Her nose is broken and she has a new scar at the bridge of her nose.

  • lucaties

    Nice try, but your hit and run approach really doesn’t cut it. The argument is clear, the image misdirects attention from a productive discussion. It is anathema to a democratic politics. We can talk when you actually have something to say in response. So far you’ve just blustered. I’m happy to have a conversation, as my original response indicates. You don’t seem to want to take a turn that actually commits you to anything in particular.

  • Sergei Andropov

    The pleasure of that announcement, however, has to be mitigated a good deal by the fact that he has also committed an additional 17,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan (on top of the 32,000 already there).

    That we are finally sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is important to remember that Afghanistan and Iraq are two fundamentally different wars. In Afghanistan, we’re not fighting a homegrown insurgency, we’re fighting the remnants of the previous diabolical government (the Taliban made Saddam look like Mary Poppins). We had the support of the Afghan people, and still do have much of it, though they felt understandably betrayed when we shifted our focus to Iraq. What the Afghans want is for the nightmare to end. They want to rejoin the community of nations. In order for that to happen, the Taliban must be defeated, and in order for that to happen there need to be more troops. Will that be enough? No, and nobody is suggesting that it will be. Afghanistan’s second biggest problem is corruption, and it must be dealt with, and Obama knows it. But the Afghan government cannot be reformed where it does not exist.

  • acm

    women in the Mideast have had it worse and worse since we moved in there, with a resurgence of religious fanaticism making everything more restrictive. I don’t know who we think we’re helping…

  • Nigel Lendon

    Well said. Enjoy your blog. See a portrait of your namesake on rugsofwar…

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