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A Woman among War Mongerers: Reflections on Tuesday’s Panel

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By Ellora Derenoncourt, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, 2009/10/29

On Tuesday, October 27 at the CUNY Graduate Center, the Center for Place, Culture and Politics hosted a panel discussion called “Women among Warlords: Rebuilding Afghanistan.” The event featured Afghan women activists Nasrine Gross of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies, and Education; Awista Ayub of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange; and special guest Malalai Joya, a feminist, anti-occupation Afghan MP currently on speaking tour in the US.

I think it’s safe to say that Tuesday’s event brought together a greater diversity in perspectives than anticipated, even by panel moderator Laura Flanders of Grit TV. Namely, I don’t think any of us expected one of the panelists to outright deny that Afghanistan was under any sort of occupation, or to say, “I don’t know what the term warlord means.”* That was Nasrine Gross, who opened her part of the discussion with a zealous defense of the US role in Afghanistan, claiming that “the military might of the US will save Afghanistan” and “withdrawal will lead to a Taliban takeover in two weeks.” Not surprisingly, Gross campaigned for Karzai’s presidential adversary, Abdullah Abdullah, a man whom Malalai Joya has identified several times as a warlord and war criminal. Minutes after Gross spoke, Joya would do it again, without batting an eye. Subsequent discussion was so heated, Laura Flanders felt compelled to wrap the panel up with “What do you love most about Afghanistan?” in an effort to diffuse tension. Despite Gross’s efforts to paint the whole discussion as unacademic or as having “too much polemics” (of which, arguably, she was the main supplier), I thought the event was invaluable for the feminist anti-war front. We were lucky to watch and learn from Joya as she confronted our biggest ideological adversaries: women who claim to be women’s rights activists and authentic Afghan subjects while supporting war and occupation in their own country.

Awista Ayub, the supposedly more moderate voice, also came forth in support of continued occupation claiming it was the more “realistic” solution. Indeed, if Ayub was supposed to be middle of the road, then it was a road with two right lanes and Joya pushed unceremoniously onto the shoulder. Ayub was clearly Gross’s protégé, admitting more than once how Gross had profoundly influenced her views on development. Actually, I was surprised to find myself suspecting I knew more about Afghanistan’s political situation than Ayub whose comments endlessly reverted back to her youth work. These constant references to soccer teams would have been tolerable had they not inspired Ayub to make a rather horrifying youth/parenting analogy: the US is like a parent teaching their child Afghanistan how to drive the car of democracy—you just can’t take the back seat right away! More shocking than the statement itself was Ayub’s utter obliviousness to the (literal!) paternalism. At least Gross seemed more capable of self-consciously owning the civilizing project: The US, Gross said, had to help Afghans “understand modernity.” (No joke.)

For women with vested interests like Ayub and Gross, whether they be pro-war “feminist” humanitarians (a number of whom were also present in the audience) or Afghan elites with ties to the Northern Alliance, Joya is a tough pill to swallow. She refuses to be categorized as the product of a post-invasion women’s liberation in Afghanistan, nor will she be silenced in her condemnation of warlords and Taliban alike. She brings a clear message to allies in the US: Eight years of war and $36 billion have failed to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Instead, the situation in Afghanistan has become catastrophic (“Every day is 9/11 for us”). With the US and NATO troops gone, Afghans will at least face one fewer enemy. Pressure your government to end the occupation, as it is entrenching disaster in the country, and give support–moral, political, financial, and educational–to the democratic alternatives on the ground.

Still, after this very clear message, supporters ask Joya over and over what they can do to help, who they can trust, who they should support. What is keeping us from taking the clue?

I am beginning to wonder if it is a lack of political coherence on the left. Engaging in concrete solidarity should not feel like a leap of faith but as steps taken on a path paved by our political convictions. But what are those convictions? Joya said on Tuesday that the one thing people in Afghanistan have gained from thirty years of conflict, war, and loss is political knowledge and awareness. Needless to say, I think we in the US left and the anti-war front stand to learn a few things from the Afghan resistance.

* Quotes may not be 100% accurate, but I tried to be as exact as possible using notes and memory.