Afghanistan: There Is More Than Making A Difference, First Do No Harm


The U.S. asserts that they entered a war with Afghanistan because of the atrocious state of women’s rights in the country. The intervention is declared necessary to save these women and promote their rights. After 16 years of war, the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan is no nearer being improved upon what it was during the Taliban era and some would say it has even gone backwards. The concentration has been on improving civil and political rights, for example, the right to freedom of thought, consciousness, and religion, or the freedom of association, which the west tends to favour over social and economic rights such as the right to health, housing, and work. There are many problems with this. Firstly, less economically developed countries generally favour the social and economic rights as they include access to basic needs which are required to simply survive, whereas the more developed states largely prefer the civil and political rights as they have generally already succeeded in achieving the social rights. Western states have pushed their freedoms onto other societies without realizing or acknowledging that other societies may have different priorities of rights. Robin Riley writes that one Afghan woman explained she would rather wear two burqas and have proper rule of law provided by her government. Essentially, she would rather give up one freedom to receive another as she prioritizes different rights over others.

Secondly, the people who the West are ‘saving’ are not spoken to or asked about what they require. This results in a sort of domination of one culture/society’s values onto another. Afghan women, for example, are dehumanised by the Western media. They are identified by the damage that has been done to them, the woman with no nose, or their relation to terrorists, Osama bin Laden’s wife. The burqa is used as means to depict Muslim women as mute and helpless, but also as intimidating. Westerners have been sold the story of needing to rectify the situation in these countries for a woman because the conditions are appalling, hence the justification for war. This depicts these women as weak, in need of rescuing, and having no agency at all. However, at the same time, the media shows them as evil, mysterious, dangerous. This is helped by the burqa which has been used by the west to further dehumanize Muslim women. It gives them a convenient excuse to ignore them in the media as they become faceless and therefore easier to objectify and use as a justification for war. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) are a perfect example that Afghan women do fight for their own rights, who do not need to be saved but rather helped in their plight. RAWA are a women’s organization that promotes women’s rights and secular democracy. They support non-violent strategies to involve Afghan women in social and political activities that promote human rights for women and a struggle against the fundamentalist Afghan government. They raise funds for hospitals, orphanages, and schools in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and hold protests annually in Pakistan. They are a prime example of a grassroots movement that is successful yet still ignored by the mainstream because they do not fit the status quo. Instead the U.S. ‘helps’ Afghan women by militaristic means to eradicate fundamentalist men who oppress them so that they can throw off their burqa and wear what they please, instead of helping to establish basic needs and infrastructure in a non-violent way.

Thirdly the US has used a military intervention to ‘save’ people, which has only resulted in the further destruction of the country’s infrastructure and civil society. Women have borne the brunt of the war. The United Nations Human Development Index issued a report in 2004, 3 years after the US intervention, rating Afghanistan 173 of 178 countries and issuing a warning that Afghanistan could revert to anarchy if its dismal poverty, poor health, and insecurity were not improved. Even though the report was paid for by the UN, World Bank, and Canada, a NATO member involved in the conflict, who benefits from Afghanistan looking better off as a result of the intervention, still admits that 3.6 million Afghans remain refugees or displaced persons. Alistair McKechnie, country director of the World Bank, notes the blatant inequalities that affect women and children are some of the worst in the world. The report acknowledges that the average life expectancy is 44.5 years lower than its neighbours, that the country has the worst educational systems in the world, and that one woman dies every 30 minutes from pregnancy-related issues. Looking at the 2016 United Nations Human Development Index report, Afghanistan has been rated 169 out of 188 countries trailed only by a few Sub-Saharan African states. Afghanistan is recorded to have had 12,250 battle-related deaths in 2014, second only to Syria. In 2000 Afghanistan ranked 21st in highest infant mortality rates at 95 deaths per 1000 live births, but by 2015 it had moved up to 12th with 66 deaths per 1000 live births. While the amount of deaths per live births has decreased, this has occurred across the globe, with the average dropping from 53.1 deaths per 1000 live births in 2000 to 31.7 in 2015. Afghanistan has increased its relative ranking making it one of the worst ranking countries in infant mortality. Riley argues that this is what 10 years of western imperialism has brought to the country.

The populations of western countries need to understand their own implication in the suffering of distant others. Instead of feeling sorry and donating money to a cause, or sharing a Facebook post, westerners need to address their own government’s foreign policy in conflicts like the Afghanistan war. It is important to recognize the agency of the people living in countries like Afghanistan, but also to hear what they are saying in order to understand what they value and need in their own societies rather than telling them what they need. Providing support to groups like RAWA so that they are better able to pursue their own goals is a valuable step forward to promoting the rights of Afghan women, rather than entering a war with their country for 16 years. As Teju Cole writes, “there is more to doing good work than making a difference, first there is the principle of doing no harm.”