‘Let Them Eat Cake’, Suggests Cheryl Benard to the Afghan Feminists

By: Ahmad Wais Wardak, PhD

Afghan women protest in Kabul to call for representation in the cabinet on February 3. Photo Courtesy: Radio Azadi.

The US decision to strike a peace deal with the Taliban in the absence of the Afghan government has raised concerns at home and abroad. Yesterday, March 14, 2019, the Afghan National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, accused President Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, of “elevating” the Taliban’s status at the cost of “delegitimizing” the elected Afghan government. Similarly, civil society organizations, particularly women’s rights activists are fearful of the Taliban’s triumphant comeback.

Earlier, in a rebuke to the Afghan feminists, Cheryl Bernard, an executive and researcher at RAND Corporation and the wife Zalmay Khalilzad has also called on the Afghan women to start working with the Taliban as the US withdrawal is inevitable. In a National Interest article, “Afghan Women are In Charge of Their Own Fate”, she argues that Western feminists fought for their rights sole-handedly and did not expect any foreign troops or foreign aid to do the job for them.

However, Benard’s remarks – in particular, her advice to the Afghan feminists to retreat from their “liberal” ambitions and enter into direct negotiations with the Taliban to interpret Shai’ah (Islamic Law) in moderation –goes against the very arguments she made two years ago (December 2015) in a separate article titled “Moderate Islam Isn’t Working”.

There are merits in Benard’s arguments. Since 9/11, the United States has sacrificed over 2,500 American lives to protect the liberty of Afghans. America has spent over US$126 billion  on various state-building and human rights projects. And the US has overseen the writing of an Afghan Constitution that is the most liberal in the region and guarantees the protection of fundamental rights of all Afghans. As a leader of the ‘Free World’, the United States may not have been interested in building physical infrastructure like the Soviet Union did in 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly leaves behind democratic institutions and liberal human rights values that fuel vibrant energy among young people and hopefully for generations to come.

The US and NATO mission has trained and educated Afghan women on their rights, mobilized them around various causes, and provided them with an international stage and prestige to be heard and be represented in myriad of ways. In fact, living in the US for the past over 15 years, I’ve learned that this generosity is not unique to the political mission of the US State Department, but is deeply rooted in American culture.

Prior to receiving US support, Afghan resistance fighters among the Mujahideen would use mud to black-out the tiny windows of the Soviet tanks and turned cough syrup bottles into petrol bombs to blow up Soviet tanks. It was within this desperate environment that Representative Charlie Wilson of Texas’s 2nd Congressional district took notice of these brave die-heart freedom fighters: Wilson convinced Congress and the Reagan Administration to provide Stinger Missiles to the Afghan Mujahideen, which became CIA’s largest-ever covert Cyclone Operation. It was around this time that  Benard’s husband and President Trump’s current envoy to Afghanistan, Khalilzad, found his way to the Reagan Administration serving as an interpreter to the Afghan Mujahideen during their visit to Washington, DC in the mid-1980s.

In the years since, Afghans have paid a heavy toll fighting Communism and the Red Army not only in order to defend their own country, but also to defend the very values of the Free World. It was the tsunami of US dollars and Saudi Wahhabi ideology that rushed into the camps in Pakistan to train  guerrilla fighters how to blow up a bridge to create blockade, how to destroy mobile-communication vehicles (tanks) of the Red Army to cut their communication channels with their bases, and how to turn a donkey into a bomb to defeat one of the largest, strongest, and most brutal armies in the modern world.

More than weaponry, however, it was the spread of violent Islamist fundamentalist ideology flowing from two fronts that intensified the Afghan conflict: Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood both funded the education of generations of Afghans through Pakistani-run Madrassas (religious schools), which subsequently came to undergird various factions including the Taliban. Additionally, it was this military funding that enabled the guerilla fighters (Mujahideen) to channel foreign donations toward their respective communities, empowering them to build religious schools and clinics, etc. This legitimized the otherwise baseless Commanders as the new community leaders, disrupting the social fabric and well-established social hierarchy of the country by replacing the respected tribal elders with these new community leaders equipped with arms and violent extremist ideologies.

Given this legacy,  Benard’s claims seem out of sync with the norms and values of Afghan society. The Taliban ideology of political Islam has never been the core value of Afghan society, regardless of any ethnic affiliation. Militaristic Islam in Afghanistan is as foreign as  Bernard considers “liberal” norms and values to be. Hence, if the Taliban have their own base and network of supporters, the liberals and surely feminists and youths also require support from their base, which is the US and its allies. In fact, prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the subsequent Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood’s reconceptualization of the notion of jihad (or holy war), co-education to some extent, but co-existence to a much larger extent was the norm in virtually all parts of the country. Religion, or even sectarian Islam, had never been a source of identity for Afghans prior to the Saudi and Iranian rivalry in the country.

True, like any other country (including the contemporary United States) there existed a divide in the norms and values between the rural and the urban parts of the country; however, simultaneously with respect to and acceptance of one another. American visitors to pre-Soviet Afghanistan (whether anthropologists, Fulbright scholars, or foreign students hosted at Kabul University) observed a high level of social tolerance even in the most purportedly “backward” and “nomadic” parts of the country. Helmand (often referred to as “Little America” in this period) was one of the most attractive sites for the tourists who enjoyed a puff of Afghan hash and sunbathed with peace of mind and soul. That was the culture of tolerance above and beyond the mini-skirts and fast cars in the cities.

Suggestions for Afghan feminists to meet with the Taliban “and their wives” on the one hand, and the endorsement of restrictions that would subjugate Afghan women to compromise their “liberal” expectations, contradict core American values. It is for these reasons that the human rights activists and civil society organizations voice concern regarding the absence of the Afghan government from the process.

Like the Afghan and American soldiers, civilian Afghans cast their ballots – literally risking their lives in the process (or risking having their fingers cut off by the Taliban when blackened by ballot ink).

Marginalizing the current government from the peace talks, getting rid of the current Constitution – these and other suggestions from the RAND Corporation risk the hard-fought gains of the past 18 years while also jeopardizing the democratic institutions and stability of the country as a whole. Not to mention that these are the individual liberties and equal rights of the Afghans to be able to decide their own destiny. 

Indeed, Benard’s comparison of the Afghan women’s struggle to that of “Western feminists” and suffragettes evokes the image of Marie Antoinette suggesting “Let them eat cake” during the French Revolution. Each struggle and each movement should be studied within its own context and historical experiences. Given the masculinity of Afghan society and the fact that women are still deemed to be property of their male counterparts, these struggles echo those of enslaved ‘black’ women’s movements in the South, rather than “Western feminists” in general. In other words, Afghan women’s struggle is more similar to the black civil rights movement. Hence, they need champions like William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts to cultivate the seeds of freedom and empowerment in women like Rosa Parks.


Dr. Ahmad Wais Wardak is a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Government and International Relations at the University of Hartford, Connecticut. Previously, he has taught American Government at the United States Coast Guard Academy as well as the University of Connecticut. He could be followed on twitter  @wardakwais


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