Code Pink's misfire on Afghan women by Wazhma Frogh and Lauryn Oate

Friday, December 11, 2009

In October, the women's antiwar organization, Code Pink, went to Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the pink T-shirted women were surprised to learn the overwhelming majority of women do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops from their country. Expecting their counterparts -- Afghan activists fighting for peace and gender equality -- to support their demands, they were confronted with the problem that perhaps their position has been counterproductive to the Afghan women's movement, or even wrong.

We hope this means Code Pink will rethink what we see as a damaging position out of sync with the peace building and development priorities voiced by ordinary Afghans. But why did it take Code Pink so long to ask Afghan women what they think?

Code Pink has been around since 2002. The thrust of their agenda has been to see the departure of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. This policy has profound implications for those two countries.

Afghanistan is where the prospects of a Taliban government loom gloomily over a fledgling civil society movement, a population struggling for basic human rights, hoping to be lifted out of poverty. Afghans will ultimately contend with the fallout of abandonment by the international community. Their everyday lives are shaped by decisions made in boardrooms in Washington, Brussels and Ottawa, and by public pressure in those nations. For Afghans, these policies truly are matters of life and death.

It seems logical that a foundational step for Code Pink would be to consult the people who live in those countries, to find out what their actions might mean for those most affected by the position they espouse. Code Pink's modus operandi is symptomatic of a western feminism that is not rooted in values of global solidarity, but is self-interested, insular and shamefully relativist. It is based on tribalism and rejects internationalist values. In this feminism, emancipation is only for western women -- not for women in places like Afghanistan.

On Oct. 12, the New York Times reported that Code Pink would stick to its position of calling for troop withdrawal. Even when the shrillest "antiwar" pseudo-feminists are caught in a direct confrontation with facts exposing the moral bankruptcy of their demands, they recoil from the duty of solidarity with Afghan women in struggle.

If western feminists who have staked out a "troops out" position remembered to ask Afghan women their views, they would find that rather than bristling at "masculine militarization," "cultural imperialism," or any other in-vogue sin found on the placards waved at rallies, many Afghan women are haunted by the memory of the Taliban's public stoning to death of women. They recall what life was like when you couldn't leave your home alone, when you could not speak aloud in the streets because your voice was deemed inhuman, subservient, inherently impure. It was not the West's interference that led to their collective misery, but the lack of it.

Afghan women might also tell you about the intensely empowering experience of watching 1,500 women gathered in Kabul's Loya Jirga tent in the historic "5 Million Women Campaign" where they mobilized to go out and vote. They might tell you about the exhilaration of watching women take their seats in parliament in 2005. They might tell you about the courage of the hundreds of women who protested the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law that a fundamentalist mullah sought to push through parliament.

Every day, Afghans give us signs of their desire for change and send us reminders that they are entitled to the same rights we enjoy in our privileged and free societies. You can see it in the activists who lobbied for the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in Afghanistan. You can find it in the schools opening on every corner of

Kabul, and in the journalists courageously calling election fraud and trying to build a free press. You can find it in the more than 100 democratic political parties registered since 2002. You can find it in the reemergence of artists, writers and musicians, whose work the Taliban had banned.

We need to read those signs, and respond to them with the empathy and commitment that we would to those resisting injustices in our own societies. We need to throw our weight behind the need to protect the breathing space Afghans need to lay the foundation for a future where the fascist, misogynist ideology of the Taliban is obliterated. When we pay heed to the progressive voices in Afghanistan, they will drown out the mantras of the Taliban.

Canadian women have an opportunity to stand behind their Afghan counterparts and play a part in a movement that could be the beginning of a lasting transformation. This requires ensuring that what we do at home links into the goals of fellow activists outside our borders. Organizations like Code Pink that profess to be feminist can magnify their impact, their global mindedness and their relevance if their actions mesh with the design Afghan women have for a future where the Taliban would never find a foothold. For now, foreign intervention needs to be part of the picture. Western peace groups and women's organizations can play a role in structuring how that intervention plays out, criticizing it, contributing ideas, and calling for its maximum effectiveness for peace. But they need to acknowledge that Afghan women think Canadians and Americans should be there -- that we may owe them this much, and that it's time we listen as a habit, not exception. Then the real dialogue can start.

Wazhma Frogh is an Afghan human rights activist, gender and development specialist and recipient of the 2009 Internationaal Woman of Courage Award, as well as a Chevening Scholar in International Development Law and Human Rights at Warwick University. Lauryn Oates is a human-rights activist, gender and education specialist and board member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. She has advocated for Afghan women's rights since 1996, often through Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.