Dana Goldstein’s article about the few feminist groups that came out in support of a long-term occupation in Afghanistan sure has tongues wagging, as is inevitable every time a perceived gap between liberal and feminist interests opens up. Eleanor Smeal and a few other feminists object to President Obama’s plan to leave Afghanistan in 18 months because they correctly believe that leaving will cause reactionary forces to swoop in and eagerly oppress women to the fullest extent possible. But the few feminists Dana covers hardly represent majority feminist opinion on this front. Many of us believe that we should leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later, even as we sympathize with Smeal’s concerns.
How can I, as a good feminist, believe that we should just get out of Afghanistan, knowing full well what will happen to women when we do? It’s a good question. On one level, the answer is actually quite simple: I don’t buy the idea that you can shove good values such as feminism down people’s throats with violence. And that even if you could, it’s irrelevant in this case. As Dana notes, the human rights arguments about Afghanistan have never been put forth in good faith but have always functioned as a rationale for the war. Because of this, I fail to believe that we’re doing anything but putting off the inevitable by occupying Afghanistan. And by putting off the fall, we are also putting off the potential for legitimate feminist forces within Afghanistan to start working to improve things the only way possible, from the inside.
There’s a deep arrogance to the long-standing argument that Westerners can simply visit the lessons we learned the hard way on other countries at the end of a gun. Our society didn’t move in the direction of equality because outsiders forced it upon us. As painful as it is to admit it, women don’t gain power through violent coercion. They have to build it, step by step. That’s why interventions that give women control and power over their own lives, such as microlending, work so much better than trying to create a feminist society by fiat.
To say that war is against everything that feminists stand for is not to make a mere theoretical argument, either. It’s pragmatic. Invading and occupying a country causes many of the men of that country to feel disempowered and emasculated. And men in that situation lash out at women, making themselves feel powerful again by dominating women. It operates by the same principle as schoolyard bullying, but on a global scale. If we truly care about women’s equality, the last thing we need to be doing is creating incentives for men to oppress women to build themselves up.