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Obama’s Afghanistan Speech: What about the Women? (updated)

December 3, 2009

When US President Barack Obama spoke on Tuesday night about “The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan” he used the word “women” five times:

  1. To the United States Corps of Cadets, to the men and women of our armed services, and to my fellow Americans: I want to speak to you tonight about our effort in Afghanistan.
  2. West Point – where so many men and women have prepared to stand up for our security
  3. They [the 9/11 hijackers] took the lives of innocent men, women, and children without regard to their faith or race or station.
  4. the character of our men and women in uniform
  5. the men and women in uniform who are part of an unbroken line of sacrifice that has made government of the people, by the people, and for the people a reality on this Earth

In each case, the women referred to were American women, in all but one soldiers. The women of Afghanistan, the nation where Obama is planning to send an even greater number of troops, were not mentioned. They were invisible.

There is one positive aspect to this: it means that, at least in this speech, women’s rights are not being used as an excuse for war. On the other hand, it also suggests that these women are being ignored in the plans for war and after. Will anything be done, as part of the escalation, to provide assistance to women who, in the midst of war, suffer also from domestic violence? Last year, the US State Department honored Suraya Pakzad with its International Women of Courage Award, but what will be done now as more US soldiers enter Afghanistan, to support her work running shelters for abused women and girls?In his speech, Obama referred to the current government as legitimately elected, eliding over complaints of irregularities. He ignores, too, that this is the same government that passed a law legalising marital rape despite the brave protests of the women of Afghanistan. The results of these protests? Sara Nichols writes

Karzai agreed to listen to the women and form a commission to revise the law. No woman was on the commission and no woman has been allowed to see the results.

Clearly, the women of Afghanistan were not liberated when their oppression was used to justify military actions in their country. Ignoring women will not make things any better. As Alicia Simoni wrote in May:

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.

The women of Afghanistan and their needs as they themselves express them rather than as we in the West may imagine them to be must become central in the discussion of Afghanistan if their situation is to change for the better.

Edited to Add: On a related note, be sure to read Frau Sally Benz’s excellent post at Feministe, The Afghan Women Tug of War.

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One Comment
  1. alicia permalink
    December 3, 2009 5:17 pm

    Obama’s speech was disappointing and disheartening for so many reasons – including this one that you described so well.
    He took a great deal of time in the speech to remind us why the US went to war in Afghanistan in the first place – reminding us that it was a war that “we did not ask to fight.” (This struck me as a remarkably defensive, childish remark. There were/are options. Bush chose to go to war and Obama is choosing to go to war again. “He made me do it” doesn’t gets kids out of trouble and it shouldn’t be a justification for war). I digress…
    Obama made absolutely no mention of the fact that in 2001 the “liberation” of Afghan women was very widely and brazenly touted as one of the justifications for war. As you, and previous posts, have pointed out this was largely an excuse. And whatever little investment there was in “liberation” was not nearly enough to incite sustainable change for women. Afghan women are not liberated. However, this does not mean that Obama gets to re-write history. He may not be using women as an excuse now, but to erase the fact that women were used as an excuse in the past is not acceptable either.
    When I was in Afghanistan in 2003 Afghan women were both grateful and hopeful – they believed that someone (the international community) finally cared about their well-being and was invested in their rights and security. A few weeks ago, I spent time with a delegation of Afghan women in DC (including Suraya Pakzad). In meetings with US officials, etc. these women were adamant that as much as things have changed, they have stayed the same for Afghan women. It is heartbreaking to see/hear how the past six years have whittled away at women’s hope. And I am fairly confident that Obama’s speech confirmed every bit of skepticism and disillusionment that these women have. At this point, they expect very little from the United States. And I don’t blame them. For now, doing as much as ensuring the status quo – and making sure that an increased military presence is not a detriment to women’s well-being – is critical. I just hope that some time down the road I can sincerely say to my Afghan friends and colleagues that the United States is truly invested in their rights and well-being.

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