Monday, August 9

Critics of TIME cover picture of Aisha get it wrong, but so did TIME editors. And a few words about RAWA, CIA, FireDogLake, and Malalai Joya

I'll preface this post with a note to the France24 news organization, Siun at FireDogLake, and Brad Adams and all the other thousands of Western human rights activists who've leaped blindly into the maelstrom of Afghan politics before they've looked. Watch carefully, don't blink:

From France24's interview with Malalai Joya:
“The US used the plight of Afghan women as an excuse to occupy Afghanistan in 2001 by filling television screens, Internet pages and newspapers with pictures of women being shot down or beaten up in public. Once again, it is moulding [sic] the oppression on women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women,” Joya added.
From RAWA's article, Afghan feminists fighting from under the burqa:
During Taliban rule, RAWA ran secret girls' schools and filmed the state killings of women using cameras hidden under their burqas, creating footage that helped to fuel international outrage against the regime.
All right; to begin:

The uproar TIME set off by featuring a maimed teenage Afghan girl named Aisha on their cover obscured what should have been the key point of her story: She was rescued and given refuge by a women's shelter in Afghanistan, and all that's keeping such shelters open in the country is international pressure. That's because Hamid Karzai is pandering to fundamentalists in the attempt to make his regime more appealing to Afghan Taliban. If TIME had blazoned that news on their cover instead of using language that made Aisha a poster child for continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan much controversy might have been avoided.(1)

That said, international pressure is a very uncertain line of defense against the Taliban demon who maimed Aisha and left her for dead -- an occurrence that happened while ISAF forces were in the country, as more than one critic of the TIME cover stressed. (Aisha is getting a new nose, by the way.)

Propagandists for Rawalpindi have pointed that Aisha's husband, who hacked off her ears and nose, is a Pashtun, and that the nose cutting is the punishment in Pashtun society for a wife who disgraces her husband. Aisha's husband is a Taliban fighter. And unless the propagandists are prepared to argue that every Pashtun wife who 'shames' her husband has had her nose cut off, they need to stop talking trash and admit that Aisha's maiming is distant thunder to what's going to happen to Afghanistan's women if the Taliban take over in Afghanistan.

However, an element of the American Left is so greatly against continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that no matter how TIME had positioned Aisha's story it would have been harshly criticized by the faction.

And unless TIME had placed the caption 'This is why the U.S. must quit Afghanistan immediately' above Aisha's picture neither RAWA, which stands for Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, nor Malalai Joya, would have been mollified.

RAWA is also more incensed than usual with the CIA:
A less publicised leak by the [WikiLeaks] website in March 2010 exposed a confidential CIA document urging the use of abused Afghan women to shore up support for the war.

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanising the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears for a Taliban victory," read the memo.
I'm incensed too. It took the CIA all these years to figure out that emphasizing the plight of Afghan women would be a good way to combat the Taliban propaganda machine? What are we paying them for?

Or are we paying them in this case? Was the report written by a contractor who's not American? Well, maybe RAWA's quote from WikiLeaks changed "humanizing" to the British spelling. But why do that? When I find time I'll check the WikiLeaks source document to resolve that minor mystery.

One would think RAWA ("Let's rise against the war crimes of the U.S. and its fundamentalist lackeys!") would have been thrilled at the news that a major Western publication had seen fit to dedicate a cover story to atrocities against Afghan women, but no. They're furious about the TIME cover. As to why, the answer entails getting to know a little about RAWA. One must make a distinction between their website and the organization itself, which is highly secretive. From RAWA's website:
Official disapproval means the group has many of the attributes of an underground movement. Parween [a RAWA member] only knows a handful of other members because, like a terrorist network, it operates through a cell structure. The idea is to protect the wider membership of around 2,000 women by not allowing a single activist to reveal names to the NDS, the country's intelligence service (which Parween refers to as Khad – its name during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s when the service was controlled by the KGB).
Why does the Karzai government disapprove of RAWA? According to the same RAWA article I linked to above, they consider it a Maoist organization.

If Beijing is behind RAWA, that would certainly explain a peculiar aspect of RAWA's rhetoric. They have a bug in their ear about the Northern Alliance, which historically has close ties with Russia's government, and which they conflate with the Taliban. Yet since the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghan women have been so safe in regions controlled by the Northern Alliance that the difference between those regions and the rest of the country is like night and day.

Afghan women have thrived under the Northern Alliance; they've started businesses and moved about with no fear of being abused -- that is, until a several months ago, when they became frightened that the Taliban were set to take over the region. After that, many took to covering themselves head to toe and veiling their faces.

So one would think that RAWA, which is so dedicated to the rights of Afghan women, would have a few kind words to say about the Northern Alliance. Granted, RAWA is focused on reporting atrocities against Afghan women, not on any progress that Afghan women have made. But still I find their hatred of the Northern Alliance perplexing with regards to the rights of women in the country. There are Northern Alliance warlords, of course, but again the RAWA website seems to be sending out mixed signals.

What's easy to grasp about RAWA is that at least in their writings they adhere to a type of feminist activism that reflects the Western antiwar movement and the Western Left.

"RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values," explains their website.

Given that RAWA is dedicated to nonviolent means of fighting, that leaves the running dogs of capitalism -- namely, the United States -- to do all the icky-poo work of killing the chauvinist pigs trammeling the rights of Afghan women while RAWA shrieks "War Crime!" every time civilians get caught in the crossfire.

As to Malalai Joya's highly critical view of the Aisha TIME cover, which she expressed in an interview with France24: The Propagandist, a Canadian website, was not fooled by the mountain of honors that Leftists, socialist governments, and Western human rights organizations have heaped on her over the years. Writing for The Propagandist, Lauryn Oates pegged Joya as a stoppist who's aligned with Canadian anti-war organizations, then made short work of Joya's sensational claim, “During the Taliban’s regime such atrocities [as those carried out against Aisha] weren’t as rife as it is now and the graph is hiking each day."(2)

Joya is most certainly a stoppist and is so anti-American that in the France24 interview she terms the "foreign fighters" in her country "enemy" forces according to France24's Mehdi Chebil:
Malalai Joya said she would be “very happy” to see foreign troops leave. “Currently, Afghan people especially women are squashed between three enemies: Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. If the foreign enemy leaves the Afghan grounds my people would face two internal enemies.
Joya is clearly referring to U.S. and other NATO troops but oddly she makes no reference to the great influence of Pakistan on her country, at least in that quote.

I don't know about Joya's connections with Canadian antiwar organizations, although her rhetoric about the NATO war effort in Afghanistan mirrors the view of those organizations. However, I'd peg Joya first and foremost as a useful idiot.

I don't think there's any question about her dedication to defending the rights of Afghan women. But if she hadn't existed the Pakistan military or Taliban commanders under their control would have invented her. She is a strong voice in the West and particularly Europe for demanding that NATO quit Afghanistan. Pakistan's military wants nothing more than for ISAF to quit Afghanistan.

Reportedly, there have been threats against Joya's life; I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some Afghan warlords -- the ones she accused of being war criminals -- have made such threats. Yet I can't imagine why the Taliban would want her dead until after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. Until then she is very useful to them.

I note that Joya also conflates the Northern Alliance with the Taliban and shares RAWA's hatred of the Alliance.

I will close with a message for FireDogLake, a collaborative blog that's an influential voice in the Leftist part of the American blogosphere. I mention the blog here because a FDL contributor named Siun supported RAWA's line on the TIME-Aisha controversy.

Careful attention to the RAWA website and Joya's remarks suggest political and possibly even ethnic and religious currents that are not obvious to Westerners. FireDogLake, and indeed all Western blogs and other media outlets, need to become more knowledgeable about Afghan politics, and the history of the South-Central Asian region and Iran, before promoting agendas of particular Afghans.

One thing is certain about Joya and RAWA: they are skilled at speaking in ways they know resonate with Western human rights activists. That's okay, but it's what we don't know about their country's politics and the clan, religious, and ethnic rivalries that's not okay when we try to be helpful.

According to a report on RAWA's own website, the organization's radicalism has spelled trouble for other women's rights advocates in Afghanistan:
But others say [RAWA's] radicalism comes at the cost of effectiveness. Wazhma Frogh, an independent women's activist, says only a tiny minority of literate, urban women are even aware of the "ghost" association. "They have created trouble for other women activists who are usually labelled as linked to RAWA."
Frogh's words are a sobering indication that Western human rights activists should look very carefully before they leap to help Afghan activists.

1) For readers interested in learning more about Karzai's pandering to Afghanistan's fundamentalists, this 2009 report by the (U.K.) is a must read. He's used Afghan women as the sacrificial pawn in his dealings with Tehran; this, in a bid to curry favor with a Shiite faction of Afghanistan's Hazaras that leans toward Iran -- even though the majority of Hazaras reportedly want nothing to do with his machinations.

2) Here are a few choice quotes from The Propagandist article, which is well worth the read in its entirety.
[...] Because there were no studies undertaken during the Taliban's regime on the statistical rates of violence against women, there is no data from that period that could prove that violence against women is better or worse now.
Not only is there no evidence that violence against women was worse now than under the Taliban, an analysis of the conditions now and the conditions then should lead to an educated guess that it is more likely to have been worse then. When the Taliban were in power, there were no women's shelters. There are now more than a dozen across the country. There are numerous counseling programs, legal aid clinics and advocacy organizations operating to serve victims of violence. There is a Ministry of Women's Affairs and a referral system in place that mobilizes the resources of dozens of frontline organizations.
There are also reporting systems in place for the first time, with organizations like the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission collecting and storing data on the cases they process. This means more cases are being reported, and not necessarily that more incidences of violence are happening than were previously occurring when there were no reporting mechanisms in place.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, your post has confirmed my suspicions about RAWA. RAWA is usually the first group that the left quotes when it comes to women.

Pundita said...

McNorman -- Thank you. And that's an interesting observation about the Left and RAWA; it solves more than one mystery. I read HuffPo's regular feature on the Afghan campaign because sometimes they have excellent reports, but generally I don't pay attention to what the Left has to say about Afghanistan. The FireDogLake post made it onto Google News, which is how I picked it up and from there the RAWA article. Because I don't read RAWA unless someone sends me an article, I wasn't familiar with their editorial viewpoint, shall we call it. But you could have knocked me over with a feather when I first read their attack on the Aisha-TIME cover. Until I started digging into their archives, I couldn't understand why an organization dedicated to the plight of Afghan women would go ballistic.