"Saving Women" Is Not a Justification for Occupation

by by Amanda Labora

illustration by by Annika Finne

On Tuesday, March 1, Oliver Rosenbloom B’13 wrote an opinions column for the Brown Daily Herald discussing Brown students’ perception of the military. He claimed that those who oppose ROTC based on the military’s history of discrimination ignore the military’s role in enforcing human rights around the world, specifically citing improved women’s rights in Afghanistan. Amanda Labora B’12.5 disagrees.

Rosenbloom’s argument is based on two fundamentally wrong, and downright irresponsible, assumptions. The first is that American military intervention has improved the lives of women in Afghanistan. The second is that cultural attitudes—in particular those toward women—can be altered by external intervention. But such American-led “civilizing missions”actually endanger the position of women in places like Afghanistan.
But don’t take my word for it. In her recent book entitled A Woman Among Warlords (2009), Malalai Joya—Afghanistan’s youngest female member ever elected to parliament—addresses the difficulties women face in Afghanistan, including those that resulted from the American occupation. According to Joya, who worked as an underground teacher for girls during the Taliban’s reign, things are now worse for Afghanis—especially women—than they ever were under the Taliban.
“More than seven years after the U.S. invasion,” she writes, “we are still faced with foreign occupation and a U.S.-backed government filled with warlords who are just like the Taliban. Instead of putting these ruthless murderers on trial for war crimes, the United States and its allies placed them in positions of power, where they continue to terrorize ordinary Afghans.”
These same warlords were behind Joya’s 2007 suspension from parliament for “insulting”—or as I would argue, denouncing and exposing—fellow representatives in a television interview, as well as the multiple rape and death threats she has received since taking office.
Anyone who has taken the time to learn about the history of Afghanistan would know that foreign intervention—whether at the hands of the Soviets and the Americans during the Cold War, or America, Pakistan, and Iran after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989—is largely responsible for Afghanistan’s status as a “failed state.” According to Barnett Rubin, the author of The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (1995), it is the underlying social fragmentation of Afghanistan, resulting from decades of warfare and foreign intervention, that prevented Afghanistan from developing a stable, centralized, and legitimate form of government after the Soviet withdrawal. The last thing Afghanistan or its women need is an American occupation.
Rosenbloom is right to refer to the mistreatment of women as “barbaric,” but his use of women’s rights as a justification for continued occupation is misguided. In fact, this argument reminds me of those made by European colonial powers in the Middle East, in particular that of France with respect to its colonial project in Algeria. Who can forget the images of French women—the wives of colonists—“liberating” the Algerian woman from her oppressive veil? The reality is that attitudes are not likely to change as a result of foreign intervention. If we have learned anything from the revolutions sweeping across the Middle East—first in Tunisia, then Egypt, and now in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen—it is that real change begins and ends with the people.
The recent sexual assault of CBS news correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo sparked heated debate in the American media regarding women’s issues in the Middle East. Reactions to the attack have run the gambit, with some blaming Logan for bringing the attack on herself, and others blaming Islam.
As Rachel Newcomb rightfully pointed out in the Huffington Post, “blame the Muslims” is not an acceptable response to the Lara Logan story. What happened to Logan is terrible and reprehensible, but it is not representative of Egyptian men or the Egyptian revolution. People are right to question what the revolution could mean for the future of women’s issues in Egypt, but we can be certain that change is not going to come from anyone but ordinary Egyptians.
Based on what we are hearing from Egyptians on the ground, there is reason to be hopeful. Many of the reports Mideast Reports received from Egyptians over the course of the protests have pointed to a decreased incidence of harassment in the streets.
Radwa al-Barouni, a translator and professor at the University of Alexandria reported the following on protests in Alexandria: “It’s an amazing sense of community, it’s like the government has been bringing out the worst in people for so, so, long, and this is finally bringing out the best in people. I mean, there’s no sexual harassment—nothing! I finally feel safe walking around the people I’ve been afraid of for most of my life.”
And now, in the wake of Mubarak’s fall from power, one website calling for crowd-sourced reform in Egypt,, is showing an increased emphasis on women’s rights. The site, which takes suggestions from individuals, and ranks them based on votes, lists “Protecting Women” as third on the list of things that need to be changed in the “new” Egypt. These changes are the result of domestic, popular movements, not foreign intervention.
Rosenbloom is also right to point to the sacrifices that American troops have made all over the world. American soldiers risk their lives every day to protect American citizens. Any panel evaluating the presence of ROTC on campus should consider the positive things the American military does. However, the evidence he uses to support his argument is problematic and troubling. As American citizens, we have a responsibility to question the actions our government takes abroad, especially when human rights abuses are used to justify occupation. As the democratic movement taking place in the Middle East has shown us, American foreign policy has a history of being painfully shortsighted. Our strategy of backing oppressive dictatorial regimes—like that of Hosni Mubarak—with billions of dollars in foreign aid hasn’t made America any safer, nor has it proven to advance human rights.

AMANDA LABORA B’12.5 is a former research assistant for the Brown Afghanistan Working Group (BAWG) and currently co-manages a blog, Mideast Reports.