Yesterday, Wagner hosted a panel event (co-sponsored by IPSA and the Wagner Women’s Caucus) with the above title. The speakers approached the issues from a number of angles.
Sylvia Maier, from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, argued against efforts to ban the niqab and burqa in various European countries. Many Muslin women choose to wear such garments as expressions of their faith. Throughout the event, Maier repeatedly emphasized women’s agency and choice. To her, the way the West discusses Muslim women as being oppressed by the burqa/niqab is patronizing to those women.
Anushay Hossain, a blogger and writer, expanded on the same themes as Maier, but with particular attention to Afghanistan. She questioned why the fight for Afghan women’s rights seems to be rolled out when it’s convenient for drumming up support for the war, but then falls to the side in everyday policy. In Afghanistan, women’s rights are used to assert American/Western cultural superiority. Meanwhile, in Europe, the burqa/niqab becomes an easy target for Europeans’ concerns about Muslim integration. Hossain made the point that we should be talking about that integration, not wardrobe. Sadly, bans are likely to further marginalize Muslim minorities, even leading more women to choose to wear the niqab in defiance.
Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), discussed a different set of issues altogether. Her organization has about 150 staff in Afghanistan working on a variety of women’s rights and protection issues. WAW also operates a center in Queens. Viswanath told phenomenal stories about the positive changes happening in the communities where WAW works, and the support they often receive from religious leaders, ministries, schools and other institutions in Afghanistan. It’s hard to do her stories justice in blog form. She described a father who went to great lengths to secure justice after his young daughter had been raped. She also discussed the bravery of Bibi Aisha, who had stayed at a WAW facility, to tell her story of being brutalized by the Taliban to the world (Bibi Aisha appeared on a recent cover of Time next to the headline, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”).
The panelists were impressive in their insights and depth of experience. However, two issues were left glaringly unaddressed. The first issue is the question of choice. The panelists emphasized the importance of a woman’s choice to wear the niqab, burqa, hijab or whatever else they’d like – but they failed to grapple with what “choice” really means in a context of strongly held social/cultural/religious norms. We can hardly say that a woman has a choice in situations where social sanctions dictate that only one option is available.
The second issue is the role of the US intervention in Afghanistan. Viswanath and Hossain both spoke strongly in favor of continued US presence. Although Hossain criticized the use of women’s rights as rhetorical cover for the US intervention, she has no doubt about what a return to Taliban rule would mean for Afghan women. Viswanath was especially concerned for WAW’s ability to do its work. The panelists argued for a re-thinking of US strategy in Afghanistan, including an expansion of security, shifting more resources to development, and reducing corruption. They seemed to describe this as a way to create space, so that changes could come from within the communities themselves. However, Viswanath also described how the women’s rights provisions in the Afghan constitution often seem trumped by tribal law or sharia law. It’s clearly a long, slow process. The question remains: How can outsiders (the US, NATO, etc.) best support that process? Is a presence of troops and development funding really sufficient?
Of course, I didn’t expect our wonderful panelists to detail a new strategy for Afghanistan. That would be a tall order for a Friday afternoon. Still, if the US presence is so vital to progress for Afghanistan’s women, but the current policies simply use women’s rights as rhetorical window dressing, I would have liked more depth on what the US should be doing differently. As it was, the panel ran 15 minutes over. The longer conversation will have to wait for another day.
Dave Algoso is getting a Master in Public Administration, with an international policy and management focus, at NYU Wagner. He normally blogs at Find What Works.