U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective
Saba Gul Khattak, Deputy
Director and Research Fellow, Sustainable Development Policy
How do we analyze the US bombing of Afghanistan?
Is this bombing a ceremonial reaffirmation of power? Is it
about avenging the 11th September hijackings, the subsequent
destruction and damage of the WTC and the Pentagon respectively
and the death of thousands of innocent people? Is it about
the display and exhibition of US armaments for international
buyers? Is about ensuring oil supply lines and warm water
ports a la Carter Doctrine? Is it primarily about ridding
the world of terrorism and terrorists? Is it about restoring
peace and eventually democracy in Afghanistan? Is it about,
in addition to all this, liberating Afghan women from the
oppression of the Taliban (though not the patriarchal culture
that kept them back whether in Afghanistan or in refugee camps
in Pakistan)? Is it about the American resolve not to live
in fear? Or, it is about Osama Bin Laden?
Why are answers to this issue important? Why must we establish
the primacy of one answer and through that hierarchy talk
about US goals and priorities? This is probably because we
feel an urgent need to make sense of international politics.
But to make sense of the recent and continuing madness, we
cannot restrict ourselves to mainstream explanations, whether
they spring from liberal, progressive or left oriented perspectives.
In the present context, to attempt to understand the American
bombing of Afghanistan, we need to look at the issue from
the Afghan perspective, and within that perspective, through
the lens of gender. This short piece is based upon qualitative
interviews with Afghan women refugees who have experienced
not only the American bombing and violence of the Northern
Alliance but also other types of violence prior to the October
7th bombing. In that context, for the Afghans the bombing
and its motivation are not connected with the shock that the
US and some others around the world have experienced. For
the Afghans, the bombing represents yet another wave of violence
in a 21-year history of relentless conflict. It has, once
again, driven them out of their homes and their country, making
them insecure refugees or IDPs (internally displaced persons)
because no country will allow them in.
According to Trinh T. Minh-ha (1994: 12), the story of refugees
"exposes power politics in its most primitive formâ¦the ruthlessness
of major powers, the brutality of nation states, the avarice
and prejudice of people." The story of Afghan refugees contains
tales of terror unleashed by major powers, neighboring states
as well as their own people. Therefore, at one level it does
not matter whether the bombs are manufactured in the USA or
the former USSR. What matters to the people is what the bombs
do to them when they are dropped. As one Afghan woman in Pakistan,
a recent refugee from the bombing, explained, "Jung sho-Kabul
taa raalo" (fighting erupted and it reached Kabul) or as another
woman put it in an understated way, "the circumstances became
unbearable," meaning the bombing was horrendous. For the women
then, what mattered was that they had to flee their homes
in order to be secure. This was the case much more for women
than men who have some sensitivity to whose bombs are raining,
although many have learnt to distance themselves from the
warring factions. For many of the poor displaced women and
their children, the removal of the Taliban and killing and
looting carried out by the Northern Alliance is not tantamount
to liberation, nor does the promise of democracy hold meaning.
What they underscore is their need for peace (qaraar - araami).
For example, one respondent, when asked if her son will wage/continue
the jihad (holy war), promptly emphasized that he will only
work to establish peace. This is a contrast to the mother
of twenty years ago who was willing to sacrifice her son's
life for the war.
For many of the poor Afghan women, the first and foremost
concern (as for everyone else) is security for themselves
and their family. Side by side with this is their need for
a home and longing for the lost home, both in the context
of geographical as well as symbolic space. This need usually
goes unrecognized as the home is not accorded any importance
in the context of international politics despite being integral
to state formation and its continuation. It is the nation-state
that constitutes the basic unit of analysis, entirely ignoring
the fact that the edifice of social life in a state is built
upon the construct of the home.
One associates wars with battlefields and with men, whether
they ride horses, tanks, jeeps or helicopters and planes.
Wars are associated with wide-open spaces, public spaces.
This makes it appropriate to target and bomb countries and
makes it possible to talk in terms of "targeted bombing,"
"carpet bombing" and "collateral damage." Homes are associated
with women and with the family hence they belong to the private
sphere and are generally considered outside the purview of
war. However, homes are targeted in times of war and conflict.
This is because the destruction of home and villages is debilitating
and used as an instrument of war to spread fear and intimidation.
The tendency of marauding armies in the past to murder, loot
and burn that which they could not carry with them resulted
in the destruction of entire villages and communities. While
this has been widely documented, and has been currently experienced
by Afghans at the hands of foreigners as well as their own
people, very few people have looked at the issues that emerge
out of these acts of violence.
The destruction of home and community has implications that
go beyond the physical being of these places. These range
from ideas of self, of identity, creativity, interpersonal
relations and one's world-view. Some of these issues have
been addressed and analyzed by anthropologists in the context
of recent conflicts. However, these accounts are generally
restricted to documenting and observing changes in human relations
in the context of individual violence such as murder, rape
and ritualistic violence. One seldom comes across accounts
that make the connection between the violence of war and conflict
in conjunction with the dislocation of people from their homes.
The leaving of home is not only about acquiring security,
it is also symbolic of leaving behind a sense of identity,
a culture, a personal and collective history. Indeed, the
word home has several connotations for women, hence, its leaving,
its destruction and its making are important. Home is the
source of primary identity for women not only because both
are associated predominantly with the private sphere but also
because home is the locus of self, culture and belonging.
This is true for men as well as women; however, due to the
historical role that women play in the making of home, they
identify much more with it.
Women's understanding and representations of home involve
multiple themes that relate to both physical as well as imagined
and intangible aspects. Aside from being a reflection of self,
social and economic status, home represents the space where
women can be happy and secure, where they can be creative
and where they enjoy familial support. At the same time, due
to the extreme degree of violence and destruction that has
been perpetrated due to the war, home and country are no longer
the symbols of protection and security. Both mirror the peril
they contain for the very people they need to shelter and
protect. This peril has been experienced several times, leading
to double and triple trauma as the Afghan refugees keep fleeing
back from their country and their homes in the face of constant
bombings and fighting. This process has also rendered some
women completely homeless so that they are unable to conceptualize
the presence of a place that may be called home. As one Afghan
woman refugee said, "we have no home anywhere. We left everything
behind...and it (home) has been blown to smithereens." Her husband
and she are presently renting a small room in a 4-room mud
house (shared with three other families) in a squatter settlement
from which she does not leave due to having no prior experience
of going out, but where she is acutely uncomfortable because
men of the other families come and go as and when they like,
leaving no privacy or space for purdah (modest seclusion-ed.).
This is certainly not the home in which she can be "at home."
The themes that emerge from the interviews are about the destruction
resulting from war, deaths due to rockets and bombs and the
yearning to go back to the place that was home and that lies
destroyed. Many talk about the pain of returning under successive
governments only to find out that the same destruction and
senseless war continued and they were as insecure as they
had been previously. There is thus a sense of betrayal that
is not alleviated by the sense of alienation in Pakistan.
Their house is not "home"--it is a place, a mud house, a rented
house, a camp or a tent. It is not home. There are constant
thoughts of returning home and this prevents them from coming
to terms with the present. Their refusal to accept their move
as final (something their hosts also do not want them to do)
makes them feel that the present is "temporary" even though
it has affected their lives very deeply and permanently.
We also conclude that displacement, whether within one's country
or outside of it, has implications not only about physical
security but also anxieties about non-material aspects that
form the basis of our identities, of who we are. These issues
involve shifting identities, ruptures in their meanings and
our perceptions of ourselves and others' perceptions of us.
These identities also have to do with being men and women.
For many women, memory is an important coping mechanism. Memory
serves to preserve their class and social identities but also
their national identities and association with their country
as something beautiful. However, simultaneously the memory
of violence prevents them from narravitizing their individual
experience into collective history or collective consciousness.
I do not wish to end on a note of pessimism. As a social scientist,
I would like to see new spaces being created by Afghan refugee
women in the midst of the tremendous violence they face. I
am confident that these spaces and a new politics will eventually
emerge; however, for the time being, we need to recognize
that having undergone multiple traumas at multiple levels,
they require respite and a breathing space -- a space and
time for personal and collective healing to take place and
for creativity to be able to take off. They need to be able
to narrativize their collective experience and make sense
of their loss and sorrow by giving it meaning. At present
they need time-out. For us to expect towering narratives of
courage, indigenous exotic wisdom and survival is to begin
to impose a new colonizing idea and discourse upon them.
While we try to make sense of international politics as it
plays itself out in the life or lives of countries and their
people, Afghan women try to make sense of the loss of relatives
and home inflicted upon them by yet another unknown enemy-an
enemy without form. As they make a safe passage into a hostile
country or end up in a camp on the borders of their own country
that is being bombed day in and out, their primary concern
is with their own security and with trying to recreate the
lost home and recover the sense of security that comes with
the sense of being at home.
for President Carter's speech outlining the Carter Doctrine.