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The truth about Afghan women The media has focused on a few feminists in Kabul

Did the West ever understand them? via AFP PHOTO/ SHAH Marai


September 17, 2021   10 mins

When I think about the West’s project to liberate Afghan women, my mind conjures a line from T.S. Eliot: “The last temptation is the greatest treason/to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” In Afghanistan, we engaged in a twenty-year, deliciously self-righteous, tragically ill-designed mission best expressed by flipping that sentence.

We did the wrong thing, perhaps for the right reason. We wanted to develop that country and rescue Afghan women. Their lives were hellish, girls banned from school, women forbidden to leave their homes except in the company of a male guardian, vigilantes beating them with sticks if their burqa was too short. We wanted them to enjoy the pleasures of modernity and live full, happy lives.

Along with the rest of that failed nation-building venture, we got this part wrong too. And now, instead of recalibrating, we are full speed ahead compounding the harm.

Our mantra now is: “We can’t abandon the Afghan women.” And what we mean by that is visas and evacuations. But obviously, we can’t fly out all Afghan women. As for the others, we’re handing them off to confront a medieval regime all on their own, having skimmed away anyone who is educated, affluent, articulate, connected and savvy. We’re leaving them in poverty and on the brink of famine, after whisking away those who staffed the food programmes and the clinics. The US embassy is shuttered. That, folks, is what abandonment looks like.

The sad secret underlying our Great Afghan Liberation Project is this: when we set out to rescue Afghan women, we had no idea of who, how or why. We worked with those we could readily find and interact with, the urban and urbane, the ones who figured us out and gratified our need for photogenic success. We never got to the ones in the slums and the villages.

Even now, we seem unaware that there is no such entity as “Afghan women”. Yet the circumstances of their lives, their mindsets and the forces to which they are subject, make them as distinct from each other as different species.

So I propose: A Field Guide To Afghan Women.

Let us start with the group that no one ever starts with: the ordinary, average, downtrodden, ignored and unloved women who make up the great majority of their country’s female population. They are Afghanistan’s nightingales, peering out shyly from behind the mud walls of their compounds, shapeless silhouettes in drab clothing, accustomed to being ignored and secluded. And possessed, I believe, of a uniquely beautiful voice, if circumstance would ever allow.

Type One: The Invisible Real Women of Afghanistan

Unidentified women dressed in burqa sit outside a door in Herat, Afghanistan. The Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in late 1996, and have forced people to live under strict Muslim sharia law. Girls were not allowed to attend schools and women not allowed to work. Via Getty.

The largest segment of Afghan women are the urban poor, the rural population and the internally displaced living in camps. Their lives have barely changed over the past two centuries — never mind the past twenty years. The Communists tried, launching the only true effort to reform an entrenched system of deeply patriarchal, tribal, feudal oppression. The stakeholders of that system resisted, and in our zeal to beat the Soviets on this proxy battleground, we made sure they prevailed.

The lives of these women are sad and difficult. Their birth is regretted, their mothers scorned or even punished for having failed to produce a son. Their childhood consists of training for servitude, starting with their brothers, who are encouraged to order them about. Too soon, it is time for marriage, often to a relative or to a much older man the family wishes to please. Love is not present to soften the lot of these women, and given the segregated lives that reduce contact between husband and wife to a crude minimum, it has little chance to develop over time. A woman’s standing does not improve until she has adult sons; that gains her the right to lord it over her daughters-in-law, who instead of female solidarity, can expect one more tyrant.

What did America’s two trillion-dollar investment buy for this group of Afghan women, in terms of an improved standard of living? Spoiler alert: not much.

According to UNICEF, half of all deaths of Afghan women between the ages of 15 and 49 were attributable to untreated complications of pregnancy and childbirth — statistics straight out of the Middle Ages. In 2017, Doctors Without Borders declared Afghanistan “one of the most dangerous places on earth to have a baby.” This is the result of 15-plus years of Western projects and funding.

What about everyone’s pet project, education? No public speech about Afghanistan failed to tout this as the great triumph: “3.5 million girls back in school, four-fifths of primary school girls enrolled in class.” Wonderful. Applause. The only problem? It’s not true.

Human Rights Watch in 2017 reported that: “Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention that ousted the Taliban government, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not go to school.”

These are the things we failed to do. Here is what we did instead:

  1. We created and coddled a tiny, entitled urban elite of professional feminists who were great on the Western lecture circuit but were disconnected from — and I venture to say, uninterested in — the actual lives of Afghan women, and who rarely used their privileges to benefit their poorer sisters.
  2. We loved to build girls’ schools. It was fashionable, and we ignored early signs that the mantra “build it and they will come” wasn’t true for Afghanistan. There weren’t enough teachers, and the unending violence made it unsafe to undertake anything but a very short journey. It surely would have been better to build clinics instead, and trained traveling nurses and midwives, and focused on nutrition projects and water projects and basic public education on hygiene and first aid.
  3. Then came 2021 and suddenly the Taliban were in Kabul, and we reacted with hysteria. A Plan B would have been judicious, a ready visa process in the event of imminent danger to educated people or high-profile activists. Instead, we preemptively grabbed as many male and female professionals as we could possibly shove onto airplanes — all the people with useful talents: doctors and nurses, journalists, women with artisanal skills, teachers, IT experts. Anyone who could have kept civil society, economic relations, social services and moderate values alive was hustled onto a plane and flown as far away as possible. Not an evacuation, more like a reverse cultural revolution that erased in the space of days what we had nourished over two decades.

How did we go so far off the rails? We had a goal: liberation and empowerment. And we had a theory. We had to educate Afghan women, make them economically independent and get them involved in politics.

I first glimpsed the missing piece of that formula in 2002. I was in my office at the RAND Corporation with a pile of reports and statistics about Afghanistan. What jumped out at me was a problem no one seemed to be seriously considering: the basic physical condition of the average Afghan woman.

Almost everywhere in the world, women slightly outnumber men and have a longer life expectancy. This is particularly the case in countries at war, because while the entire population suffers, the fighting is primarily done by men. But in Afghanistan, there was a clear overhang of males.

The reasons were no mystery. Good food and medical care were given first to boys and men. This made girls far more prone to illness and malnourishment, which led to stunted growth and immature bodies. Couple this with child marriage, and you have 12 and 13-year-old girls being impregnated, losing the baby, being berated for their failure and made to try again. Girls and women were dying disproportionately, of neglect, rough treatment, deprivation, withholding of care and physical abuse.

I also remember when I first began to question my deeply hostile attitude towards the Taliban. It was 2018. Russia had hosted a meeting about the peace process, and the Taliban had issued a “Moscow Declaration” explaining their platform. One section addressed the issue of women. As expected, I found the usual prevarication: women would have “all the rights guaranteed to them in Islam”, whatever that would mean in the interpretation of Taliban men.

But then came this:

“Women are faced with a lot of disasters. The so-called women rights activists stayed in Afghanistan for 17 years; in this period billions of dollars came to Afghanistan, but still Afghanistan is at the top of the countries where many women die during delivery due to lack of health facilities. Afghanistan is still among the top countries of the world where the average life expectancy rate of women is only 45. It is among the top countries of the world where there are more than one million widows. Due to corruption, the expenses brought and spent under the title of women rights have gone to the pockets of those who raise slogans of women rights…”

This was surprisingly empathetic. Nor could I disagree. Afghan feminists and their international supporters had not seemed to care about the bulk of the country’s women, had made no real attempt to address their most pressing “disasters”: lack of food, lack of health care and basic physical safety.

Personally, I had long since lost respect for the self-promoting feminists of Kabul, who knew exactly which Western buttons to push but deployed that skill almost exclusively for their own benefit. They loved attending conferences abroad, were expert at obtaining lucrative contracts to “train” each other in such skills as public speaking, leadership and “advocacy,” and enjoyed being celebrated for their “courage” in foreign news media. You wouldn’t find them in the provinces, trying to uplift rural women. And when leadership and their much-vaunted courage were urgently required, they decamped for the West. Like their country’s national army, they were a colossal disappointment.

Afghan Woman Type Two: The Living Success story

Members of the Afghan all-girls robotics team carry their robot onto the competition floor on July 17, 2017, during 2017 FIRST Global Challenge competitions at DAR Constitution Hall, in Washington, DC.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images.

Afghan girls playing soccer. An Afghan woman street artist. An Afghan girls’ robotics team.

What else but extreme condescension explains the delighted surprise with which we received such stories? Why is it so amazing that Afghan girls can learn how to play a musical instrument or kick a ball? Why shouldn’t they be like any other girl in any other country, if given the chance? Given the dire situation of the average Afghan girl, were these really the activities that deserved our attention?

The American University of Afghanistan has an annual budget of 28 million dollars, with which it educates 1700 students, almost all on full scholarships, around half of them girls. The campus is beautiful, the infrastructure state of the art. Surely these students comprehended their great good fortune and were determined to give back to their countrymen and women.

But when the moment of truth arrived, they performed as spokespersons only for themselves. They wanted to be flown to the US — and who can blame them? These are the spoiled children of our bad parenting, the products of an education that taught entitlement over idealism. In the past, groups of them used to be brought to Washington DC and trotted out at gala fundraisers in five-star hotels. At the end of the evening, they’d be brought back on stage to press for additional donations.

To support some programme for the underserved, literacy tutoring for village girls, perhaps? No, they were prompted to ask for money for new sports jerseys, and everyone applauded and got out their check books. Wonderful! Afghan girls shooting hoops.

The adult members of the Living Success Story typically hail from affluent families or clans. Many have dual nationality or family overseas. They are well-travelled and have passports and visas. Most of them were well away even before the airlift.

Afghan Woman Type Three: The Bold Activist

Protesters march through the Dashti-E-Barchi neighborhood, a day after the Taliban announced their new all-male interim government with a no representation for women and ethnic minority groups, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

But, you say, some educated women obviously stayed; we can see pictures of them demonstrating and joining in marches.

Let’s take a closer look. The activists’ debut took place in front of the Presidential Palace, eight women holding up signs demanding their rights, followed by slightly larger groups on subsequent days representing the same message before various public buildings. The photos show them angrily yelling and raising determined fists.

Will their demands be met? Am I confident that the Taliban intend to create an atmosphere of respect and safety for women? Not at all.

But let’s not fool ourselves. For most of that country’s women, an Islamic system would represent a step up, because the worst problems they confront come not from religion but from tribal traditions. Islam does not allow forced marriage and does not require women to cover anything more than what modesty demands; it does not ban them from public spaces, and it energetically prohibits Afghan customs such as settling disputes by giving a girl to the enemy clan as a slave.

The practices that are worst for women stem from the so-called Pashtun code, a strongly patriarchal, hierarchical system which held that male prestige required the total submission and absolute virtue of their women. Seclusion, veiling and illiteracy, to prevent any opportunity for misconduct, and honour killings, to remove the stain of even rumoured or perceived female wrong-doing, are its ugliest accompaniments. It is no surprise that in surveys, Afghan women vastly preferred sharia law to Pashtunwali, the Pashtun honour code.

The real worry is that the Taliban, not exactly a group of sophisticated theologians, will interpret their religion in the same eccentric way as last time. Last time they forbade the keeping of songbirds, which I promise you is a rule found nowhere in the Quran. Any outside help now can best come from other, more advanced Muslim societies and their religious scholars, and from educated women across the Islamic world who have dealt with, and surmounted, comparable challenges. Even last time around, though, they seemed to have some scraps of pity for women. It was a well-known embarrassment during the years of the Western-backed government that a Taliban court in one of the areas under their control would affirm a widow’s ownership of her land, while a government court was likely to accept a bribe from her greedy neighbour.

Afghan Woman Type Four: Madrassa Teacher’s Pet

Veiled women hold banners and placards while marching during a pro-Taliban rally outside the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on September 11, 2021. (Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Taliban, goaded, had a response to “our” women’s demonstrations. They bused in hundreds of Taliban-supporting, slogan-shouting women in the most extreme form of all-black full-cover dress — the kind that Iranian feminist poets used to say made women look like crows — to march through the streets of Kabul and other cities in support of strict Islamic rule.

These women didn’t suddenly materialise out of the ether. They were educated in madrassas right under our noses, and in significant numbers, during the supposed years of enlightenment and freedom during the secular era we were so proud of. Yet we had no idea they were there.

This pitting of one set of women against another is a very unfortunate development, and it’s entirely our fault. “We don’t need women who left Afghanistan telling us what to do,” their banners read. A fair point.

I’m truly not sure where we go from here. Our twenty-year liberation experiment failed, to the tune of dizzying amounts of dollars. We invested in exotic frivolities and threw money at those who needed it least, and who have since proved all too ready to bite the hand that wrote the cheques. And so — as heartless as it sounds — it is probably best if we resist the “last temptation” and stay well away. And hope that one fine day, in her own time, in her own ecosystem, the nightingale will sing.


Cheryl Benard is an academic and an author.

 


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Peter Francis
PF
Peter Francis
2 years ago

Good article: thanks, Cheryl Benard. The hypocrisy of UK liberals on this subject is breath-taking. In 2008, Sharia Law in the UK was given the nod of approval by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Now anyone who criticises Sharia courts, burqas, etc., in the UK is accused of racism by the liberal elite. Yet the same liberal elite are hand-wringing about the fate of the abandoned women of Afghanistan.

Alison Tyler
AT
Alison Tyler
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Francis

Some things are actually just wrong regardless of culture or tradition and should be dealt with subtly but continually .To make continuous public and much reported clamour strengthens the hand of the oppressor in a closed traditional society. The wrong tools have had no real impact on the lives of Afghan women, so yes, thanks Cheryl Benard I so hope those with any potential to bring change have heard your argument.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

Amidst UnHerd’s now Guardian-style gloating (Roussinos) and yes, in some ways justified criticism of the West and particularly of the “evil empire” America in its approach to the Islamic world, when will we be treated to an analysis of why not one of the world’s 57 or so Muslim countries can remotely be described as a democracy.
Or why virtually all of these countries are, according to Amnesty, guilty of routinely practicing torture, serious human rights abuses, suppression of free speech and, with very few exceptions, of generally treating both gays and women as fecal matter.
Or why of the nations listed in the UN’s “Worst 10 Countries for Women” virtually all are Muslim majority or Islamic states?
You know, in the interests of balance and all that…

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

No doubt Islam is the main culprit. But I don’t think the author disputes that. I wish that the US when contemplating an intervention tried to know the situation at the ground level and maybe learn about the people, their history and culture. There was a lot of wishful thinking and amateurism in Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Competely agree. The more I’ve read about the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, the more incredulous I’ve become over the levels of corruption and sheer naivity.
That said, this debacle has also provided an opportunity for many on the left to dust off their old shibboleths about US hegemonial ambitions and neo-imperialism etc.. and, as in the case of Roussinos et al, regard the de facto defeat of the West as a cause for celebration.

Nicholas Taylor
NT
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

It helps that Islam is “the completion, culmination, and perfection of all the previous revelations”, so what was true and correct in the 7th, or 8th or 9th century, depending on when it was “written down without error”, is true and correct now and for ever. Given that democracy in effect places the word of Man above that of God, it is at best irrelevant and at worst heretical.

Last edited 2 years ago by Nicholas Taylor
Glyn Reed
GR
Glyn Reed
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

An excellent and important question. Please can Freddie Sayers respond?

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

“Personally, I had long since lost respect for the self-promoting feminists of Kabul, who knew exactly which Western buttons to push but deployed that skill almost exclusively for their own benefit. They loved attending conferences abroad, were expert at obtaining lucrative contracts to “train” each other in such skills as public speaking, leadership and “advocacy,” “
This made me think of Harry and Meghan.

Richard Barnes
RB
Richard Barnes
2 years ago

The creation of a small urban elite of professional feminists with no concern for their poorer and less sophisticated sisters is a phenomenon not confined to Afghanistan.

Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Barnes

I would say it’s now mandatory for modern feminism not to care about poorer women

MJ Reid
MR
MJ Reid
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Crap. There are plenty feminists who are trying very hard to encourage ordinary women to be involved in developing policy and legislation and developing community initiatives. The issue is these activities are not “sexy” so are not reported on. Every community has something happening in it started by women for their community of interest or geographical community.

My friends and I have been feminists for more than 40 years and we have been community activists for as long. We are not special. We are professional women, stay at home mums, kinship carers, survivors if abuse, reformed prisoners and recovering addicts. We are the ordinary women doing…

The problem is as the article says, Western ideas do not necessarily translate directly into initiatives in other countries and learning is forgotten do the wheel is constant reinvented. It is time to trust the women at grass roots who know ehat they need in their communities to empower themselves and others. We need to leave our opinions at passport control.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

“I would say it’s now mandatory for modern feminism not to care about poorer women”
“Crap”.
Then perhaps you could explain why there was not one single hashtag in support of the 20,000 or so (source: Independent) raped, tortured, traumatised and mainly underage victims of the so-called “grooming gangs”.
Virtually all of them came from deprived backgrounds.
Compare that deafening silence among UK feminists to their response to the #MeToo revelations, which spawned countless thousands of hashtags and even mass demonstrations.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is not the pain and suffering of the victims of male violence which is of primary concern to feminists, but first and foremost the ethnicity of their tormentors.
Recall how Corbyn sacked Ms Champion from his shadow cabinet – to the enthusiastic approbation of so-called feminists and the Left – for having the temerity to identify the ethnic background of the culprits (“not helpful”).
I can’t remember such scruples in naming those accused of sexual impropriety during the wave of #MeToo allegations, can you?

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Pete Marsh
PM
Pete Marsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

cf “Rotherham”…

Lee Jones
L
Lee Jones
2 years ago

Brilliant article, brutally honest about the lives of poor afghan women and the wests woeful and corrupt efforts to, if not emancipate them, give them some dignity. The same could be said of others countries (perhaps those we inhabit to some degree) where the middle classes laud the empowerment of elite women, but ignore the repression and struggle of the poor and uneducated women. Well said.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lee Jones
Tom Lewis
TL
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

There’s one word for what is described “Corruption”,;sure it might not, to our Western eyes, look like corruption, but that is what it is. Whether it be government projects, NGO projects, or contractor projects, they had , maybe innocently, maybe as an unspoken side aim, maybe even as a cynical main aim, a self fulfilling and self supporting system of patronage, paid for, and squandered by Gimps ( no doubt, highly educated with degrees coming out of every orifice and a plethora of self improvement / enlightenment / awareness courses, to boot) using money ( Not theirs, obviously, or at least so much that they would notice) using other peoples, the toiling masses, just trying to get through life, money, moving on from one “failed” utopian dream to the next with barely a blush of embarrassment between them.
I’m glad this article has been written, I think it sums up, and concurs with thoughts that I’ve had for a long time, a “corruption” in ideas and values at the heart of Western thinking, throwing other peoples money at pet projects all the while stripping out, from the countries, the very people who could most bring about change.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Lewis
D Ward
DW
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

More to the point, the UK has very strict anti-corruption laws, applicable wheresoever it takes place in the world. But seemingly only applicable to private enterprise.

John McGibbon
JM
John McGibbon
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

I do wonder how many of those being relocated to the UK had their snouts deeply into the corruption trough and to this we turn a blind eye.

Matthew Powell
MP
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

A good article. It seems to not have occurred to many Western activists that not only trying to impose a leftist Liberal political model on a population that is predominantly conservative Muslim, but even more astonishingly, not foreseeing that only bestowing its benefits on a small minority of the population, would lead to resentment, if not outright hatred, for the elites in Kabul. The Taliban couldn’t have asked for better recruitment agents.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Even though I can admire the knowledge of the author, there is something deeply depressing about this essay. Good intent is not always a bad thing and some lives improved and uplifted are better than none – even if this was a lost cause. Being brought up and living in a country with tens of millions of poor people, I can assure anyone that education is the key to upliftment, even though this takes a long time. As a woman this is of course deeply personal. I could easily have been one of these hapless souls.
I have lived amongst and worked with many Muslim women, some are friends and all are unique and different. This said, if given a choice, being born a Muslim woman would have almost certainly been close to one of the bottom of my choices.

Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

this takes a long time” – Exactly why the west left. The NATO military could have helped the Afghan army but decided to stop. While 20 years is a long time, generationaly quite short. If the graft and corruption could be reduced in the next government the outlays for NATO support could be further reduced. The decision that the Taliban would be the rulers was shameful. Change in societies do take a long time.

John McKee
JM
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

Your point is? We should stay there ad infinitum?

Fennie Strange
FS
Fennie Strange
2 years ago

Powerful, sad, thought-provoking, challenging and beautifully written. Thank you Cheryl Benard, we needed to read this, have you sent a copy to the new incumbent at the FO?

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

What a great, clear, clear sighted piece. The author self describes as a feminist – which she clearly is. More writing like this might restore feminisms good name.
I know it doesn’t have the same urgency, and the stakes are lower, but the same self critical eye is needed on feminism at home. There’s way too much obfuscation, focussing on stuff that scarcely matters, fixing problems for rich people, fixing problems that are fixed or fixing themselves – and riding the gravy train.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Morley
Gordon Black
GB
Gordon Black
2 years ago

Excellent article … fantasies mugged by reality. I am sure an analogous truth could be exposed about similar categories of western women.

Ellen Finkle
EF
Ellen Finkle
2 years ago

Islam does not allow forced marriage and does not require women to cover anything more than what modesty demands; it does not ban them from public spaces, and it energetically prohibits Afghan customs such as settling disputes by giving a girl to the enemy clan as a slave.

Source?

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Ellen Finkle

I’ve often asked, but have yet to receive a reply to what “modesty” actually means in this context.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
MJ Reid
MR
MJ Reid
2 years ago
Reply to  Ellen Finkle

The Quaran.

Ellen Finkle
EF
Ellen Finkle
2 years ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

Please specify the verses.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“What else but extreme condescension explains the delighted surprise with which we received such stories?”

Who is “we” here? The Washington élite? The Washington élite, the media and the aid experts and technical supporters? “Delighted surprise”: how was this supposedly insincere glee conveyed such that you might know about this? At gala events in hotels in America? In the next day’s headlines? Among the chatter between cool Afghan feminists and their American benefactors?

“Extreme condescension” is a very unflattering term as well as misplaced. It smacks of having nothing to do with the target of the condescension. Nothing at all. That’s what extreme means in that context. But heh hoh, the West must be all out to blame for Afghanistan’s ills along with the West End Girls, cool-Afghan-feminist-style. What will now be next year’s big hit song or movie? “The Taliban can’t help it”, probably.

The delighted and so touched Americans cannot be accused of indifference, at least. But everybody else can! To a greater or lesser degree. From Afghanistan’s near neighbours to much further afield.
Traditionally, well, as has been seen down through the years and decades, even centuries, the poor and downtrodden in America could dream of one day making it big, or of becoming somebody. Both men and women, young and very young. That’s all the Americans want to impart on other nations, peoples, ultimately.
Now that the bright lights of Kabul and District have gone out, where else does the Afghan lady street artist or lady musician or budding robotics engineer go? There is no greyhound bus to take them anywhere else that’s kind and kind of exciting, in that region.
But America and the West are all to blame. As usual!

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Pleased that I am not the only one cooing and praising this article.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

“But America and the West are all to blame. As usual!”
Which, together with a distasteful element of Schadenfreude, has been the general tenor of every article published in Unherd on this issue, which bizarrely regards the resurgence of the Taliban as a “victory”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Tragic victory.

Andrea X
AA
Andrea X
2 years ago

This has been a very somber read.
However who can possibly blame the type 2 and 3 women for leaving? Who wouldn’t, if in the same predicament?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Sue Reid
SR
Sue Reid
2 years ago

A most important article that those in Westminster and Washington should heed – particularly (though unlikely) the liberal professing charitable foundations and NGOs which have greedily eaten up 20 years of aid funds and worse. All based on absolute falsehoods. Just like Haiti where the most powerful of the US charities were flying in play equipment as shacks lay in ruins and stealing orphans for a life un Utah.

Deborah B
DB
Deborah B
2 years ago

Thank you for an excellent article that informs and provokes real discussion.
Your description of rural Afghan women reminds me very much of the wives of Bangladeshi workers who came to the UK in the 1970s onwards to work at London Brick. My job involved lots of visits to check living conditions. Predictably, their housing was the poorest our town offered.
I learned much during that time about the glaring cultural differences, often blamed on religion but on closer inspection more related to their living conditions in the villages they came from. Poor, illiterate, powerless, lacking understanding of what a bathroom is for or why you don’t leave chicken entrails in your dustbin. Not a criticism, believe me. Merely an observation that feminism, advocacy, human rights, democracy … Afghan women need these things as much as they need a fancy designer dress. Not at all.
In the West we take the basics for granted. Clean water, sewage treatment, sufficient decent food, a roof over your head, good health, being able to read and write. But a hundred and fifty years ago these were still luxurious for the majority of Britons.
My ancestors lived in a two up, two down farm cottage in the middle of nowhere and farm wages kept them fed, just. And there were 12 children! No mains water and a bucket and chuck it. Bury the contents in the garden.
So, we must focus on the basics. Because we have forgotten how important they are.

David McDowell
DM
David McDowell
2 years ago

Certainly a far more honest article on this subject than anything I’ve read elsewhere. Equally, we should just accept that it’s none of our business, period.

Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

This is disheartening. I wish foreigner policy from the US was backed with historians and deep knowledge of the present situation. Local knowledge past and present. We end up talking to he people that most resemble us in those countries. I read “globalization and its discontents” by Stiglitz, and he goes on abour his conversarion with foreigner officials. People like him. Educated in similar universities. Then I lived 1 year in Mozambique in a very rural if tourist area. And I saw what the little guy had to come against everyday. Lack of roads, lack of transport, lack of drinking water and the ever presence of the opressive state never willing to help but always demanding bribes. And this goes over the heads of the Stiglizes of the world.

Nicholas Taylor
NT
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago

“Their lives have barely changed over the past two centuries”. You could easily substitute fourteen or twenty centuries for two. What has happened in the past two centuries is that our lives have changed – ‘our’ meaning European or of European extraction. Two centuries ago ‘our’ women, while not necessarily ‘oppressed’, were hardly more free. Women in Switzerland, that most enlightened of countries, could not vote nationally until 1971. The adventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere can be seen as the conscious exercise of brute power in pursuit of economic interest, or as an unconscious expression of the momentum set off by the Enlightenment, Afghanistan being just one obstacle it has tripped over in its headlong rush. Whence comes the urgency of rescuing women in Afghanistan and similar countries? I doubt it is just the self-interest of ensuring that immigrants leave their uglier or more contagious cultural practices at home. It requires identification. This was little problem even for quite recent generations. I happened to glance at today’s TV schedules which warn that attitudes expressed in movies from the 1950s and 1960s “may cause offence”. Some attitudes in previous decades caused more than offence. There is a danger that, being so bombarded with information that does not discriminate between near and far, ‘we’ may collapse into a state of guilt paralysis. The alternative is to see Afghanistan as just one more revolutionary tornado in a swarm set off by the greater revolution, barely if at all under rational control. Afghanistan can trace its present condition to an earlier revolution and flood of moral fervour, riding on what – naked greed? Unravelling motivations buried in the detail of events is contentious. People understandably identify with women in Afghanistan, but then if you cast the net wider, say to non-human animals, who have not even Huxley’s ‘a word and a blow’ and whose lives really are ‘nasty, brutish and short’, where do you stop? So let it go, and focus on what can actually be done.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

‘‘May cause offence’’, eh? ‘TV schedules’, eh? Today, eh?
During the olden days of television, the TV schedule printed in newspapers were often headlined by “TV Entertainment”. And underneath you might have seen “May leave you feeling extremely entertained”. Well, not really.

James Joyce
JJ
James Joyce
2 years ago

Who is the “we” that Ms. Benard continually refers to above? We did this, we did that, there are things we failed to do….
Perhaps some interesting insights, but let’s not forget that Cheryl Benard and her husband Zalmay Khalilzad are part of the problem. Cheryl was sitting @ her desk @ the RAND Corporation looking for ways to do good, countries to help–white saviour mentality. I found it! A problem “we” can solve: the basic physical condition of the average Afghan woman. RAND Corporation is on it! Wir schaffen das! We can do it!
What a great formula for success! Let’s see, how did that turn out?
Zalmay was ingratiating himself with American Neo-cons and pushing for removing Saddam Hussein. He also had a major hand in the Afghanistan. How did that turn out?
Now that Afghanistan has returned to the hands of the Taliban, perhaps Cheryl can move on to other, pressing problems that she and RAND can solve. I hear that Nigerian girls are often kidnapped in Africa…..
As my grandmother–with a sixth grade education sometimes said “The smart ones are the dumb ones.”

Joseph Meissner meissner and associates and Lawyers for Life
JM
Joseph Meissner meissner and associates and Lawyers for Life
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Very fine article on Afghanistan women. This certainly adds some balance. I saw the initial protests in Kabul and thought this was the Afghan woman speaking out. But a day or two later I saw the Burka clad women with an opposing view marching in Kabul. So wait a minute, who is the “Real” Afghan woman? Maybe they all are and we should try to listen to all.
There is a certain disdain in this article and I think it needs to be explored. There were many people including soldiers who did their very best in Afghanistan and many who suffered and many who died which includes some 2,300 US soliders, thousands of Allies, 64,000 Afghan government soldiers, and who knows how many Taliban and other groups, and 13 US soldiers at the end, and then ten civilians including seven children mistakenly killed by the “righteous strike” drone. an who can count all the others?. It would be easy to say “this was all a terrible mistake, sorry,” walk away and leave the people there alone. I reject this view, but what should we be doing? Just taking touristy vacations to Mexico which never really visit Mexico, enjoying our cafe lattes, and wandering thru art galleries? Is there another way? For fifty years I have been working wth Vietnamese resettling in America, supporting school construction near Dien Bien Phu, and returning annually to my Second Homeland. I do not have final answers, but I would really love to hear from others especially those who have not given up yet which is i worry where the article on Afghan women seems to be headed. From LTC-RET Joseph Meissner, meissnerjoseph@yahoo.com

James Joyce
JJ
James Joyce
2 years ago

I read a letter to the editor in the WSJ and it posed this question: What we “owe” the Afghans who helped us depends on whether we were there to help them or they were there to help us? Do you agree?
I did not support the invasion of Afghanistan and certainly not nation building so women can go to school. Really?
Re Vietnam, Frank Snepp–CIA analyst who was there at the end in Saigon, did an excellent podcast on Secrets and Spies, talking about the utter stupidity of the evacuation, repeated in Kabul. I suggest you listen.
Finally, with respect, I disagree with your work on resettling Vietnamese “refugees” in America. Do you agree that there is (at least) a powerful argument that the people you are resettling are traitors to their country? They backed the wrong horse, mate, and actions have consequences. Not our job to save them. If they collaborated with American forces and have Vietnamese blood on their hands, well, let the Vietnamese deal with this.

Joseph Meissner meissner and associates and Lawyers for Life
JM
Joseph Meissner meissner and associates and Lawyers for Life
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

TO James Joyce

Thank you for your comments. Why do you use the term “traitors”? Is that just another term for “Losers”? Many today in Hong Kong seem like they have lost. A number are in jail for speaking out. Are they “traitors?” What about the people in Tibet? “Traitors”? “Backing the wrong horse” can be an act of courage and virtue. You mention “not our job to save them.” How do you make that judgment? Right now we are receiving many refugees from Afghanistan. What is your judgment about them? I am not trying to argue points. Having helped many from the different sides in the war in Viet Nam (there were at least fifty different sides all of whom lost blood and took blood), what should we do in response? Love to hear from you.
Joseph Meissner, LTC-RET, Viet Nam Veteran I

John McKee
JM
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Important information here! It strongly speaks to the motives of the author.

Warren T
WT
Warren T
2 years ago

Just walk through most Walmart stores in most of the U.S., except in the suburban areas, and you won’t see much of a difference in the women, except for being under clothed, fully tattooed and smoking while dragging at least one child along. But at least they are “free”.

Sue Sims
SS
Sue Sims
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

And definitely not starving.

Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

A bit of ugly, no? Walmart has well dressed, well educated school teachers shopping as well.

Pete Marsh
PM
Pete Marsh
2 years ago

“Last time they forbade the keeping of songbirds, which I promise you is a rule found nowhere in the Quran. “
Just because it’s not in the Koran doesn’t mean it’s not Islam. It’s probably from one of the ‘reliable’ Hadiths such as Bukari (there are many thousands) or from the very influential biography of their prophet the Sirah of Mohammad.

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“And hope that one fine day, in her own time, in her own ecosystem, the nightingale will sing.”

Is that identity politics there? Know your (forlorn) place. Well, if the ones who come from affluent families and clans need to know their place, you cannot blame them either. They too have been conditioned by their environment, upbringing. Will any of them, anywhere in the country, actually sing? In the distant future?
An American lady who supported a small group of Afghan women to go orienteering and mountaineering during the days of freedom has seen her charges disappear into the buzz of Kabul and District and get rid of their hiking boots. Lest the Taliban wonder what sort of bird they are. Fancy the bird that thinks itself colourful, bold, adventurous! But not in the woke world of identity politics. That world says that if the female of a particular species comes out of her shell in such a desolate, restrictive and hopeless land such as Afghanistan, then that would be anathema to the promoters of identity politics in the West, what with the now millions of both well-off and poor Muslims now resident in Western Europe who, I imagine, like their mostly downtrodden, shut-away female counterparts in Afghanistan, will take all the time in the world, within THEIR own ecosystems, to prove how pious and committed they are to their identity as well as religion. It wouldn’t do to have generous, forward-thinking, celebratory, delighted Americans upsetting the apple cart of established proprieties in far-off Afghanistan, would it?
But what with the events in America of late, it looks like the politics of identity politics has gained much ground. Unfortunately.

Tom Watson
TW
Tom Watson
2 years ago

Excellent article.

Jerry Jay Carroll
JC
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

You will never hear a peep from the nightingale. Time to move on.