Elaheh Rostami-Povey, 'Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion'

IssueOctober 2008
Review by Nadje al-Ali

Afghan Women: Identity & Invasion is an important book that challenges prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions widespread even amongst many progressive peace and anti-war activists.

The academic and activist Elaheh Rostami-Povey shows how Afghani women, far from being just passive victims, have been historically struggling to improve their rights and every-day living conditions, even under the rule of the Taliban.

The focus of the book, however, is on the impact of the recent US-led invasion. Rather than having liberated Afghani women, the policies linked to the invasion and so-called reconstruction have failed to address the most pressing issues, such as widespread poverty, lack of adequate health care, education and widespread unemployment. Instead the concern with the burqa – or rather chaddari as it is called in Afghanistan – has more to do with a western obsession than the actual needs and worries of the majority of Afghani women.

Based on research carried out amongst Afghani women and men in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, the UK and the US, the author shares the views of people struggling inside the country but also within the Afghani diaspora.

Many of the issues and themes raised, such as the disillusionment with reconstruction efforts and western political agendas, the lack of security, increasing gender-based and ethnic violence and the failure by the US-led invasion but also international organizations to take local and historical traditions and aspirations into consideration, all sound so familiar as there are many parallels with the Iraqi post-invasion situation. The tragedy is that there seem to have been no lessons learned from the Afghani case.

Peace and women’s rights activists will benefit from reading this accessible resource. My only reservation about it is its generalised depiction of western feminism as implicated in the imperialist project.

Without doubt there is a big strand in western feminism that has been part of the problem in advocating the liberation of the “poor oppressed Muslim women”, whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq, but many feminist organizations, e.g. Women in Black and WILPF, and feminist activists and academics, such as Cynthia Cockburn, Cynthia Enloe and Nira Yuval-Davis, are part of a growing postcolonial transnational feminism that is not only asking for women’s rights but also makes the links with struggles against imperialism, neo-liberalism and globalization.

Topics: Afghanistan
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