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Liberal Feminism Is an Imperialist Project

U.S. imperialism is responsible for the conditions facing women in Afghanistan today and others like them all across the world. Liberal feminism, with its reliance on the imperialist capitalist state, will never liberate the working class and poor women.

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This article is the first in a Left Voice series on the situation of women in Afghanistan and the tasks of the international feminist movement in the fight against gender oppression. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan promises, and in many areas has already imposed, a rollback of women’s political, economic, and social rights that were hard-won by the Afghan feminist movement. 

The plight of Afghan women and children has long been exploited as an excuse for foreign intervention in the country. These same arguments are being trotted out today to justify a continued U.S. presence, despite the official withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. The dire conditions women Afghan women face today under brutal Taliban control are in fact the result of U.S. imperialism, as well as religious fundamentalism and civil war. They stem from an imperialist system built on the exploitation of the vast majority for the profit of a few. 

There is an urgent need to adopt an anti-imperialist perspective as part of fighting back against the reactionary measures of the Taliban and winning the liberation of all women from the yoke of capitalist exploitation and oppression. From a socialist feminist perspective, the articles in this series take up the question of imperialism and liberal feminism and the history of the feminist movement in Afghanistan, and debate other strains of anti-imperialist feminism.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

As Joe Biden initiated the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and city after city fell to the Taliban in a matter of days, the world watched the scenes from Kabul and across the country in horror. Babies were hoisted up to U.S. soldiers with the hope of getting them to safety and bodies fell from planes while U.S. citizens, officials, and allies were evacuated. As Afghans fought to protect their futures, they faced repression from Taliban forces.

Biden has received vicious bipartisan backlash for the events unfolding in Afghanistan, from liberals decrying the fall of democracy to the forces of fundamentalist reaction, to neocons bemoaning a humiliating end to U.S. imperialism’s longest war. The major bourgeois publications have rung the death knell of the Biden administration’s honeymoon phase and raised alarm bells of a shifting geopolitical landscape after this latest blow to U.S. imperialism. The sounds of the first major crisis in the Biden administration are deafening.

But above the din a resounding chorus can be heard: what about Afghanistan’s women and girls?

National and international politicians, public figures, and analysts who were silent for years about the dire conditions facing women and children in Afghanistan when it was U.S. bombs killing people in their homes and U.S.-backed militia commanders beating and killing women have suddenly found their voices again.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrats Bob Menendez and Edward Markey, has already signed a letter urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to take special measures “to protect Afghan women,” saying they “are gravely concerned about the safety of women leaders, activists, judges, parliamentarians, and human rights defenders.”

António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, said in a statement to the UN Security Council that he is “particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan who fear a return to the darkest days.”

Texas Republican Senator Michael McCaul, an outspoken opponent of women’s rights and abortion access, also suddenly expressed an overwhelming concern for the rights of women, saying, “We’re seeing this nightmare unfold — unmitigated disaster of epic proportions, and what I am really worried about the most are the women left behind and what’s going to happen to them.”

Democratic representative Nancy Pelosi was quick to say that she is “deeply concerned about reports regarding the Taliban’s brutal treatment of all Afghans, especially women and girls,” and that “The U.S., the international community and the Afghan government must do everything we can to protect women and girls from inhumane treatment by the Taliban.” 

Make no mistake: the centralization of power by the Taliban — an ethnic-religious nationalist group with extreme anti-women views — has already put hundreds of thousands of women and girls at risk, and portends the scaling back of the gains made by the Afghan feminist movement over the last two decades. Reports from the ground tell stories of women afraid to go outside for fear of being beaten by Taliban soldiers, women being turned away from their jobs, students forbidden from entering their universities, and activists fearing for their lives as targets appear on their backs for speaking out against the Taliban.

If the Taliban’s advance across Afghanistan over the last twenty years has proved anything, it is that its rule means the brutal oppression of women as a means of social stabilization — robbing them of the freedom of movement, bodily autonomy, and participation in public life. Despite the Taliban’s assurances that “there will be no violence against women” in order to garner international support and recognition, we don’t need to imagine what its rule will look like; the “return” of the Taliban to Afghanistan’s metropolitan areas most directly under the influence of the United States has been a reality for many women across the country for years. This has meant public beatings and executions, women refused medical care without a male chaperone, and young women denied access to education or the ability to earn money for their families after their fathers and brothers have been killed by Taliban forces, the Afghan army, or the United States.

You might be interested in: Five Demands We Should Fight for in Response to the Crisis in Afghanistan

Yet the outpouring of pious outrage on behalf of Afghanistan’s women and girls is a morbid echo of the same deceitful reasons given for invading Afghanistan in 2001 which created the oppressive conditions for Afghan women for the last two decades. In fact, the women of Afghanistan have been treated as pawns of imperialism since before the Soviet occupation in 1979, used first as an excuse to meddle and invade and then discarded as collateral damage in the quest for profits for foreign and domestic capitalists and influence in the region.

Calls to “save” the women of Afghanistan from the clutches of the reactionary Taliban in the name of “human rights” and “democracy” are little more than a renewed justification for continued imperialist intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere, whether it is in the form of military support or “humanitarian aid.” Imperialist intervention has never and will never “save” the women of Afghanistan, and justifications for such intervention in the name of “liberal feminism,” with its reliance on the capitalist state, merely co-opts feminists into the capitalist fold,making them oppressors themselves. 

Any of the gains made in the terrain of freedom and rights of women have not come about because of the intervention of the United States or their allies in the Afghan government, but rather by the independent mobilization of Afghan feminists. As the Taliban secures its hold on power, Afghan women’s survival — whether inside the country or as refugees across the world — rests on the shoulders of the millions of Afghans fed up with both the Taliban and U.S.-backed governments and who are looking for their own solutions. Their liberation depends on the alliance of the Afghan women’s movement with the working class and the oppressed of the country and the whole region — and even within the feminist movements in imperialist countries — so that neither American imperialism, nor the Taliban, nor the Northern Alliance decide for the exploited and oppressed of the country. 

The Toll of 20 Years of U.S. Occupation

A brief snapshot of conditions across Afghanistan is enough to show definitively that 20 years of U.S. intervention and its imposition of imperialist feminism at gunpoint has, far from drastically improving the lives of the majority of women in the country, directly ensured their continued oppression. Proponents of the Afghan War and liberal feminism like to point to a selection of woman journalists, doctors, and other “professionals” — as well as the occasional politician and capitalist — in Afghanistan’s major cities to show the positive influence of U.S. capitalism. They also ignore the millions of working-class and poor women who have been repeatedly displaced, impoverished, maimed, and killed in the course of a civil war waged with U.S. support for several decades. 

Not only did the United States play a pivotal role in the creation of the Taliban and support fundamentalist militias in order to humiliate the occupying Soviet Union, but since switching sides in the 1990s and initiating its own invasion in 2001, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have enabled and participated in countless instances of violence against women by leaders of the Northern Alliance and other groups who oppose the Taliban. As Tariq Ali writes

As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics — although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against “terror suspects,” raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias.

Even as they decried the Taliban’s treatment of women, the United States backed the Northern Alliance and offered it international recognition at the level of the UN, despite the fact that they have few ideological differences with the Taliban when it comes to the rights of women. Many of those leaders had positions in the Afghan government until the Taliban took over in mid August.

This is to say nothing of the toll the Afghan War has taken on Afghans living in the region or displaced from their homes in the course of the war. Women and children have borne the brunt of the violence, first under the eye of the Soviet Union, then under the Taliban, and then under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and U.S. forces. 

According to official reports, over 71,000 civilians have died as a direct result of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least 7,679 of which were children. Since 2010, more than 3,000 women have died as a result of the fighting, and over 7,000 injured. According to a recent report by the UN, “more women and children were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009.” Of course, the actual numbers are likely quite higher and do not take into account the hundreds of thousands of people who have died from hunger, disease, and injury.

At the time of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban in mid-August, there were more than 3.5 million people displaced within Afghanistan, living in makeshift shelters without adequate access to water, healthcare, and food. Of the 555,000 people displaced this year alone, 80 percent are women and girls. This is to say nothing of the millions of Afghan refugees who have fled their country to escape persecution and poverty only to face similar conditions in countries like Iran, Turkey, and Germany. 

U.S. intervention and the constant civil war, while creating profits for U.S. weapons manufacturers and lining the pockets of Afghan and Taliban officials, created conditions of extreme poverty which undermine Afghan feminists’ ongoing struggles to fight for their lives and for expanded rights. In 2020, a reported 47.3 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. The unemployment rate in Afghanistan is over 11 percent, with higher rates among women than men. More women may have entered the workforce since power was seized from the Taliban in 2001, but the majority face precarious conditions and low pay. While literacy rates have improved among women in certain areas of Afghanistan, among teenage girls it is still 37 percent

These conditions, coupled with repressive laws and violently enforced religious practices, have made millions of women in Afghanistan dependent not only on male partners and family members for survival, but also on militias and warlords armed with American weapons. These are the material underpinnings of sexism and high rates of violence against women in the region. 

The United States invaded Afghanistan using, among others, the excuse of rescuing Afghanistan’s women and children from fundamentalist Islam. But its nation-building and war-profiting priorities have been clear from the start: the United States has spent over $2 trillion on the conflict, nearly “1,000 times more money on its military intervention than on women’s rights efforts.”

As representatives from the feminist organization Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) recently explained, there is a direct line between the U.S. invasion and the oppression women face in Afghanistan today: 

The US invaded Afghanistan under the pretext of ‘women rights’ but the only thing it brought on our women in the past eighteen years is violence, murder, sexual violence, suicide and self-immolation, and other misfortunes. The U.S. brought to power the most vicious enemies of Afghan women, the Islamic fundamentalists, and committed an unforgivable treachery against our suffering women. This has been its tactic for the past four decades. By nurturing Jihadi, Taliban and ISIS which are all Islamic fundamentalist elements and not just murderous criminals, but misogynists as well, the U.S. has practically oppressed our women.

The Dead End of Liberal Feminism

The reality of the U.S. occupation exposes the lies told over the last 20 years to justify the continued occupation of Afghanistan and support for the Afghan government. But it has also made clear that liberal feminism offers no solution to Afghan women or any other women fighting oppression across the world. Celebrating U.S. military intervention, liberal feminism created a false narrative of western feminism saving Arab and Muslim women from the clutches of their reactionary cultures while simultaneously undermining local anti-imperialist feminist movements and hacking away at women’s livelihoods over the years while a few benefitted. Nowhere is this more evident than in the festishization of the burqa and hijab as symbols of women’s oppression. These same arguments are being trotted out once again amid renewed calls to “save” the gains made by women over the last 20 years from the Taliban. 

Not only does this obscure the fact that sexism has far from been eradicated in Western countries and that the majority of working-class and poor women in imperialist nations also suffer gender oppression at the hands of the state, but it ignores two important elements: first, the conditions giving rise to women’s oppression in specific social and political circumstances — painting the “clash of civilizations” as one of democracy against terrorism, culture against culture — and second, the critical role that sexism plays in sustaining the capitalist economy. 

The ideology of liberal feminism is built on the economic foundations of neoliberal capitalism. It claims that the way to fight sexism is through a combination of hardened individualism, participation in the free market, and cooperation with the capitalist state to make women and men “equal” under capitalist democracy. It promises that a rising tide for some will lift all boats, but in the end it ensures the freedom of a small selection of women built on the exploitation of the vast majority of working and poor women. 

That’s why liberal feminists are quick to draw on the plight of Afghan women entrepreneurs and politicians in their political posturing but conveniently seem to forget the millions of women who work for them for low wages, the women who have been thrown into abject poverty as a result of their policies and prolonged war, or even the millions of Afghan refugees who have escaped the Taliban only to be treated as second-class citizens in foreign countries. They see the way forward in Afghanistan as being paved by NGO-sponsored programs to encourage opportunities for women entrepreneurs and professionals who will then produce profits, if not directly for U.S. capitalists, for their allies in local government. Meanwhile, those NGOs abandon and impoverish many more women than they help. As Rafia Zakaria explains

The hundreds of millions in development aid that the United States poured into its savior-industrial complex relied on second-wave feminists’ assumption that women’s liberation was the automatic consequence of women’s participation in a capitalist economy.

But as we have already explained, conditions for the vast majority of women in Afghanistan today — who rely mostly on foreign aid to survive and prop up much of the Afghan economy through “informal” or unpaid labor — shows the utopian delusion of meritocracy in capitalist society. While a few women may have been able to win positions in the government or get well-paying jobs inside and outside Afghanistan, the majority of women do not enjoy those same freedoms, whether under the Taliban or U.S.-backed forces. In contrast, they make up the backbone of the weak Afghan economy, working in factories, schools, restaurants, hospitals, etc. and doing the majority of the country’s unpaid social reproduction.

Though it may take different forms, liberal feminism ultimately relies on the capitalist state to carry out women’s liberation, paradoxically pinning its hopes on the very institutions that ensure women’s subjection in the first place. The last 20 years in Afghanistan paint this picture quite clearly. On paper, Afghanistan has one of the most progressive constitutions in the region. It states unequivocally that “men and women are equal before the law” and makes provisions for women to participate in the government. Several laws passed since then have sought to expand on those rights and protections, particularly the 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law which “mandates punishments for 22 acts of violence against women, including rape, and obliges the government to take specific actions to prevent violence and assist victims. It also criminalizes violations of women’s civil rights, including depriving a woman of her inheritance or preventing a woman from pursuing work or an education.”

But, as Lenin states, equality in law is not the same thing as equality in life. The constitution and the EVAW have never been fully implemented anywhere in Afghanistan. Government institutions, from the police to the courts, actively undermine what little protections these documents aim to provide. Further, the constitution stipulates that the EVAW and any subsequent legislation are also subject to legitimate legal challenge by applications of Sharia law and the restrictive 1976 penal code, allowing religion to be weaponized by the state to subjugate women for the benefit of a false social stability. Moreover, what little protections women in Afghanistan have won over the years are under constant attack by reactionary elements inside the Afghan government and Talbian forces outside the major cities.

So while feminists in imperialist countries might like to pat themselves on the back for supporting the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the institution of a government that made certain reforms by presidential decree, the reality of inequality and gender violence at the hands of partners, the militias, and the state tells a different story of vast gender oppression in the country. According to a report by the UN Global Database on Violence Against Women, 46 percent of Afghan women have reported instances of sexual or physical assualt from partners in the last 12 months. As Oxfam reports, 87 percent of all women in Afghanistan experience some type of violence daily. What cases do get reported are often thrown out or ignored by the police who side with abusers to keep women in their place. In many cases the police themselves are the ones carrying out these acts of violence. As the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission recently reported, “nearly 15% of honour killings and sexual assaults carried out against women in the last two years were by police.”

The liberal feminist answer to these obstacles is to rely more heavily on the state and its auxiliaries in the NGOs — giving more funding to international women’s safety programs and the police — and to increase women’s representation in government. They took the limited number of women in the Afghan government — before it fell to the Taliban — as a sign of progress and equality; in reality these women were merely participating in the renegotiation of the terms of exploitation and oppression of the vast majority of working class and poor women across the nation. Nowhere is this more grossly demonstrated than by the scenes of women politicians taking part in peace negotiations with the Taliban, with the United States acting as mediator, during the Intra-Afghan peace talks in 2020. 

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the failure of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan, liberal feminists are once again searching for ways to “save” Afghan women from the very conditions the U.S. created in the country. With increased U.S. intervention off the table for now, their horizons are limited to calling for sanctions against Afghanistan, a massive program of relocating Afghan women who have benefitted the most from U.S. occupation, and donations to NGOs. As countless historical examples have shown, these non-solutions will undoubtedly lead to further hardship for the Afghan women left behind to deal with Taliban rule. Rather than pressuring politicians, sanctions merely place more burden on the working class and oppressed. A relocation program that picks and chooses only those women who the U.S. deems worthy leaves millions of the most vulnerable women even more exposed to poverty, displacement, and violence. Donating to NGOs is just imperialist intervention in another form, integrating certain sectors of semicolonial economies further into the capitalist fold and putting a band-aid on increasing social disintegration.

U.S. imperialism is responsible for the conditions facing women in Afghanistan today and others like them all across the world. Liberal feminism, with all of its reliance on the imperialist capitalist state, is a dead end when it comes to the liberation of the working class and poor women. Liberal feminism presents us with an alternative where the economic liberation of a small fraction of women is brought about by the devastating bombs of the American state. We must reject this alternative which claims that supporting the Democratic Party is the lesser evil when the Afghan tragedy is the responsibility of the bipartisan regime.

In the United States, a truly anti-imperialist feminism must be at the forefront of the struggle against the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, which will not cease just because the troops have been pulled out. We must build a strong feminist and anti-imperialist movement in the heart of the beast to fight immediately for open borders for Afghan refugees, oppose U.S. sanctions, an end to U.S. bombing campaigns, and for the self-determination of the Afghan people.

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Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

Sou Mi

Sou Mi is an activist based in New York City.

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