I would like to talk about what's going in Afghanistan. Because, even though we have more 'local' stories to worry about, like covid and extreme weather, Afghanistan exposes a portrait of the world we are living in.
And it is, in a very profound way, personal.
American did not send troops into Afghanistan twenty years ago because of women -- though they perhaps should have. American troops are also not leaving despite what is about to start happening to women. The Taliban were not invented in 2001 like some pundits like to claim. They were around for years, torturing and tormenting women in the name of their religion. Many of us spent the late 1990s sharing information about what was happening to women under the Taliban -- forced seclusion, body cover, and surveillance, and public torture and executions for women deemed disobedient or disloyal or daring to walk down the streets alone. Terrifying things. Modern, educated women were forced to wear full body cover and give up their jobs and their freedom.
This was happening way before the US came in. The Taliban upended a modern country and sent it back to the Middle Ages almost overnight, in the name of their religion.
For many years, the world did nothing about all this. It was barely even a story. The American army was sent to stop the Taliban only after 9/11. The purpose was not to protect women, but to protect American freedom and democracy. Still, occasionally images of women were used to justify America's presence. Like, 'You wanna know how bad Taliban is? Look at what they do to women!' I mean, it's a ruse. America didn't REALLY care enough about the women to enter a war for them. But in that whole macho-heroic posturing thing, the images of tormented women that we were going in to save was very useful.
But let's face it, America did not know what it was up against. Afghanistan was another war in which western-American military might was sent in to deal with middle eastern religious radicals, with no idea about what that entailed. In military terms, we weren't entirely losing, but we weren't exactly winning either. Lots of US troops sacrificed their lives for this cause, even when they weren't sure what for. Think of it this way: A 20-year-old soldier being evacuated in 2021 was born the same year as 9/11. Won't even remember it. Certainly won't remember a time when the US did not have troops fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
I feel bad for the families of those who lost loved ones in this war. It seems so confusing, and like such a waste. These kids are there fighting a losing war that most people don't even understand.
I think overall Biden did the right thing by pulling all these troops out of this endless war against the Taliban. Because this is a fight that America and the west can't win. At its core, it is not a military war but a cultural war. It is the taliban taking over the CULTURE, using force. And by taking over the CULTURE, I mean first and foremost controlling WOMEN.
We have so many examples of this in both history and contemporary life. Wars of all kind started by men who seek power for their culture by enforcing control over women's lives. I always think about Ancient Persia, and the text in the Book of Esther, in which King Ahasverus went power-wielding over the 127 nations in his empire, all in order to prove that men have control over women -- unlike his lack of control over his wife, Vashti. He eventually went to war against the Israelites in order for 'every man to be ruler of his household' (chapter 1; 22). It's the idea that a nation's power is derived from the degree to which men control their women.
It is what the Republican party does today, and has been since the 1980s at least. Establishing power and presence on the backs of women. 'Family values' does not mean, say, giving your kids vaccines to be safe or making everyone take their vaccines for the health and wellbeing of themselves and the world. No. 'Family values' means getting and keeping women and girls covered, quiet, servile, obedient, pregnant, submissive, dependent, loyal, and at home.
There are a zillion examples of this. Of the idea that a man's power comes from the degree to which he has obedient and controlled women around him. This notion that a (male-led) nation or culture retains power by keeping its women covered and obedient is old and sticky. It is everywhere.
In Judaism, too. Obviously. And in Israel, where old notions of women's place are everywhere. Where only last month the new female Coalition Chair was called a 'little girl' by the guy who used to have her job and is now in the opposition. He told her to 'be a good girl' and basically shut up. And in so many corners of society, women are told to cover our bodies. In health clinics. On the bus. At entrances to the mall. Even recently, a woman was not let into a BAR because the security guard decided that she would be too 'distracting' in her outfit and cause men to sexually assault her. That happened last month in Tel Aviv.
I mean, sure, Israel is not Afghanistan. Not by a long shot. I recognize that. Some people will tell me that I should not even put these two countries in the same sentence. Women in Israel work, study, travel freely, speak and work as we want, for the most part. Israel is a democracy and we are free. There is, at least officially, basic freedom for women.
But I'm saying that these notions about men needing to control women are not gone and not erased and not a thing of the past -- not in Israel, not in America, and not in probably most countries on the planet. And in fact these ideas are still with us, in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
So I'm looking at what's going on in Afghanistan, how America was basically unable to stop the Taliban. Not for lack of trying. Twenty years of trying. Until they basically said, this isn't working and we've had enough. I get that. I don't fault that decision. I'm just saying, this is what women are up against. Even with the backing of the US army, women couldn't win.
And I worry about women in the rest of the world. We are up against a LOT. The US had an admitted sexual-abuser of women for president, and after four disastrous years, he still maintains an unexplainable cultural hold. Despite everything it means for women -- and everyone else. The protection of women's basic freedom is not top priority for what seems like half of the western world. Or at least half of America. Women's lives are still not worthy of fighting for the same way, say, fighting for revenge over the 2000 or so deaths in 9/11 were. We're still not really a priority. It's just a little scary, that's all.
As a woman, I'm saying, the world is a scary place. And I'm not talking about the fear of getting raped in an abandoned alley. I'm talking about the fear that patriarchal concepts of the need to control women are so deeply embedded that they are just unstoppable. That is my fear.
And in the meantime, I pray that there is an American plan to actually rescue the Afghani women activists whose lives are currently at great peril. At this very second, I'm terrified for the lives of those women.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at email@example.com