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Is there an Afghan version of feminism?
Yes. There are always movements to advocate for women’s rights—defined differently in every culture and context. Women have always exercised their ability to better their circumstances—and to provide for themselves and their families. Afghan feminisms are not alien importations. Feminism—just like all other social movements—evolves in response to injustice and inequality. Throughout Afghan history, women have been key players in challenging circumstances and using their own methods to achieve gains—gains that they seek, on their own terms. Unfortunately, the term “feminism” comes loaded with the impression that it is Western. And even in the West the term has been hijacked by a certain image that does not do justice to its core purpose—and to the diverse ways women find to express feminisms. There are still people—women and men alike—who regurgitate old “bra burning” rhetoric as a rationale for dismissing feminism. Bras or not—feminism is not a fad or fashion. And it is very much alive today—in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afghan feminists wouldn’t define themselves that way, largely because their movement seeks to distance itself from a Western model—even though the underlying principles are the same. Afghan feminists—just like feminists from many other developing countries—struggle against imperialism alongside patriarchy. Afghan history tells us of incredible Afghan women who fought alongside men to liberate Afghanistan.
How does Afghan feminism differ from its Western counterpart?
The principles are the same, but the issues are different. Most Afghan women prefer to view their rights within the context of Islam. The perspectives are different—and the views are different. Of course, the opportunities are also different. As I mentioned, Afghan women are facing some pretty insurmountable struggles—many of which Western feminists do not experience. I do not think many American women can relate to the restrictions, fears, and constraints that Afghan women experience. We need to recognize that—despite our own issues—our position is one of privilege. It is impossible to separate feminist movements from the context in which they exist. After all, they are born out of the issues that arise within that specific context.
You write that tribal practices overshadow Islam. Yet throughout Gender and International Aid, Islam seems to be at the center.
In practice, tribal practices do overshadow what is written in Islam. Codes such as the Pashtunwali (the unwritten legal code of the Pashtun population) trump Islamic practices. Women’s honor is its cornerstone. As a result, women’s movements are very limited. These limitations are manifested in purdah, the separation of male and female spaces. It is not accurate to connect these conservative practices and women’s oppression to Islam. Afghans prefer to live within the parameters that Islam, in its pure form, provides—especially regarding gender roles and relations. Afghanistan is a Muslim country—this can’t be ignored. We need to engage with the religion as a core part of the context in which we are working. When listening to the voices of Afghan women and men, their desire to view their rights within an Islamic context comes across very clearly.
Of the aid Afghanistan receives from the US, how much goes toward women’s issues?
Funding for women’s issues isn’t clearly reported, and there are discrepancies in how much actually goes to “women’s issues.” There are complaints—justly—of misallocated funding, commitments not disbursed, and money not reaching Afghanistan. It is difficult to trace funds—but funding received was in no way compatible with the level of rhetoric. Particularly for women’s issues. I’m concerned that what we think is aid to women is actually supporting our “war on terror.” It has been made very clear that the military objective in Afghanistan is taking precedence over other so-called “softer issues.” Hilary Clinton recently made it clear that funding to Afghanistan is going towards combating al Qaeda and protecting the US. It is no longer about gender equality and democracy. Even in the early days, money wasn’t going toward improving the lives of Afghan people—and most Afghans are rightly angry as a result. They say, “Promises haven’t been implemented. They trick both men and women into believing that the world will come save them and change everything.”