After War – the Backlash against Women
Many remember Laura Bush’s famous speech in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, about how the fight against terrorism also was a fight for women’s rights and dignity (Bush 2001). The speech was criticised for many things: for instrumentalising women’s rights and liberties to support a war, which clearly was not fought over those issues, for incarnating the ‘white saviour’ syndrome by pretending to save ‘brown women from brown men’ (Spivak 1988), and for portraying Afghan – and therefore mostly Muslim – women as passive and in need of saving (Abu-Lughod 2002).
After War – the Backlash against Women
Many remember Laura Bush’s famous speech in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, about how the fight against terrorism also was a fight for women’s rights and dignity (Bush 2001). The speech was criticised for many things: for instrumentalising women’s rights and liberties to support a war, which clearly was not fought over those issues, for incarnating the ‘white saviour’ syndrome by pretending to save ‘brown women from brown men’ (Spivak 1988), and for portraying Afghan – and therefore mostly Muslim – women as passive and in need of saving (Abu-Lughod 2002). This criticism was important and managed to highlight dangerous misrepresentations, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy. Especially, when almost 20 years later, Western countries withdrew from Afghanistan, allowing Talibans to reimpose oppressing rules on women and pushing back the gains made for women’s rights and liberties during the last two decades.
For, despite the hypocrisy surrounding the reasons for the war in Afghanistan, there were significant improvements regarding women’s rights and opportunities during this period. The number of girls enrolled in primary school in Afghanistan increased to 33% in 2017 from less than 10% in 2003, while their enrolment in secondary school went up from 6% to 39% during the same period (Kimathi 2021). This has changed dramatically since the Talibans took over, as girls now are systematically barred from grades 7-12 in 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces (UN Women 2021). In terms of women’s employment, previous increases have rapidly been reversed, partly because of Taliban imposing new restrictions on conditions and an obligatory male accompaniment requirement on women, thereby reducing women’s mobility significantly, partly because of lack of clarity and self-censoring by families. Prohibition of women in tv dramas in combination with an almost total disappearance of women journalists have also normalised the absence of women from the media landscape which further normalizes women’s invisibility in public life (UN Women 2021). This absence of women is also noticeable in political life, where women’s political participation has gone from 28% of women parliamentarians to 0% since 15 August 2021 (UN Women 2021). The advances in women’s freedoms and opportunities made during the war are thus now facing a significant backlash following the Taliban take over.
Yet, it is not only in Afghanistan that the post-war period means a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms. Research has shown that women face increased risks of being victims of trafficking, of being forced into prostitution, for domestic violence to increase, for female slavery to be organized and for honour killings and suicides to occur (Handrahan, 2004, p. 434). In many environments there is also a spike of sexual and gender-based violence once the armed conflict is stabilized (True 2012). Such a development exemplifies feminist scholars’ concept: continuum of violence, which refers to the fact that women often experience gendered forms of violence in their everyday lives, both before, during and after the end of a conflict. Yet the violence women experience in the private sphere is perceived as ‘ordinary’ and as such tolerated, while within the context of conflict, the violence is understood as ‘extraordinary’ (Swaine 2010). In many cases, only violence classified as ‘extraordinary’ exerts a response, a mourning from society (Roy 2008).
For all the atrocities that war and armed conflict bring to the population, they sometimes also promote unintended opportunities for women to take on roles which traditionally are not available to them, and which allow them to elevate their socio-economic status. Women may temporarily gain freedom, responsibility and worth (Handrahan 2004, p. 435), as conflicts produce new political, social and economic opportunities (Björkdahl 2012, p. 287). In the absence of men who are fighting, women become the main breadwinners and heads of families – positions which nevertheless rarely are maintained in the post-conflict society. On the contrary, the post-conflict period has often meant a backlash against women’s agency, frequently intertwined with nationalist, conservative ideas that are dependent on control over women’s bodies and honour, resulting in their confinement to the domestic sphere (Afshar 2003, p.185; Berry 2017; Björkdahl 2012, p. 289).
This post-conflict backlash is most often driven by national, conservative actors, pushing for norms and customs which see women return to their subordinate positions. This is particularly the case in heavily patriarchal societies where women’s status and roles are tied to essentialist understandings of women as primarily mothers, wives, and caretakers. COVID-19 has further reinforced these perceptions of women as the primary care takers. In such contexts, it is possible that there will be a clash between traditional, conservative customs and international norms about human rights, including women’s rights (Naraghi-Anderlini 2008, p. 106). Yet, international actors may also participate in reinstating and/or reinforcing the return to gender hierarchies through peacebuilding initiatives which are driven by international development communities which are largely composed by men, whose own notion of patriarchy as ‘normal’ may still be intact (Gordon et al. 2015, p.3; Handrahan 2004, p.435). Interactions, and peacebuilding initiatives between the international development community and local elites – two groups, which often are heavily dominated by men – may therefore mean that the post-conflict environment, just as the conflict, remains centred around male power systems, struggles and identity formation (Cockburn & Zarkov 2002). In, other words, it is a period where ‘fraternities’ – both national and international – compete over power (Handrahan 2004, p.433).
As we witness war on the European continent today, brought on by a Russian president who has joked about rape, boasted about the quality of the country’s prostitutes and pushed through a law that has decriminalized domestic violence in 2017 (Ferris-Rotman 2018), we are again reminded about how gender (in) equality remains central to understanding war and how the best predictor of a state’s stability and security is the level of violence against women in society (Womanstats 2022). We should keep this in mind when it is time to build peace again, in the post-war period and create more equal, inclusive and stable societies.
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UN Women, “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: Where are we now?”, Gender Alert n°1, December 2021.
WomanStats (2022) Available at: https://www.womanstats.org/
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