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Stories and Statecraft: Afghan Women’s Narratives and the Construction of Western Freedoms

by Sujatha Fernandes on March 8, 2017
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Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.

CIA Red Cell Special Memorandum, March 11, 20101

In March 2010, with the Dutch government pulling troops out of the US-led war in Afghanistan, the CIA released a confidential memo calling for targeted manipulation of public opinion using stories by Afghan women. The subheading of the memo, “Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough,” refers to the indifference among the public in Germany and France that allowed these countries to send more troops, a strategy that might not be sustainable if there were more Afghan civilian casualties or public debates. The memo calls for the circulation of stories by Afghan women to humanise the military intervention and build support among Western European women for the war effort.

The CIA memo points to the uses of storytelling in statecraft, with geopolitical strategy and intervention not just pursued through military aggression and economic pressure but justified by emotional accounts of oppressed Afghan women victimised by the Taliban. In May of the previous year, a former staff member from the US embassy in Kabul had set up the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), a series of online creative writing workshops conducted by US-based mentors with Afghan women in English. The stories composed in the workshops are edited and published on the AWWP website and, judging by the comments sections, are read mostly by women in the United States and other Western countries. The project was partly funded by the US State Department, which is not surprising given its resonances with the memo. The support for these initiatives reflects an embrace of strategies of “soft power” within US foreign policy as articulated by the political strategist Joseph Nye: “In today’s information age, success is the result not merely of whose army wins but also of whose story wins.” The rhetorical guise of women’s emancipation in soft power strategies is not new. During colonial wars such as the Algerian War in the 1950s, the French sought to use mobile sociomedical teams of military women to make contact with Algerian women and promote a message of women’s emancipation to be achieved through French victory over the guerrilla forces. This was replicated in such projects as the “Human Terrain System,” which sent anthropologists to Afghanistan and Iraq to gather cultural data with the goal of using empathy as a weapon.

The entanglements between the US State Department and a women’s creative writing project in Afghanistan are part of a history of alignments between imperialist interventions and the language of feminism that scholars have referred to as colonial feminism. Leila Ahmed defines colonial feminism as the use of feminist ideas and the notion of men oppressing women in the rhetoric of colonialism to “render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples.” Drawing on Edward Said’s account of Orientalism as the ways in which European culture produced notions of its others as backward and traditional, feminist scholars argue for an analysis of gendered Orientalism, marking an awareness of the complicity between “Orientalism’s imperialist operations” and certain representations by Western feminists of the Orient and its women. Combined with other key writings such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes,” which she updated in 2003, these interventions powerfully challenged depictions of non-Western women as tradition-bound and victimized as compared to their educated, modern, and free-willed Western counterparts.

From the 1990s onward, partly as a result of the impact of feminist writings on Orientalism, monological discourses on the “oppression” of non-Western women gave way to new tropes of agency and empowerment. As Meyda Yeğenoğlu argues, “what the Western audience desires to hear is the native’s own voice, the true and authentic story of the situation of women in Muslim societies, as opposed to the negative Orientalist stereotypes.” This desire can help account for the emergence of pulp nonfiction genres of autobiographical writing by Muslim women who escape their situations of abuse and the popularity of TED talks featuring Afghan women who have overcome oppression through education. It can also explain the resonance of projects, such as AWWP, that seek to give voice to Afghan women to tell their own stories directly to Western audiences. But despite the new emphasis on Afghan women speaking for themselves and becoming self-determining agents, a “positional superiority” continues to inform these projects.

Positional superiority refers to the idea of the West as a site of progressive gender equality, even though, as Amy Farrell and Patrice McDermott argue, since the late 1970s the women’s movement in the United States had been facing a backlash from conservative forces around entrenched gender-based issues of workplace discrimination, poverty, and violence. Farrell and McDermott describe how, after the events of September 11, 2001, and the onset of the US-led war on terror, liberal feminist groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation were able to gain renewed relevance, resources, and legitimacy by focusing on Afghan women oppressed by the Taliban, a focus that deflected attention from domestic issues like the abuses of women in prison and the military in the United States. While acknowledging the good intentions of these feminist organizations, I argue, following Laura Nader, that positional superiority functions as a means to assert authority over Afghan women but is also a way of diverting the attention of women in the West from the inequalities they continue to face at home.

In an article that has just been published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, I argue that the AWWP can give us an entry point for understanding the new forms of colonial feminism that are being deployed in the contemporary geopolitical context of war and military intervention. The directors and mentors of the AWWP are genuinely motivated by a desire to share the stories of Afghan women widely and to make visible the abuses they suffer, but their framing of the project encourages responses and outcomes that often reproduce structural conditions of subjection rather than challenging them. I draw on frameworks of feminist criticism and critical theory to interrogate the forms of dominance inherent in claims of giving voice and empowerment to oppressed Afghan women. I ask how stories can act as a form of soft power, and how appeals to global sisterhood and sameness can at times make liberal feminist gestures complicit with imperialism. What does it mean for Afghan women to tell their own stories? How does storytelling become implicated in the formation of new kinds of subjectivity that accord with Western liberal modes of domination? What do these stories by Afghan women tell us about the anxieties and desires of Western women? What can they tell us about the anxieties and desires of Afghan women themselves? How, at the same time, might these stories make available the possibility for alternative perspectives? Rather than seeing the narratives that circulate within humanitarian and digital media circuits as telling the truth about subaltern lives, I instead explore how they help to construct modes of Western liberal subjectivity, feed into Orientalist myths about Western freedom, and, conversely, may contain strategically placed critiques of imperialist projects.

Sujatha Fernandes

Sujatha Fernandes is Professor of Political Economy and Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

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