The largest annual gathering of feminists in the UK organised by FiLiA, an event regularly attended by 1000-1200 women, is a good point of entry into the issues preoccupying British feminists. But atypically for British feminism, it has a strong internationalist perspective. At the conference, held in Portsmouth recently, I facilitated a session in which women from Afghanistan, Palestine and Rojava came together to discuss how occupation and religious fundamentalism intersected to weaken their struggle for rights.
I posed a number of provocations. The first being: can occupation ever be a force for good? After all, that was how the media represented the US occupation in Afghanistan, especially on the question of women’s rights. A new generation of women had been educated who would be much fiercer in their opposition to the Taliban this time round. Nelufer Hadayat, a British Afghan journalist writing in the Guardian, says, ‘It’s true that on balance the occupation of Afghanistan since 2001 was a good thing. Sort of. There were pockets of progress. I’ve seen it myself in my years of reporting and visiting, and from hearing stories from all my family still living there.’ She quotes statistics about increased literacy rates for both boys and girls and improved life expectancy rates. But she also refers to the poverty and the terrorist attacks that continued under US occupation and diminished the lives of thousands of Afghans.
Selay Ghaffar, spokesperson for the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan who joined us by Zoom, was adamant that, ‘They [the US] “educated” a small group of Afghan women who were not “prepared to fight for their rights” but to collude and hobnob with the misogynists and depraved criminals, mafia, and the corrupted politicians.’ It was her firm belief that these women were interested primarily in, ‘the money and resources they were earning from the parliament, ministerial positions, and foreign trips. In fact, these U.S. fostered women and girls stabbed Afghan women from behind, weakening the struggle of Afghan women for their rights.’
Ghaffar argued that Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan was promoted by the US to prevent progressive forces from gaining ground. This is precisely what happened in Israel where Hamas was nurtured in order to weaken the once secular and more progressive forces of Fatah. Why do occupying powers destroy democratic, women-friendly, progressive forces in the occupied territory and promote reactionary forces like Taliban or Hamas? Why are they more afraid of democratic opposition especially when so many of these invasions are carried out under the guise of democratic nation building? In any case, if the US does not have real democracy at home, how can it build it anywhere else?
This led me to the next provocation: Does it make things better for the occupied if the occupying force claims to be committed to the values of democracy or equality? Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle-East – and yet it continues to destroy the lives of Palestinians under occupation who have no vote and no voice. What kind of democratic values can exist in an apartheid state where Palestinians are second class citizens?
Zeinab Al-Ghonaimi, legal researcher and women’s rights activist in Gaza, who also joined us by Zoom, explained how women’s rights were shredded by the pincer movement of the twin forces of Hamas and Israeli occupation. She argued that ‘women were the most prominent victims of this ideological change’ under Hamas where the absence of political pluralism compounded the deteriorating humanitarian conditions caused by the occupation.
While Zeinab was very clear that both Hamas and Israeli occupation had to be resisted at the same time, some Palestinian feminists are conflicted as I have explained elsewhere. They see Fatah as corrupt lackeys of the Israeli state and Hamas as the only true representatives of the national struggle so they are prepared to set aside their discomfort at Hamas’s anti-woman, religious fundamentalist agenda. Zeinab observed that feminists, deprived of any place at the table, were left to ‘push for minor amendments on separate texts in the Penal Code and the Personal Status law.’
In stark contrast, the women of Rojava (AANES, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) have achieved unprecedented power which they have used to achieve equality, bringing in some of the most women friendly laws in the world and banishing religion from the public sphere. However, the rights won by this revolutionary, grass-roots democracy, have been reversed in those areas, like Afrin, which have been invaded and occupied by Turkey under the dictatorship of a misogynist, Islamist regime as outlined by Rohash Shexo, UK representative of Kongra Star, the umbrella women’s organisation of Rojava.
In fact, Rojava needed the US to stay on as a bulwark against their own dictator, Assad, Erdogan of Turkey and ISIS against whom the fight is not yet over. If the US-led coalition had not provided air-cover in the famous battle of Kobane in 2014, Kurdish resistance to ISIS may have crumbled. And we may not have had a feminist revolution to be inspired by.
The US was not an ‘occupying’ power. Their intervention was absolutely necessary to enable the people of Rojava to win the battle against ISIS. Why did the US not remain and become an occupying power? Given the widespread use of ‘democracy’ as ground cover for its invasions around the world, it would have made sense for the US to stay on to protect this fragile democracy. Or is real democracy simply too threatening to the US?
It could be argued that the US occupation is continuing by the back door through its proxy, Turkey, which is a NATO ally. Ex-ISIS fighters have joined the Turkish army as mercenaries and invaded parts of Rojava with impunity, in part, because the US has looked away.
Was the US intervention in Rojava an example of the doctrine of liberal interventionism as espoused by Tony Blair who used it to justify Western invasion of Iraq, Kosovo and Sierra Leone? Iraq, in fact, turned into an occupation. Does occupation differ from liberal interventionism only in length of time, when the resources of the country end up being exploited by the invading power?
For Tony Blair, staying until the job was done successfully was a key part of his strategy. In his famous speech on liberal interventionism he asked, ‘are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers.’
And yet this strategy failed in Afghanistan.
How do we understand the interventionism of the US in Rojava which did have a positive impact in prolonging the revolutionary struggle? Many on the anti-imperialist Left, in their knee jerk hatred of the US, have also withheld their support for the revolution because it was seen to have dirtied its hands by working with the US.
All of these conflicting positions are fought over the bodies and minds of women. For religious fundamentalists, the control of women is a central part of their project. For the liberal democratic forces of the world, the liberation of women is a vaunted part of their project. And yet these very forces sell us down the river again and again by encouraging (at worst) or ignoring (at best) the growth of religious fundamentalism.