to the Veil – Women’s Liberation through
This is what they destroyed. Kabul University in the 1980s – majority of
students were women. (Photo: Plaenta Publishers)
For the last quarter century, the status of women has been at the forefront of war in Afghanistan. Today, liberals and bourgeois feminists use the vicious oppression of Afghan woman by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban as a justification for Bush’s terror-bombing of Kabul. Yet the Taliban took power in 1996 with the approval of the U.S., which saw this gang of murderous zealots as a force for “stability” (including for building an oil pipeline from Central Asia). In turn, the “Northern Alliance” now allied with Washington is a lash-up of Afghan warlords who waged two decades of counterrevolutionary terror in the cause of Islamic reaction and maintaining the enslavement of women. Not only the feudalist patriarchs on both sides but their imperialist sponsors who claim to be defending “civilization” are enemies of women.
Afghanistan’s 1978 “April Revolution” launched by modernizing petty-bourgeois elements proposed to carry out a modest land reform and introduce some democratic rights, among them legal equality and education for women. The Soviet-allied government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was hardly “communist,” as it is routinely described in the bourgeois press. Indeed, its program was much more limited than that of the bourgeois French Revolution of 1789. Nevertheless, its halting steps to bring Afghanistan out of feudal and pre-feudal conditions were immediately met by armed resistance from Islamic reactionaries, who were particularly incensed over any steps toward the emancipation of women.
Bitter Fruit of the Anti-Soviet War
(Photo: Sebastião Salgado)
The “revolution” did not go beyond limited reforms, but the ensuing counterrevolution which ultimately put in place the Taliban regime of clerical fundamentalism has plunged Afghanistan into a medieval chamber of horrors. And behind this counterrevolution, from the beginning the driving force has been U.S. imperialism and its Pakistani military henchmen. Already in late 1978, as Muslim mullahs railed against a constitutional guarantee of women’s rights and the feudalist khans revolted against land reform and debt relief for poor peasants, American agents were busily coordinating opposition while Pakistan supplied arms. By the next year, Washington was secretly funneling money and military supplies to the jihad (holy war). The CIA undertook the largest clandestine operation in its history, ultimately costing more than $6 billion.
When the Soviet Union intervened in December 1979 to stave off a collapse of the embattled Afghan government, U.S. president Jimmy Carter responded by launching Cold War II. For the next decade, under Democrat Carter and his Republican successor Ronald Reagan, Washington’s propaganda mills churned out anti-Soviet war propaganda while praising the woman-hating mujahedin (holy warriors) as “freedom fighters.” The Reaganite Cold Warriors were joined in their howling by most of the left, which accused the USSR of trampling on “fiercely independent Afghanistan.” The fact that under the Soviet-allied PDPA, for the first time in history Afghan women were freed from the suffocating head-to-toe burqa, that girls could become literate, study in schools and universities and become teachers and scientists, was never mentioned.
Soviet-Allied Afghan Regime Made Gains for Women
Upon taking power in a military coup, the PDPA proclaimed a 20-point program including calls for equality among Afghanistan’s numerous peoples, expropriating the biggest landowners, canceling the debts of 11 million peasants, extending the state sector of the capitalist economy while aiding small businesses, and universal education for both sexes in their native languages. Women were promised minimal democratic gains: polygamy was outlawed, a cap was put on the bride price, legal equality was established. But what really incensed the reactionaries was when the new regime launched a literacy drive particularly aimed at educating young girls. Teachers and literacy workers were denounced as communists and shot. At the outset, 99 percent of Afghan women were illiterate, but in the next decade 1.5 million people passed literacy exams.
Even a source generally hostile to the PDPA and broadly sympathetic to the mujahedin had to admit the gains for women during the period of the Soviet intervention:
“The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The emancipation of Afghan women moves quickly. There are greater opportunities for education, employment, and professional training, especially for women in the cities…. Women students outnumber men at the Universities…. The Communists legally guarantee the equal rights of women and men. More and more women hold positions in business, government, the diplomatic corps, the police, the army, and in Parliament. Women are teachers, nurses, entertainers, doctors and lawyers. Education and employment for women becomes more acceptable through much of Afghan society.”Health care was made available to women for the first time, with village and neighborhood clinics. Purdah, the forcible seclusion of women in the home, was considerably weakened. In 1978, only 5,000 women in all of Afghanistan held jobs, but by the late 1980s there were 245,000 women wage workers, including 11,000 teachers. Most teachers were women, and most members of the PDPA were teachers. In 1989, as the Kremlin treacherously withdrew Soviet troops, the Kabul regime armed all party members and set up a women’s militia.
While the reformist left joined Washington in denouncing a “Soviet invasion,” revolutionary Trotskyists (then represented by the international Spartacist tendency) proclaimed “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and called to “extend gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples.” We pointed out that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan ran counter to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s program of seeking “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. And indeed, as it was besieged by the CIA-funded, armed and trained terrorist bands, the PDPA began backtracking on women’s rights as it sought to form a coalition government with “moderate” Islamic fundamentalists. But the anti-woman feudalists were not placated – they demanded the abolition of every gain made by women under the reform regime.
Today, Western liberals exclusively blame the Taliban for the hellish conditions besetting Afghan women. But the Taliban did not take power until four years after the fall of the Soviet-allied PDPA government, and during those four years women’s rights were systematically rolled back by the victorious mujahedin who are now once again Washington’s allies. The anti-Soviet source quoted above summarizes the events of 1992:
“The Communist regime of Najibullah falls, and the Islamic State of Afghanistan takes over the country. The constitution is thrown out. Although women continue to work and go to school, they are urged to dress modestly. The government declares that women should cover their hair, refrain from wearing make-up, and should not laugh in public…. Women are killed for being related to men wanted by the various Mujahideen groups. Others are killed for resisting rape or abduction. Many young women are abducted to be wives of Mujahideen commanders. Some are sold into prostitution. Some are stoned to death. Some just disappear.”
By 1993, the Supreme Court of the Islamic State decreed that women could not wear clothing similar to men’s and must be completely covered by the veil when they leave their houses, that girls should not be taught to write and should only be instructed in the home by fathers or brothers in the rudiments of Islam. This was all before the Taliban took over.
It is often said that wearing the all-encompassing burqa, the Afghan Islamic veil, is a “cultural” or individual matter. Thus the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) states, “We believe wearing the veil is a cultural issue, not a religious one.” RAWA adds that, “To wear, or not to wear, the Islamic veil is a completely personal issue and no one has the right to interfere with this decision or impose the veil on us,” and “As far as we are concerned, we will NOT wear the veil as far as security and social discretion allow us, for we regard rejection of the veil as a symbolic form of resistance and defiance of the fundamentalists.” But under the feudalistic and even pre-feudal conditions prevailing in most of Afghanistan, the question of the Islamic veil is decidedly not a matter of individual choice. Any woman who “chooses” not to wear this oppressive garment risks death.
We are not talking here about Muslim school girls in France subject to racist harassment for wearing a hijab (Islamic head covering), but rather about Afghan woman who are imprisoned behind the head-to-toe burqa or chadori (which doesn’t even leave an opening for the eyes, only a screen), whether this is the result of the decision of an Islamic court or of brutally enforced “custom.” RAWA activists are courageous women who have often braved death to teach young girls in the refugee camps dominated by the mujahedin. Moreover, security is a real and difficult issue in how the fight against the Islamic veil is waged. However, what RAWA is saying here is that for themselves and in urban conditions they reject the veil, but that in the isolated rural strongholds of reaction they are not for a fight to say no to the veil. Thus they condemn the vast majority of Afghan women to further isolation and oppression.
Moreover, the claim that wearing the burqa is a customary matter is a whitewash of the anti-Taliban Islamic fundamentalists. In an article on the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, the New York Times (16 September) noted:
“As the Taliban grew internationally notorious, banning television, sheathing women head-to-toe and amputating the hands of thieves, Mr. Massoud presented himself to the West as a ‘reasonable’ Muslim. ‘I am for the rights of women,’ he said. ‘Women can work. Women can go to school.’ But once asked if his own wife wore the head-to-toe burqa, he smiled sheepishly and replied, ‘Yes, this is the custom’.”As for women attending school, the Times (3 October) triumphantly reported that “in territory under the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, 8 young women were allowed to join 300 young men studying at the university for the first time last year.” The fact that many thousands of young women used to study in Afghan universities but were forcibly driven out by the very same Northern Alliance when it was in power is not mentioned.
Vituperating against “multiculturalism” and other “politically correct” trends at American universities which argue that Western culture is not inherently superior to Islamic culture (which preserved crucial cultural and scientific achievements while Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages of Christian obscurantism), the ideologues of U.S. imperialism are quite content to condemn Afghan women to the veil on the grounds that this is the local culture. The same argument has often been used in the past to justify female genital mutilation, polygamy in feudalist societies and other forms of oppression of women.
With similar reasoning, a number of Afghan feminists have been arguing that everything was much better before “the Communists” (i.e., the petty-bourgeois reformers of the PDPA) took power and how great everything was under the king, now slated by Washington to be the new ruler of Afghanistan. In fact, RAWA itself declares: “As a matter of principle, RAWA is not a monarchist organization. However, the majority of Afghan people whole-heartedly support the former king. That is why RAWA prefers Zahir Shah to the other self-styled jehadi [mujahedin] and Taliban leaders.” Using the arguments of opportunists everywhere, these monarcho-feminists who still adorn their propaganda with Maoist-style images of heroic women fighters today line up behind U.S. imperialism’s designated ruler of post-Taliban Afghanistan by claiming this is the choice of “the majority of Afghan people”!
RAWA has made clear that its fundamental class loyalties are with capitalist imperialism. Like the several Afghan Maoist groups, following the “Moscow-directed coup d’état of April 1978” and “and particularly after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979,” rather than defending the beleaguered Kabul government against the forces of feudalist and imperialist reaction, “RAWA became directly involved in the war of resistance.” Thus they ended up in the refugee camps in Afghanistan run by supporters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, the Islamic fundamentalist who received most of Washington’s millions during the war. During the 1970s, Hekmatyr and his cohorts used to throw acid on the faces of unveiled women students at Kabul University for recreation. And in 1987, Hekmatyr’s assassins murdered the founder and leader of RAWA, Meena, in Quetta, Pakistan.
By lining up with imperialism and the “moderate” Islamic fundamentalists, a whole layer of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois feminists, both in Afghanistan and the United States and Europe, have lined up squarely against the interests of oppressed Afghan women. The experience of the last quarter century underscores that women will not be liberated through simple bourgeois-democratic reforms and declarations of legal equality. The crime of the PDPA regime was not that it went too far, but rather that its half-hearted reforms left the social base of reaction intact. Such a weak petty-bourgeois government in a country with a minuscule working class (no more than 30,000 workers in 1978) could not on its own undertake a genuine social revolution which alone can guarantee the emancipation of Afghan women. This required a force from outside Afghan society.
No Better Fighters for Communism Than Women Workers of the East
In contrast, the Trotskyists of the League for the Fourth International fight for the liberation of the women of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia through international socialist revolution. By laying the economic foundations for socializing household labor, child care and other tasks that have for centuries oppressed women, by extending universal education and combating religious obscurantism, a federation of revolutionary workers and peasants governments throughout the region would also undercut the death grip of clerical reaction. In the early Soviet Union, the heroic fight of Central Asian Bolshevik women and men to smash feudalist counterrevolution ultimately required the intervention of the Red Army to smash the Basmachi rebellion. That laid the basis for the tremendous advances for Uzbek, Tajik, Kirghiz, Turkmen and Kazakh women, gains which are now being reversed in a decade of counterrevolution following the destruction of the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state.
The Kremlin Stalinists’ ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was a key step in opening the floodgates of counterrevolution in the USSR itself. But this tragic result was not foreordained. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1924 of Muslim women of the Soviet East:
“…the Eastern woman, who is the most paralyzed in life, in her habits and in creativity, the slave of slaves, she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak, will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress. She will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas and new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the Revolution and for the ideas of Communism than the awakened woman worker.”25 October 2001
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