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Beyond Militarized/Militant Masculinities and Feminine Victimhood

May 4, 2009

alicia11After several years of little other than occasional, and often cursory, attention Afghanistan is once again in the limelight. Media outlets and foreign policy agendas alike are brimming with opinions and analysis of the country. And of course the Taliban. And of what is finally recognized as the inextricably linked neighbor, Pakistan.

Thankfully at least some aspects of the dialogue seem to be refreshingly different. Obama is not promising, or threatening, to build a nation. Instead, he is purporting to defend his electorate (from Al Qaeda) and to provide much needed development assistance to citizens of the region. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is making remarkably frank admonishments to Congress that we, the United States, are reaping what we sowed… “I mean, let’s remember here, the people we are fighting today we funded 20 years ago.”

However, amidst these new declarations, the disheartening reality is that much about the current situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains unchanged.

This includes, but is not limited to, what some refer to as the Taliban’s Robin Hood image. In the face of brutal violence, unwieldy lawlessness, governmental neglect and extreme poverty the Taliban are offering a quick, albeit harsh, version of justice. It is possible to imagine why this resonates with segments of the population – just as it did in the mid 1990s when the Taliban first emerged in Afghanistan.

Equally as troubling as the conditions in the region is the discouragingly rout framing of the situation, and potential solution.

On all fronts, the primary focus is on military offensives and militant reprisals. Washington has pledged to send an additional 21,000 troops to eliminate the enemy. The Taliban in turn has announced a large-scale operation against the Afghan government, diplomatic missions, foreign troops and anyone supporting them. In Pakistan, Taliban militants recently overtook Buner district and subsequently manned checkpoints and aggressively patrolled the streets. After significant goading from the United States, Pakistani authorities responded by deploying relentless paramilitary troops to the region.

Caught in the midst of this aggression are Afghan and Pakistani civilians, who in many regions of both countries are fleeing for their lives from one temporary shelter to another.

Although gender is rarely mentioned, both the militaries and militants are more often than not troupes of masculinity. The little attention that these masculinized institutions don’t garner is left for women.

The primary focus in regards to women is their victimhood. Similar to 2001, when chief among the United States’ supposed objectives was “liberating” women, the rare times when Afghan and Pakistani women are mentioned today it as objects of brutal oppression and strict prohibitions.

In short, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan can seemingly be summed up as a theater of militarized/militant masculinities and one-dimensional feminine victims. Little has changed. alicia2

There are, however, small glimmers of hope. Recently, on the periphery, there has been mention of peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan and Pakistani governments. The Taliban’s outspoken denial of participation in talks with the Afghan government and their declarations that a pact with the Pakistani government is worthless is not uncharacteristic of the early stages of a negotiated settlement. In fact, these could be formulaic stages in a complex process (as peace processes always are). Or they could indicate that for one, or all, of the parties involved talks are little more than pre-text. Time will tell.

Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, women’s voices have in no way been included in the aforementioned peace talks. This is not for lack of want or skill – particularly in the case of Afghanistan, women leaders have made their demands quite clear: if there are peace talks, women need to be involved. As Wazhma Frogh, Country Director for Global Rights Afghanistan said:  “Women want to take part in peace negotiations, but we are told that for security reasons, we are better off staying at home. But that is not the case; we are already dying. And I would much rather die as a minister than at home!”

Given the extent to which women are specifically targeted by Taliban ideology, there is no doubt that if and when there are peace talks women’s rights will be on the agenda. If women are not negotiating, they will be negotiated. Whether it be by Taliban or government officials or both, women’s rights will very likely be sacrificed as a bargaining chip in a larger game of political maneuvering and alliance building, as they all too often are.

As the world increasingly engages in Afghanistan and Pakistan we should advocate for real change by supporting alternatives to violent militarized/militant aggression and ensuring that women are enabled to negotiate the terms of their own existence.

Based in Washington, D.C.,  Alicia Simoni sustains a career in gender, peace and development by writing about it. You can contact her at als.simoni@gmail.com.

2 Comments
  1. May 6, 2009 11:43 pm

    The saddest thing is that when women or the queer population stand up and speak out, they are attacked not just by militants in their own countries. They are also attacked by so-called “leftists” in the West, who claim that the “real” issue is occupation. The concerns of marginalized and brutalized segments of the population are just Westerners forcing their values on the poor Afghani/Iraqi/African/fill-in-the-blank population. Oddly, when it comes to the torture and subjugation of men, these same activists have no problem quoting the principles of “human rights.” What they don’t say is that “human rights” are violated when men are the targets; when women are the targets, it’s all just a matter of “culture” and is, thus, sacrosanct.

  2. Caitrin permalink
    May 17, 2009 8:47 pm

    what a wonderfully nuanced perspective that acknowledges the complexities of the situation. thanks for your insight.

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