Afghan Women: The Political Pawns in the Game of War

by Misha Ghafouri

On October 16, 2001, Americans all across the country turned on their televisions to watch a New York City lawmaker deliver a speech to the House of Congress. It was the first time a burqa was worn on the House floor — not by a Muslim woman, but rather by Representative Caroline Maloney. Only a few short weeks following the 9/11 attacks of the Twin Towers by Al-Qaeda, Representative Maloney dawned the blue veil and urged America to join in support of the war against Afghanistan because the veil that women are forced to wear “is so thick that it’s difficult to breathe” and that “our commitment to helping the innocent people of Afghanistan must not waver.” She proceeded to state, “I salute the Bush administration for balancing war with compassion for dropping food as well as bombs.”

Now, over twenty years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the pendulum has swung as we idly watch in horror as Afghan women are once again stripped of their autonomy and basic human rights. What did the efforts of advocates like Representative Maloney accomplish? And why was it justified to use the plight of Afghan women in a plea for a futile war?

Following 9/11, President Bush declared the global war on terror, demanding that the Taliban stop harboring members of AlQaeda in Afghanistan, and warned that this war would not end until terrorism was eradicated across the world. In an effort to garner the support of the American people, the Bush administration took inspiration from the campaigns of organizations such as the Feminist Majority Foundation which sought to “Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” since the 1990s. Rather than joining the public mobilization against the military invasion, the Feminist Majority Foundation claimed to “restore” women’s human rights in Afghanistan.

Soon enough, influential women such as Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep signed on. And they were not the only women with influence who perpetuated this narrative. Then-senator Hillary Clinton, alongside 420 other representatives in the House and 98 in the Senate, voted for the war, calling it a “restoration of hope.” The woman who arguably rallied the most support for the war was First Lady Laura Bush, who in her remarks on International Women’s Day in 2002 stated that “with opportunity comes obligation” and that “The United States’ current efforts reflect a long-standing commitment” to Afghan women. And so, the Bush administration was able to veil its imperialist mission to invade a sovereign country and overthrow the government as a quest to save the innocent women of Afghanistan.

Pakistani-American journalist and author Rafia Zakaria describes these mobilized efforts led by white women as white feminism. In her book Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, she argues that white feminism is a type of feminism that only focuses on addressing issues that concern women without acknowledging the intersectionality of the ways in which race, class, religion, and sexual orientation affect the levels of privilege a woman may have. Oftentimes, capitalist structures reinforce the agendas of white feminists who believe that if they achieve equality, they can lend a helping hand to minority women so they too can overcome gender discrimination. But as Zakaria explains in her book, “They also underscore their own superior status as white feminists, with their values of rebellion over resilience, risk over caution, and speed over endurance as the ultimate feminist values.” In the case of the war in Afghanistan, white feminists — alongside the Bush Administration and NGOs — failed to listen to the self-identified priorities of Afghan women, which Zakaria claims “would prioritize ending the American occupation over anything else.” As reported in a testimony before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, a refugee in Peshawar implored, “All of them, Taliban and Taliban opposition, are criminals, and we don’t want them ruling Afghanistan. For the past 20 years they have all given the people only bullets instead of food and graves instead of houses.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by Zakaria in an interview for this article. Zakaria Following Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban government was overthrown and explains that much of the efforts of the U.S. to uplift Afghan women felt disingenuous because “on one hand you killed my brother, but then you want me to be a principal at your school.” Furthermore, she exposes the hypocrisy explaining that the U.S. would attain moral credit by pointing to their aid programs and women empowerment workshops as a “nice cover-up for what they’re actually doing” as if “the hurt and devastation caused by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men would disappear with a snap of your fingers.”

Following Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban government was overthrown and international leaders gathered in Germany for the Bonn Conference to discuss their next steps in Afghanistan. While the conference did include many western educated Afghans and representatives of the Northern Alliance (an opposition group to the Taliban within Afghanistan), it did not include members of the Taliban, which in hindsight may have been a mistake on behalf of U.S. Secretary Colin Powell as this did not allow for necessary cross-tribal conversations to end the ongoing conflict. Ultimately, the conference led to the creation of the Bonn Agreement, a plan for U.S. and NATObacked state-building programs in Afghanistan. One such reconstruction project was the formation of the Minister of Women’s Affairs, a predecessor of the highly-regarded 1950s state agency the Women’s Institute. The Women’s Institute would teach women new techniques to create modernized versions of their embroideries. Then, empowered with new skills, these women would be able to sell their improved craft at higher prices and better support their families—essentially improving the local economy. The Women’s Institute also provided schooling to girls who were married off at an early age so they did not have to face the stigma that existed at their state school, increasing access to education for Afghan women. However, as anthropologist and associate professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute Julia Billaud notes in her book Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan, the reinstituted Minister of Women’s Affairs was now supported by the German Corporation for Technical Cooperation, which invested minimal funds in the program and barely involved Afghan women at all.

In her book, Billaud recounts her experience as she conducted fieldwork in the Minister of Women’s Affairs alongside Sonila, an American, who was employed as a women’s empowerment trainer. Sonila led the lectures dressed in a traditional abaya (a garment that is rarely worn by local Afghans) without any knowledge of Dari, a dialect of the Persian language that is one of two languages commonly spoken in Afghanistan. She would lead her predominantly male participants in relaxation and reflection exercises that were often met with critique, confusion, boredom, and occasional mockery due to the cultural, linguistic, and general knowledge regarding the sociopolitical landscape of Afghanistan that Sonila lacked. On her blog, Sonila wrote, “It took so much energy to convince them that governance and the government are two different concepts or the difference between politics and policy. Even though they had no clue, they gave such an argument like: ‘Our government does not listen to us, it is corrupt, we have no power.’ This group did not like meditation, did not like conflict resolution, did not like meditation, did not like conflict resolution, did not like anything I did.” While Sonila felt as though her participants failed to listen to her guidance, in actuality, she failed to be a proper ally to their cause—the same reason why Afghanistan would fall to the hands of the Taliban shortly after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A girl sits with women wearing burqas outside a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan October 5, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

These programs failed to understand the primary concerns of Afghans themselves, such as those of Masooda Jalal, a former minister of women’s affairs, who explained in an interview with Billaud that in the beginning she was told by conservative members of the cabinet that “Women are now in office. It’s enough!” However, she chose to resist because she “know[s] the life of women inside families and outside families,” so she helped establish women’s councils at district levels. Unfortunately, her efforts were upended by warlords who sent her home and wanted to “move people whose power would disadvantage them.” The U.S. only exacerbated this issue by focusing its efforts on the major cities in Afghanistan and disregarding the women who were without employment or education elsewhere in Afghanistan.

In an interview with a western educated Afghan woman who grew up in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion, the interviewee shared her experience and the ways the U.S. fell short of recognizing the diversity of the lived experiences of Afghan women. She told The Globalist that growing up in Kabul, the U.S. invested a lot of money to improve infrastructure and grow the local economy and she definitely benefited from the war. However, she emphasizes that this was not the shared experience of most Afghan women, 76% of whom lived in a constant state of war in rural areas outside of Kabul. She shared her story of having the unique opportunity to learn English through a UN program at a young age, which allowed her to acquire jobs with English-speaking companies to support her family financially. However, she notes, “For any one person like me, you would have ten thousand women who really suffered, went through something that I was not privy to until I traveled to the rest of the country as a part of an organization I was working with, and met women who were actually cut out of society because of this war.” She emphasized that the stories we hear in the media are stories like hers, of women who reaped the benefits of international aid programs; news story headlines sprinkled with buzzwords such as “empowered,” “educated,” and “brave.” But as she pointed out to me, “Whoever you to talk to who speaks English are people like me, who have benefited, in some way, from this quite deadly, quite grotesque war. The voices you won’t hear are the voices that I think are of the majority. These are the people whose houses were raided at night time and whose husbands and sons were killed as a part of NATO’s efforts.”

Fortunately, more recent reports have highlighted instances where the U.S. National Security’s true intentions were exposed. One such example was the CIA’s strategy of exchanging Viagra pills for intel on where Taliban groups were located. Oftentimes, Afghan tribal leaders had as many as four wives, and these aging village patriarchs were easily enticed by pills that, as a former American officer described, would “put them back in an authoritative position.” To put it bluntly, an Afghan journalist explained, “Old men can rape their wives with America’s blessing.” Another similar situation where the plight of Afghan women was used to play the emotional psyche of the West occurred for fundraising purposes. One such example was the U.S.’s PROMOTE program that raised $418 million to provide jobs, internships, and training to 75,000 Afghan women but was then reported by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction in 2016 for having minimal sustainable impact with most of the funds being untraceable.

During this era of “restoring” Afghanistan to its former state, global news editor Amie Ferris-Rotman recounts a similar trend: according to her research, in 2013, there was not a single Afghan woman working at any of the English-language foreign media outlets in Afghanistan, providing no platform for Afghan women to share their experience of the world around them through their own eyes. So, in 2015, Ferris-Rotman was inspired to create Sahar Speaks, a program that offers training, mentoring, and publishing opportunities to Afghan female journalists, many of whom went on to work for the BBC and Agence France-Presse. Sahar Speaks, similar to the former Women’s Institute, provided Afghan women with the necessary tools to help their communities in ways they thought were most effective, a grassroots approach that Western reconstruction programs conveniently overlooked.

Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, politicians once again failed to acknowledge their role in this destructive war. When Joe Biden was asked in 2020 by CBS if he bears “some responsibility” for Afghan women losing their rights due to the Taliban assuming power he stated, “No! I don’t.” But as Zakaria noted in her interview, the U.S. was well aware that the Taliban was going to take over if the U.S. were to withdraw from Afghanistan. Zakaria explained that one cause of the collapse was because of the U.S.’s topdown approach to reconstruction, where many young Afghan men and women were employed as “translators and fixers and stringers” for NATO programs, which led to many Afghans losing their jobs and source of income when the U.S. left. Additionally, Zakaria articulated that there is very little local buy-in and instead there is American buy-in. So as soon as the U.S. left, they took their funding with them and the economy collapsed. Conversely, Zakaria explains that the Taliban is a “ground-up movement that caters to the poorest and least educated Afghans” and capitalizes on upholding the idea of Afghan sovereignty and defense against foreigners. The aforementioned Afghan woman interviewee shared a similar perspective. She explained that the U.S. failed to address Afghan civilians’ desires to eliminate corruption in the government but instead fueled it with billions of dollars over two decades with very little oversight, which was “the ultimate reason why the former government fell.”

Over two decades after the Invasion, once again headlines are titled “Desperate Afghan Women Wait for U.S. Protection” accompanied by images of women covered in burqas with their eyes barely visible in an attempt to portray them as utterly helpless and in need of saving. More often than not, Afghan women are portrayed in a binary of the “hero” or the “victim.” These depictions further narrow their representation to two narratives that are only advantageous to Western politics. The Afghan woman interviewee shared an anecdote where she experienced the “victim” trope firsthand. At one of her speaking events, a woman came up to her and asked, “Where are you from?” When she responded “Afghanistan,” the woman remarked, “Oh, I’m so very sorry.” She recalls being appalled by the woman’s reaction; “it was so common to feel sorry for Afghan women. It was so common to look for a story.” And the West’s desire for promoting this story is a situation that many women in the Afghan diaspora struggle with. She characterizes the issue as a “lose, lose situation for many, because on the one hand, you want to have a voice for the voiceless and support your society, but if that in itself otherizes you from your own society, if that also tokenizes you in the international community, then why is it worth it?”

Now twenty years later, after many politicians have outwardly acknowledged their regret in supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, Caroline Maloney continues to defend wearing a burqa in her speech to Congress, arguing, “I think the war helped women.” It is critical to understand the lasting impacts of white feminism on the lives of Afghan women as a lesson to not only recognize our lack of knowledge about the complex sociopolitical state of the region but also to change the narrative to one that does not recognize Afghan women as a symbol of oppression but rather as a symbol of power. It is the responsibility of reporters covering Afghanistan to diversify their stories of Afghan women from one of tokenization to truth—exposing the reality of the lives Afghan women lead.

Misha Ghafouri is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College and can be reached at