Afghan women are resilient pragmatists who are refusing to stand by as the Trump administration’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad endeavors to sell Afghanistan out to the Taliban. Afghans will not allow peace negotiations to admonish that women’s rights are an internal issue to Afghanistan. The irony of Khalilzad’s point is not lost on anyone who has been following the talks to have peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
The Trump administration is negotiating all the details directly with the Taliban without the democratically elected government of Afghanistan and without Afghan women. There will be nothing left to negotiate, when the Americans are done.
Khalilzad’s wife, Cheryl Benard, has recently added her voice to chorus on her husband’s dangerous strategy. Benard’s arguments essentially go like this: American women (like her) fought for their own rights and Afghan women should not be coming with their hands out to the Western world, and that Afghan women need to deal with their own society’s issues. Both arguments show Benard’s stunning willingness to twist the U.S. movement for suffrage and women’s rights, and Afghanistan and its history as a means to support her husband’s doomed strategy.
Comparing American women’s suffrage movement to the current situation in Afghanistan is a red herring, and Benard, who holds herself out as working on Afghan women rights for two decades, knows this. Afghan women first gained the right to vote in 1919 under King Amanullah Khan, a year before American women. Afghan history is like that of most countries, including the U.S.: women were and are treated badly and they (and allies) have to fight and win rights.
But the added layer to Afghan history, and the reason why Afghan women have to bring their arguments to the pages of American newspapers, is because Americans, along with dozens of other countries, have put themselves in Afghanistan and some of those countries have expended tremendous effort to actively debilitate advancement of women’s rights in Afghanistan. When Benard fought for her rights as an American woman, you can rest assured that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were not pouring billions into keeping her from attaining them.
Despite knowing all this, Benard continues with more problematic tropes and the same tired divide and conquer strategies that have always failed on the Afghan people. But Benard appears to hope to convince a (she hopes) less informed U.S. audience. She writes that Pashtunwali is more the enemy of Afghan women than the Taliban.
Pointing to Pashtunwali is a blatant attempt to frame women’s rights as hindered by a single ethnicity. But the examples Benard points to are practices seen across Afghanistan and its many ethnicities, and also appear in many other countries in the region. Benard somehow forgets to note that the practices she mentions are outlawed in the Afghan Penal Code.
The exact code and set of laws that would be wiped clean by the Taliban, who have recently clarified that their understanding of women’s rights means rights as founded only in the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia Law. We are not starting on a clean slate with the Taliban, they have shown Afghan women and the world what their interpretations mean in practice: Afghan women were denied healthcare, education, and effectively erased from Afghan society.
The harsh realities of terrorism are felt across the world daily. And those realities are fought daily on Afghan soil with Afghan bodies. Afghans honor the losses their international partners have endured, but the problem of terrorism is not only an Afghan problem, it is a global problem and Afghanistan’s international partners cannot close their eyes to this reality. Doing so would not only be a dishonor to the losses Afghans and the international community have endured, but it is a shortsighted strategy that will create the dangerous probability of terrorism at America’s door again.
One can likely safely assume that Benard’s distortions are intentional considering the company she keeps and the experience she alleges, but the more fundamental flaw in Benard’s thinking comes from her failure to understand feminism itself. Feminism does not belong to borders. It belongs to a common humane belief that all humans should be treated fairly irrespective of gender.
The dichotomy of Benard’s limited thinking is rejected by Afghan women, there is no East and there is no West, there are core norms. And Afghan women are savvy enough to know that it is not just internal dynamics in Afghanistan that drive Afghan women’s rights, and for that reason Afghan women are fighting everywhere they have to fight for their rights – in Afghanistan, and in U.S. newspapers.
About Author: Nasrina Bargzie is an Afghan-American attorney practicing business and human rights law.