Bush, Burqas and the Oppression of Afghan Women

From the very beginning of the Afghan crisis, which began with the Saur coup in April 1978, U.S. policy-makers have capitalized on misogyny.

Women and girls today constitute some 60% of the Afghan population, the male population vitiated by invasion and fratricidal conflict. They are among the most oppressed, illiterate, shell-shocked and abused women on the planet. While many aspects of their oppression are of ancient origin (the burqa was no Taliban invention, but has been customary female garb at different points, over many centuries, from Byzantium to Central Asia), others are quite contemporary, and the U.S. bears significant responsibility for them.

Soon after the 1978 coup, the newly-empowered, pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan announced a range of measures designed to build a secular, modern society. These included bank reform, land reform, mass education, and the equality of women. Specifically, the new rulers intended to promote universal, coeducational, primary schooling. None of these propositions settled well with tribal leaders comfortable with the existing land arrangements, their own feudal prerogatives, and the chattel-like condition of their uneducated womenfolk. Nor did the prospect of local, state-run clinics, in which doctors might view their wives’ and daughters’ forearms and ankles, or worse. Of the grounds for local magnates’ disgruntlement with the new government, none generated so much passion as the radical change in women’s status that it sought to implement.

Thus was born the Mujahadeen, with some helpful midwifery performed by the CIA. By mid-1979, the Carter administration (yes, that most “human rights”-oriented of U.S. administrations, which also supported the Shah of Iran right up to the end) was funneling aid via the CIA into the hands of Afghanistan’s holy warriors, urging them to view their fight as an anti-communist jihad. President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Bzrezinski, was delighted to endorse the most vicious and backward of warlords, and exploit their determination to retain patriarchal control; “We now,” he told Carter, “have the opportunity to give the Soviet Union its Vietnam.” (And if women get screwed, well, who cares?)

As the proxy war continued under the Reagan administration, fully half the $ 3 billion granted to the Mujahadeen went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, identified by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA; see their excellent website http://rawa.false.net) as the vilest of all the warlords. (Now back in Afghanistan, having turned on his former sponsors-and they on him-Hekmatyar dodges CIA missile attacks while, by some reports, cozying up to remnant al-Qaeda forces.) The Mujahadeen won the war, thanks to U.S. and Saudi assistance, which only increased after the Soviet pullout in 1989 following a UN-brokered agreement. (That agreement required the cessation of both Soviet and U.S. aid to the rival factions in the ongoing civil war. The U.S. refused to sign it.) Remarkably, the regime in Kabul, which encouraged women’s education and employment and discouraged the wearing of the burqa, endured until April 1992 when the Northern Alliance forces took the capital. The last of the Soviet-backed rulers, Najibullah, took refuge in the UN compound.

In May, a theology professor at Kabul University, a Tajik, Burhanuddin Rabbani, became president. Among his first decrees was to mandate the wearing of the burqa by Kabul’s relatively well-educated and sophisticated women, and to ban women newscasters from television. The U.S. recognized his government, maintaining cordial relations while soon detaching itself from the situation it had produced. It was busy elsewhere, trying to impose “peace” on Somalia and the Balkans, intermittently bombing Iraq, trying to keep the lid on Israeli behavior in Lebanon, etc. Washington retained some level of interest in Afghanistan (Dostum was invited for talks in Washington in May 1995), particularly in the prospect of an oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Indian Ocean through Afghan territory. But as Afghanistan fell into chaos under Rabbani, Hekmatyar, Dostum and other CIA creations, U.S. hopes for pipeline construction faded.

Enter the Taliban, in part, the creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), a cousin of the CIA, principally concerned with restoring order in Afghanistan and the protection of Pakistan’s trade routes into Central Asia. (They were abetted by Pakistan’s female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in power 1988-90 and 1993-96). The ISI recruited Talibs from the religious schools it subsidized in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. But the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, developed his own power base within Afghanistan from 1993, acquiring a reputation as a man of high moral integrity prepared to take action to end the factional fighting, in which the abuse of women (and boys) was a staple feature. In the spring of 1994, Taliban members attacked the base of a commander in Singesar who had abducted and raped two teenage girls. They freed the girls, hanged the captain, and won widespread admiration for the deed. The Taliban’s reputation soared. However paradoxical it may seem at this point, knowing what we do of Taliban policies after they took power, they seemed at the time to be defenders of the physical security of women against the rapist mentality of the Northern Alliance warlords.

The Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, immediately seizing, castrating and hanging Najibullah. (He was handed over by his
own intelligence chief, Rashid Dostum, a turncoat many times over, now largely in charge of northern Afghanistan.) Once in
power, they continued the prior government’s basic policies towards women, mandating the burqa, and denying women educationand employment. Once in power, they continued the prior government’s basic policies towards women, mandating the burqa, and denying women education and employment. But they were more “fundamentalist,” more misogynist, more brutal. Most notably, they denied women and girls access to health services, and applied Shari’a law with greater severity. Public executions became mass spectacles; women accused of adultery were forced to kneel in their burqas in the foreign-built soccer stadium in Kabul before being shot in the head as crowds cheered. The award-winning documentary “Behind the Veil,” made by the Anglo-Afghan filmmaker Saira Shah for the BBC’s Channel Four last summer, damningly exposed the anti-woman features of the regime.

At that time, Afghanistan was not on a U.S. “enemies list.” The Wall Street Journal, which closely reflects official thinking, had offered the Taliban limited praise: “The Taliban,” according to the Journal, were “the players most capable of achieving peace. Moreover, they were crucial to secure the country as a prime trans-shipment route for the export of Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and other natural resources.” Supported by U.S. allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Talibs even received U.S. economic assistance (in exchange for implementing a successful opium eradication program). On numerous occasions, they negotiated with Unocal for oil pipeline construction.

Thus from Washington’s point of view, Kabul’s misogyny was its own business. The Taliban’s “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Punishment of Vice,” charged with the policing of proper female behavior, among other things, was closely modeled on a Saudi Arabian institution in operation from the inception of the Saudi regime. The U.S. had never made an issue of that ministry, or the Saudi laws that are as misogynistic as any on earth. Or for that matter, the chattel slavery practiced in the harems of the Kuwaiti elite that Bush I restored to power, through his heroic Operation Desert Storm, in 1991.

But then came Sept. 11, the buildup for war, and the satanization not only of al-Qaeda but the Taliban regime depicted as its sponsor. On November 17, six weeks after the bombs started falling over Afghanistan, First Lady Laura Bush was trotted out to deliver a “Radio Address to the Nation,” using the time customarily allotted to her (rather less articulate) spouse, in order to (as she put it) “kick off a world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports.” A politically rather intelligent move, actually. Time Magazine had reported that 100 civilians were killed in the bombing of Karam October 11; the mainstream press had reported the 8 killed in Kabul and 21 in Tirin Kor October 21; 25 in Doori and 10 in Herat October 24; the 10 or so bus passengers near Kandahar two days later; 13 more in Kabul October 28; the 25 plus in Chowkar-Karez village late in the month; the 15 in a Kandahar hospital October 31; the 128 in the village of Shahagha, November 10. Perfect time to talk about brutality against women and children!

And what did she teach us in her “Address to the Nation”?

“Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable. Women have been denied access to doctors when they’re sick. Life under the Taliban is so hard and repressive, even small displays of joy are outlawed — children aren’t allowed to fly kites; their mothers face beatings for laughing out loud. Women cannot work outside the home, or even leave their homes by themselves.”

But thank God for American military intervention!

“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women I hope [that this Thanksgiving] Americans will join our family in working to insure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.”

(At the time, Bush was hitting up American school kids to donate money for their Afghan counterparts, and U.S. planes were dropping food packets to sustain the hungry and win Afghan friends. 70% of these ruptured on impact; of these, 90% contained spoiled food; lots of children ate the packages of desiccant and get sick to their stomachs. As a report by retired Special Forces officers matter-of-factly put it: “Food packets that make people sick is just one more reason to hate the United States in an already hostile environment” See Boston Globe, March 26).

Ms. Bush is a former librarian and school teacher, and presumably has some basic research skills, but her “address” indicates that she doesn’t know jack-shit about Afghan women and their undeniably “brutal oppression.” That oppression didn’t begin with the Taliban, and the earlier Northern Alliance regime, hoisted to power by U.S. assistance, did nothing to alleviate it. Between 1978 and 1992, at least in Kabul, the succession of Soviet-backed regimes made some headway in advancing women’s rights, but during most of that time Ms. Bush’s father in law was vice president in a regime determined to topple that regime, using the scum of the earth to attain that result.

Let us pit our First Lady against the Afghan woman most familiar to the educated American public: Sharbat Gula. You probably won’t recognize the name, but this is the woman whose face, featured on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, was among the most widely replicated of all the photos featured in that magazine in its long history. The photo (sometimes called “hauntingly beautiful”) showed a teenage girl with wide green eyes who had plainly seen her share of terror. With some fanfare, National Geographic announced last spring that the hitherto nameless subject of the photo had been found in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, by the original photographer Steven McCurry, and then interviewed in a refugee camp in Pakistan.

Sharbat Gula, now 28 or 29, perhaps shocked her interviewers by opining, quite categorically, “life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order” (see the April National Geographic issue). Think about that. Here’s a women whose visage is known all over the world, a Pashtun, facing the camera without a burqa, talking to Americans, with every incentive to endorse “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Instead she indicates a preference for the status quo of the recent past. Her stance is not, of course, an argument for Mullah Omar; but it is an argument against bombing, disorder, and the re-empowerment of the Northern Alliance.

These U.S. allies are rapists. As early as 1996, the U.S. State Department’s own report on human rights in Afghanistan concluded that the forces led by (the now lionized) Ahmed Shah Massoud systematically raped and killed Hazzara women in Kabul in March 1995: “Massood’s troops went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women.” Since their return to power, Northern Alliance forces have returned to their old habits; on February 24 Boston Globe reporter David Filipov documented the widespread rape of Pashtun women in Mazar-e Sharif by Abdul Rashid Dostum’s militiamen. A March 8 Human Rights Watch report documents horrific abuses of Pashtuns by Northern Alliance troops; Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for HRW, says, “Our research found that Pashtuns throughout northern Afghanistan are facing serious abuse, including beatings, killings, rapes, and widespread looting.”

Even in Kabul, policed (in theory) by international peacekeepers, women don’t dare remove their burqas for fear of attack. Laura Bush-and the commentators who scratch their heads wondering why these Afghan women, newly “liberated” from the Taliban, aren’t revealing their happy smiling faces to the world and dancing in the streets–doesn’t get it. The head-to-toe garment is a protection from rape, as well as an emblem of oppression. And the rape threat now comes armed and financed by Washington.

Much was made of the fact that in the conference in Bonn last November and December, which established a provisional government in Afghanistan, two women were included in the cabinet. These were Sima Samar, a Hazzara and member of the Hazzara-based Hezb-I-Wahdat (Party of Islamic Unity), who became minister of women’s affairs and a deputy prime minister; and Suhaila Siddiqi, a former member of the Parcham faction of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party that had ruled Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992. Siddiqi had held high rank under the Najibullah regime, then served as chief surgeon in a Kabul hospital under the Northern Alliance, and had even been allowed to practice under the Taliban.

The RAWA (whom I respect, as an organization serious about confronting fundamentalism and promoting feminism) denounced both of these women for their histories and political associations. Nonetheless, their presence in the 30-person interim administration was used to put a female-friendly face on what was in essence another collection of Northern Alliance warlords. But that face faded during the Loya Jirga in June. The majority of delegates, including the small female component, wanted the former king, Zahir Shah, to serve as head of state rather than Hamzid Karzai, who is seen as a puppet of the Americans and pawn of the warlords. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad effectively vetoed that proposal, shooing in Karzai, the U.S.’s man, while thugs in the warlords’ service moved in to silence and marginalize opposition, including any posed by women. Sima Samar, nominated to continue as minister of women’s affairs, was sufficiently intimidated by death threats that she turned down the position in favor of a lesser human rights post. (She had already stated, June 11, “This is a rubber stamp. Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones.”) The Jirga concluded June 19 (following a walkout of half the delegates two days earlier, in protest of foreign manipulation of the proceedings, and warlord intimidation), without the appointment of a new Minister of Women’s Affairs.

Laura Bush asks us to “fight for the rights and dignity of women” in Afghanistan even as the government her husband heads works actively to suppress those rights, and suffocate that dignity, by its alliance with the same old Mujahadeen it sponsored in the 1980s. So don’t expect Washington to help remove any burqas soon, and don’t expect the women who eventually do so to feel anything but contempt for the Bushes.

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program
He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu