The Face We Can’t Ignore: Women in Afghanistan

Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. (Courtesy of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right on Flickr / Creative Commons 2.0)

What to do about the war in Afghanistan is posed as a question of military strategy, of defense expenditures, of logistical technicalities; of political climate, secret safe havens and effective counter- insurgency… but almost never a question of women.

In the meeting rooms on Capitol Hill, in seminars held at think tanks and universities around the U.S., and on talk shows where experts dissect the latest in the saga of American warfare, a resolute silence has surrounded the issue of Afghan women. Untouched and neglected, it has lain on the sidelines of a debate on war and exit, marred by the taint of having been used as a pretext for invasion by the neo-conservatives of yore.

Such was the status quo until last Thursday, when TIME magazine released its cover for the week of Aug. 2, 2010. Staring out at the world is the image of a brutally mutilated 18-year-old Afghan girl, her nose severed.  The text reads, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.”

The story inside reveals that Aisha was “punished” by a jirga headed by a Taliban commander. For being disobedient to her in-laws, her nose and ears were cut off.

The image is as jarring as the questions surrounding it. First to critique TIME‘s cover has been an American Left so committed to troop withdrawal that any pauses for consideration are instantly rejected as ploys to perpetuate occupation. On the Huffington Post, Derrick Crowe, political director of the Brave New Foundation, described the cover as “TIME’s epic distortion of the plight of women in Afghanistan,” calling it “rank propaganda,” and pointing out that Aisha was attacked while U.S forces were still in Afghanistan purportedly providing “security.” The Feminist Peace Network decried the tired use of “protecting Afghan women” as justification for continued occupation.

The Left’s framing is clear: Rescuing Afghan women was a pretext crafted handily by the Bush Administration so it could barge its way into Afghanistan and stay there. And that’s certainly true. Also true, as Crowe points out, is that Afghan women have continued to suffer during the American occupation, enduring both traditional patriarchal practices and newly-minted discriminatory laws. Indeed, assessing the performance of the 10-year occupation in the mutilated-yet-expectant features of a young woman serves as an appropriately graphic visual depiction of our failures in Afghanistan.

The problem with these arguments, however, is that they translate our inability to improve things thus far into a prescription for sudden abandonment of the very projects that women just like Aisha made the mistake of believing in: literacy and entrepreneurship initiatives for women, civil society seminars designed to encourage women’s participation and midwifery training projects to reduce Afghanistan’s sky-rocketing rates of maternal mortality. War is horrific, its misery recorded in lurid detail in the tragedy of Aisha’s mutilation. But withdrawing without a plan for safeguarding the women who chose to believe the American promises of empowerment, however deceitfully those promises may have been made, is to live in denial of a tragedy in which we are roundly imputed.

It also elides the United States’s own role in the initial rise of the Taliban, whose brutality and repression of women was unprecedented in Afghanistan’s history. Today, Afghan women are already retreating behind burqas for fear of Taliban reprisals in a post-U.S Afghanistan where the Taliban control the country. A recent poll shows that nearly 69 percent of Afghans think that the Taliban are the biggest threat to the country and 90 percent prefer current rule over a return of the Taliban.

The binary logic of war and peace that defines debate on the Left is one part of the problem. Another is advocating Afghan women’s self-empowerment in order to sidestep the necessity of committing to their security. Yes, as the Feminist Peace Network critique rightly intimates, the iconography of a maimed Afghan woman awaiting her American saviors is one that negates the possibility of internal resistance by Afghan women themselves. And as a Muslim woman born and raised in Pakistan, I am particularly sensitive to such depictions, and to the implicit condescension in suggesting that feminist awakenings everywhere must always mimic trajectories of the West.

At the same time, I find the sudden elevation of Afghan women’s agency at this juncture to be both self-serving and instrumental in denying just how badly the world has failed them. Saying that women ravaged by war for over three decades, whose capacity for resistance has been depleted by incessant meddling of foreign forces, can now independently empower themselves in the wreckage of the abandoned programs we leave behind is an argument meant only to pacify the travails of our own conscience.

As a recent report from Human Rights Watch recommends, no withdrawal from Afghanistan should be initiated without ensuring that women are consulted and represented in developing the peace and reintegration program. Not only is this a moral imperative arising from our involvement in the region, but it is also good policy reflecting a growing consensus in the international community. As Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said in her testimony before Congress this year, “Neither peace and stability, nor development and security, can be achieved unless human rights and women’s rights are sustained and promoted.”

An urgent and unshakable responsibility lies on American shoulders to ensure that the very Taliban commanders who burned girls’ schools and ordered beatings and mutilations of women like Aisha aren’t installed as leaders–even if it impedes our timeline for withdrawal. And finally, mutual respect demands that we value Aisha’s immense courage in exposing her pain in a manner that forces us to contend with failures we are eager to abandon.


Rafia Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." Rafia writes a weekly column for the DAWN newspaper which is the largest and oldest English newspaper in Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.