War, feminism and women’s liberation: Misuse of women’s rights to legitimize military intervention

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War, feminism and women’s liberation: Misuse of women’s rights to legitimize military intervention

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“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Laura Bush, 17. 11. 2001

In 2001, as the Bush administration was preparing ground for an invasion of Afghanistan, it stumbled upon oppressed Afghan women and the terror they were facing under the Taliban regime. Recognizing an excellent way to sell their war, those women became a centre of their war on terror agenda and the key factor in legitimizing an intervention. The US now had a mission for its bombers: to save those powerless and terrorized Muslim women by delivering them the Western idea of empowerment and feminism. That is, with invasion, bombs and occupation.

Far from being feminist or particularly concerned with women’s rights, the US administration skilfully used the feminist language to sell their war agenda and achieved astonishing consensus for an invasion of a sovereign country that would later prove to have disastrous consequences for the region. Mainstream feminists praised Bush for his efforts to restore the rights of women in Afghanistan and the liberal group Feminist Majority circulated a petition thanking the Bush administration[1]. Suddenly awoken to the suffering of the Afghan women, mainstream media enthusiastically disseminated the whole charade among the public, all the while choosing not to dwell on the fact that the Taliban rose to power with funding, training and encouragement from the US[2]. President Ronald Reagan was especially fond of the Taliban, or “gentlemen” as he put it, who were “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”[3]

Since the use of women for its imperialistic agenda proved to be so successful, the US administration resorted to the similar rhetoric in order to legitimize its invasion of Iraq. Pro-war partisans used the images of suffering Iraqi women and girls, terrorized under the regime of the demon that was Saddam Hussein[4]. Conveniently forgotten was the daily bombing by the Allied forces throughout the 90s and the UN’s economic sanctions, which resulted in the deaths of more than half a million Iraqi children between 1991 and 2000.[5]

And how did this ‘women’s liberation’ work out for Afghan and Iraqi women? Those who survived the bombing and warfare, have to deal with aftermath realities. Iraqi women are being killed for simply being women.[6] Before the US/UK led invasion, they enjoyed a number of rights; those were replaced as religious leadership took over the reins of the country[7], putting women’s position back into the 1930s. Today, Iraq is in a state of lawless hyper-patriarchy.[8]

Women in Afghanistan suffered the similar fate. The rate of illiteracy and mental disease among women is extremely high[9]; rape, abduction and sexual abuse is a bitter part of their lives. Due to poverty and unemployment, many women are forced to beg, prostitute themselves or even sell their children. The U.S. bombing campaign has brought “Northern Alliance rapists and looters back to power”, clearly demonstrating that women’s liberation was never on the agenda in Afghanistan.[10] They Afghan women were told to breathe easier though, as the version of Sharia law practiced will be milder.[11]

From the beginning, this was about the US’ and NATO’s strategic and economic benefits[12] in the region. Imperialism is not concerned with women’s rights just as military invasion cannot bring about peace and liberation. The realities of war are in stark contradiction to the fundamental values of feminism.”[13] War is one of the principal male patriarchal values and ideals[14] and the glory and necessity of war is often linked to masculinity. It affect the lives of women in various ways. The weapons of modern war are as likely to kill and maim women and girls as males[15]. Today, civilians present 90 percent of the war casualties, an increasing number of whom are women and children[16]. Violence against women becomes endemic during armed conflict and rape is a widespread method of warfare. Women are forced to flee with their families, facing thereafter numerous dangers as refugees. Both child marriage and trafficking increase, as well as intimate partner violence[17].

War is not gender neutral – women are affected disproportionately in gendered ways, a fact often ignored and underrepresented by the pro-war agents, who do not shy away from using sexist, orientalist portrayals and militarized ideals. Uncivilized, barbaric Muslim males and their oppressed, veiled Muslim female victims – one needs to be defeated, so the other can be saved by a heroic white male. Such depictions are shamelessly produced for the Western war-mongering machine, in order to justify humanitarian interventions – that is, invasions.

Women liberation is nowhere on the to-do list of the imperialist superpowers. And how could it be? Subjugated woman is good for the capitalist system; a free one, not so much. With equality, the system of the capitalist exploitation would crumble, as it would with peace; that is why the war-drums are continually drumming in the West.

The liberation cannot come from the outside; it cannot be delivered by the means of war, invasion and occupation. The Western world is so engulfed by its power that it fails to understand different realities that societies (and women) from the other parts of the world face. The West has assumed the role of the leader and human rights champion without any regard to the other actors within the international community, a bitter result from the practices of colonialism and imperialism. Western culture, values and norms are considered superior and are in fact the foundation of today’s international system that serves the same elite which has colonised, enslaved and oppressed other nations. This system is enforced on the other civilizations by foreign aid and invasions disguised as humanitarian interventions.

Capitalism and imperialism have incorporated feminism into their rhetoric in order to pursue their malicious, war-mongering agenda. Hundreds of thousands of casualties, destroyed societies and failed states attest, there can be no liberation from the outside. Firstly, because that is not an actual concern of military intervention. And secondly, because liberation can only start within the society itself. For these reasons, feminism needs to separate itself completely from the practices that have their roots in imperialism and colonialism, as “the relation between imperialism and gender is not just a matter of macho talk and fashion, it is about who dies, about economic sexism and sexual exploitation.”[18]


[1] Schulte, Elizabeth. 2001. Media ignores the brutal record of the Northern Alliance: Is the U.S. fighting for women’s liberation? Socialistworker.org. Available at: http://socialistworkAer.org/2001/386/386_08_WomensLiberation.shtml.

[2] Martin, Trayvon. 2005. Afghanistan, Iraq and women’s rights. Workers World. Available at: http://www.workers.org/2005/editorials/women-0331/.

[3] Akyol, Naz. 2014. Liberation Through War: The Paradox Facing Middle Eastern Women. Brown Political Review. Available at: http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2014/12/liberation-through-war-the-paradox-facing-middle-eastern-women/.

[4] Jabbra, Nancy W. 2006. Women, Words and War: Explaining 9/11 and Justifying U.S. Military Action in Afghanistan and Iraq, p: 249. Journal of International Women’s Studies 8 (1): 236 – 255.

[5] Pilger, John. 2000. Squeezed to death. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/mar/04/weekend7.weekend9.

[6] Wajid, Sara. 2009. The battle against brutality. The Guardian. Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/28/iraq-women-rights-us-news.

[7] Van der Gaag, Nikki. 2017. Feminism: Why the world still needs the F-world, p. 63. Oxford: New Internationalist.

[8] Wajid, Sara. 2009. ibid.

[9] Freedom Socialist: Voice of Revolutionary Feminism. 2009. U.S. Occupation In Afghanistan Sabotages Women’s Rights. Available at: https://www.socialism.com/drupal-6.8/articles/us-occupation-afghanistan-sabotages-womens-rights.

[10] Smith, Sharon. 2002. Using women’s rights to sell Washington’s war. International Socialist Review (21). Available at: http://isreview.org/issues/21/afghan_women.shtml.

[11] Kolhatkar, Sonali. 2013. The Impact of U.S. Intervention on Afghan Women’s Rights, p. 23. Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 17 (1): 12 – 30. Available at: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1176&context=bglj.

[12] Freedom Socialist: Voice of Revolutionary Feminism. (ibid.)

[13] Mehr, Nathaniel. 2009. Feminism and war: confronting US imperialism. Red Pepper. Available at: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/feminism-and-war-confronting-us/.

[14] Bertlatsky, Noah. 2013. The Feminist Objection to Women in Combat. The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/the-feminist-objection-to-women-in-combat/272505/.

[15] Chew, Huibin Amee. 2007. Women and War: Reclaiming a Feminist Perspective. Left turn. Available at: http://www.incite-national.org/sites/default/files/incite_files/resource_docs/3429_women-war.pdf.

[16] Van der Gaag, Nikki. 2017. (ibid. p. 57).

[17] (ibid. p. 57)

[18] Chew, Hubin Amee. 2007. (ibid.)

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