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Saba Gul Khattak: The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective
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The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective
Saba Gul Khattak, Deputy Director and Research Fellow, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan


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 form…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.

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