Between the Bomb and the Burqa

Sunday, 08 August 2010 08:28 By Yana Kunichoff and Mike Ludwig, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Between the Bomb and the Burqa
(Photo: Dirk Haas / AfghanistanMatters)

Her voice was thick with passion as she argued for ending violence against fellow Afghan women, but the men didn't listen. Instead they hurled insults at her; they called her a prostitute and a traitor to her religion. The stubborn men's insults were abusive and frustrating, but it had been worse for other women in her position. They were threatened and hunted down. Some of them were killed.

Like many recent reports in the media, this story conjures up images of a brave Afghan villager struggling against the tyrannical rule of a Taliban court or insurgent militia, but that's not case: the woman in this story is an unnamed member of the Afghan Parliament supported by the United States. The verbal abuse is recounted by another female Afghan official in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. The men who called her a prostitute were her colleagues and fellow legislators, the supposed enemies of the religious fanatics fighting for control of Afghanistan.

Such accounts shed doubts on the narrative of female liberation following the initial toppling of the Taliban, as the reinvigorated debate over the occupation has renewed the media's interest in the abuses suffered by Afghan women at the hands of America's enemies. Human rights advocates may be pleased, but media critics say the plight of Afghan woman is being used to rally support for the war, and as a recent military leak reveals, the government secretly considered such a media strategy as recently as this spring.

Time magazine became the poster child for this trend last week with a cover story featuring the disfigured face of a young Afghan girl named Aisha with the ominous headline: "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan."

"They are the people that did this to me," Aisha told the Time reporter as she touched her damaged face, disfigured as part of Taliban punishment for running away from her abusive in-laws. "How can we reconcile with them?"

Aisha's heartbreaking plea reveals the harsh reality of living in a war-torn and ultra-religious society. She puts a face on the Afghan dilemma, but critics contend that the Time article on Aisha oversimplifies a complicated issue.

"Feminists have long argued that invoking the condition of women to justify occupation is a cynical ploy and the Time cover already stands accused of it," wrote Priyamvada Gopal, an English professor at Cambridge University, in The Guardian UK. "Misogynist violence is unacceptable, but we must also be concerned by the continued insistence that the complexities of war, occupation and reality itself can be reduced to bedtime stories."

A careful editorial by Time editor Rick Stengel insists that the magazine is not "either in support of the US war effort or in opposition to it," but its intention is also an attempt to counterbalance the recent WikiLeaks release of more than 90,000 documents detailing the military actions in Afghanistan.

According to Stengel, the leaked documents cannot provide "emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land," but a different WikiLeaks release does provide some insight on using Afghan women to promote war.

The Red Cell CIA Leak

An internal Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document released by WikiLeaks in March reveals a secret plan to use the plight of Afghan women and refugees in developing media strategies to "leverage French (and other European) guilt" during an especially bloody summer of military escalation. The confidential document was prepared by the Red Cell, a secretive group that consults the US intelligence community.

In response to the news that Dutch forces would soon withdraw from Afghanistan, the Red Cell outlined a plan to use Afghan women and refugees in developing media strategies to ensure that more NATO allies would not succumb to public pressure and follow suit. The memo claimed that a "not our problem" sentiment toward the Afghan conflict allowed European leaders to ignore voter's vast disapproval of the occupation, but "forecasts of a bloody summer" could provoke a public backlash.

The forecast was correct: June and July were the deadliest months for NATO and US forces to date. The record number of body bags coupled with the firing of former US Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the bloody revelations provided by the massive WikiLeaks release has pushed international support for the war to a new low.

Bloomberg reported last week that, in the wake of the WikiLeaks release, approximately 70 percent of Germans want their troops to leave "as soon as possible." Germany has the third largest military presence in Afghanistan.

The number of Americans who believe it was a mistake to invade Afghanistan in 2001 reached an all-time high of 43 percent, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll released this week.

It's unclear if the CIA anticipated such a perfect storm of public controversy, but the Red Cell memo reveals a startling strategy for dealing with it, especially in regards to women.

The memo suggests that Afghan women "could serve as ideal messengers for humanizing" the coalition's role in Afghanistan, citing polls showing that fewer French and German women support the war compared to males in both countries.

"Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German and other European women could help overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe. Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences."

The Red Cell memo encouraged creating media opportunities for Afghan women because of their "ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory."

The Role of the Media

Jennifer Pozner, the director of Women in Media and News, a media analysis and advocacy group, told Truthout that the similarity between the Red Cell memo and Time magazine's push for militarism as the answer to the abuse of women is not a new phenomenon.

Pozner said that, following 9/11, the Bush administration used "the supposed humanitarian aspect of the war [to sell it to] those few who weren't convinced by rah-rah patriotism." Support of the corporate press was essential.

Pozner, who had followed the coverage of Afghan women in the media before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said she saw this cynical trend continue under the Obama administration. The women's rights issue became a convenient propaganda tool for corporate media to sell the war.

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"Once Afghan women and girls' suffering was no longer needed as a propaganda device, we quickly lost sight of their stories again in the U.S. media," Pozner said.

Nahid Aziz, an Afghan woman and professor of clinical psychology at Argosy University in Washington, DC, who now works with Afghans at home and immigrants in the United States, also derided the American media's concentration on the plight of Afghan women as a "political tactic ... that unfortunately is very true and representative of the American media."

"There are phases of talking about Afghan women, but there is no continued kind of attention," Aziz said. "It is all dependant on the politics."

Peter Hart, activism director at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting , a media watchdog group, said that Afghanistan had always been the "good war" in the media.

"There was very little built-in criticism of the Afghanistan war, and I think that has attributed to the general lack of criticism of the war nine years later," Hart said. "Focusing on this feminist issue as a way to maintain public support is the first and last refuge of people trying to rationalize the Afghan war."

He noted the similarities between last week's Time cover and the one in the first week of December, 2001, just as the invasion was getting underway.

"We were going into Afghanistan to rescue the women from the brutality of the Taliban, but in 2010 the women of Afghanistan are still being brutalized," Hart said. "This makes no logical sense."

Pozner said the corporate media's addiction to access forces it to forgo truly critical reporting for the latest scoop from the White House.

The portrayal of women in Afghanistan was particularly one-dimensional, Pozner noted. Looking "at pictures of women in burqas should offend western sensibilities" was the message of the media as the invasion took off, allowing the running of "a few pictures of Afghan women in more urban centers removing their burqas" to equate in American minds with "victory, mission accomplished."

These reports never really considered the vast depths of oppression, Pozner said, such as the abuse Aisha suffered. Aisha's case is an example of some of the most entrenched excesses of the Taliban and particularly of Pashtun tribal society in remote areas. At the age of 12, Aisha and her younger sister were used to settle a dispute. Under a tribal custom known as "baad," the two girls were given to the family of a Taliban fighter to settle a blood debt incurred by their uncle.

Aisha was married to the Taliban fighter and, because he was constantly in hiding, was housed with her sister with her in-laws' livestock. Aisha and her sister were used as slaves and frequently beaten, a situation Aisha eventually fled.

A year ago, Aisha's husband tracked her down in Kandahar, took her back to his remote village and, on a deserted mountainside, cut off her nose, both her ears and left her bleeding. To this day, Aisha does not remember how she managed to walk to help.

The Obama administration's increased focus on civil society and female literacy has helped move Afghan civil society away from the worst gender-based oppression of the Taliban years. Thousands of girls' schools have opened since the fall of the Taliban, and an estimated half a billion dollars in international assistance is now destined for gender-equality programs.

The Debate on the Ground

Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a community and advocacy group based in New York, but working on the ground in Afghanistan, and the Feminist Majority Foundation have been at the forefront of the discussion as progressive groups in favor of the US troop presence in Afghanistan.

"If the coalition forces leave, the Taliban or other conservative factions will be much stronger," said Manizha Naderi, the Afghan-born executive director of WAW. "Women's mobility and participation in everyday life will be limited again."

But Aziz, who herself fled Afghanistan in 1982 at the age of 15, said the view on the ground is not so simple. Aziz said that women in the urban city of Kabul or female parliamentarians may have a positive assessment of Western occupation, but women living in remote areas may have a much different perspective.

In addition, women are disproportionately affected by military conflict or disaster. According to the United Nations, about 80 percent of the world's refugees are women and children.

Sonali Kolhatkar, founder of the Afghan Women's Mission (AWM) and Mariam Rawi of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) wrote last month on AlterNet, "Coalition troops are combat forces and are there to fight a war, not to preserve peace ... Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women's rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naiveté."

The American military itself has come under attack for their treatment of women, both within the civilian population of Afghanistan and in its own ranks. The highly publicized rape and murder of a young Afghan woman ended only in the honorable discharge of the accused soldier, and rape among women in the military is nearly twice as common as it is in the civilian population - nearly one out of three women.

Malalai Joya, a former parliamentarian and outspoken critic of the Taliban as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said Afghan women "are sandwiched between three powerful enemies: the occupation forces of the U.S. and NATO, the Taliban and the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai."

Karzai was once seen as a champion of women's causes and a welcome change to Taliban rule until he failed to deliver on promises to appoint women to cabinet posts. In 2009, he angered international allies by signing onto the so-called "rape" law, containing clauses making it illegal for woman to refuse to have sex with their husbands, and women can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with the permission of their husband. It was dropped under international pressure.

In addition, the Karzai government, with tacit approval from the Obama administration, has moved toward discreet negotiations with senior level Taliban commanders and the men who made decisions that left women all over Afghanistan shrouded and house bound.
Reports from international observers further reveal the current situation of Afghan women on the ground nine years into the US invasion.

The Human Rights Watch report released last month revealed that Afghan women continue to suffer horrific abuses in Taliban-controlled areas and continue to be ignored - and even violently attacked - while attempting to participate in the US-backed Afghan government. The report warns that abuse will flourish if women are left out of upcoming negotiations to end the conflict.

"The Afghan government is already undermined by the entrenched power of former warlords and gangster oligarchs," according to the report. "This situation reflects years of deal making made in the name of stability and security for which both the government and its international supporters bear responsibility."

A 2009 report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that, although underreported and concealed, rape "is an everyday occurrence in all parts of the country" and is most often carried out by individuals who are immune to the law due to tribal or political affiliations.

Crucially, Aziz notes, it must be recognized that the brutal disfiguring of Aisha occurred during the US presence in Afghanistan.

"If there was really this protection provided by the US, that would not have happened," Aziz said.

The discussion over the contentious Time magazine cover has highlighted a rift in the progressive, between those advocating a complete withdrawal and those arguing for a continued presence to mitigate the violence of the Taliban against women.

But Aziz notes that media reports leave out a crucial third option for Afghan society.

"The military is not the only solution," Aziz said, arguing that a genuine commitment to Afghanistan must go beyond troop surges. "We have to use diplomacy to make sure that there is civil society and comprehensive education, issues that were not taken very seriously in the past nine years."

According to Pozner, the continual uncritical coverage of American war efforts in Afghanistan by the corporate media does a disservice to Afghan women and everyone involved in the conflict.

"Afghan women deserve far more than to be used as pawns in US war games, and journalists need to do their jobs," said Pozner, decrying a media that "is far more willing to act as stenographers than watch dogs."

There is no question that the struggles and abuses faced by Afghan women are real. But experts affirm that only fundamental reforms in Afghan society can change this. Afghan women are trapped somewhere between the truth and the spin, the bomb and burqa.

Mike Ludwig

Mike Ludwig is a Truthout Fellow.

Yana Kunichoff

Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truthout.

Last modified on Monday, 09 August 2010 09:47