Dear American misogynists: Afghan women are not oppressed for you

By Noorjahan Akbar

Today is the last day of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Every year, reading the powerful testimonies of woman who have overcome this most common form of violence inspires me and reminds me of how global inequality is.

For the past six years, I have had the privilege of speaking at American universities and private schools about my experiences working on and writing about human rights issues in my homeland of Afghanistan. One of the most common responses Americans have to my speeches and to my articles is a dismissal of women’s rights advocacy in the United States by comparing the atrocities women face in Afghanistan to the “lesser” oppressions “overzealous” feminists are fighting in their own country.

The marginalization of women in Afghanistan is also propped up as a tool through which Americans can rationalize the unjust status quo at home. These men, and sometimes women, tell me about how disappointed they are in American feminists who are “complaining about cat-calls while Afghan women are being butchered by backwards Afghan men.”

This is a response to those who pretend to sympathize with Afghan- and by extension Muslim and Middle Eastern- women while attacking women’s rights activists in their own backyard.

Perhaps my biggest opposition to this sentiment is that it portrays Afghan women as victims in need of saving. Anybody who has worked with Afghan women at the grassroots level knows that we are not victims. It is no news that the women of my country face an enormous amount of oppression because of radical Islamists, gender-based violence, on-going war and insecurity, poverty, illiteracy and a wide range of other problems. To assume, however, that we have no agency is a disservice to Afghan women.

I have seen Afghan women who have grown up in war in the most rural areas of the country with little to no opportunities for education, stand up for their rights in heroic ways. I learned this important lesson on the power of Afghan women myself when I was traveling in Badakhshan and Takhar a few years ago. I was researching women’s folkloric songs and realized that they were singing about and fighting gender-based violence and child marriage in a more effective and articulate way than many of the educated advocates I knew.

Afghan women are singing, writing, running businesses, getting degrees, teaching, learning, managing non-profit organizations, organizing protests and finding thousands of new ways to tell their stories- despite Daesh and the Taliban threatening them on a daily basis. That resilience and struggle does not a victim make.

Taj Bibi (not real name), 15, is a middle school student, 3rd grade teacher and pregnant with her first child. Despite being a child bride, her insistence on her right to education is an example of the multi-faceted identities of Afghan women.

But jumping to the support of “voiceless” Afghan women while telling American feminists to stop complaining about rape on college campuses is telling of an even bigger patriarchal mindset. Disguised in this sentiment is the notion that women deserve protection and support in so far as they remain “voiceless victims” to physically violent crimes. However, the moment they find the ability to speak up and demand equality- real equality that will dismantle all patriarchy, not just the most overtly violent patriarchy- their voices are no longer worth paying attention to.

In other words, if there is no need for a male savior but rather for male accountability, women’s voices are irrelevant.

Let’s also not overlook the racism hidden in assuming that Afghan women should be saved from Afghan men. In one instance after a speech I had given, someone suggested that we should bring all the women out of Afghanistan to America. As in, we should literally fly all Afghan women out of their country in order to protect them from the men. When Americans tell me about how sad they feel about the “poor Afghan women” who are violated by their fathers and brothers, they are also telling me that the more civilized American men would never treat women like those savages in Afghanistan.

Gender-based violence is a global issue, not one specific to brown women. The United States has some of the highest rates of sexual violence anddomestic abuse in the world. Every day, three American woman are killed by an intimate partner. The war on women certainly has more American casualties than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I do not pretend that American women and Afghan women have the same problems or face oppression to the same degree. But we shouldn’t be comparing a country that has little to no infrastructure and has endured fifty years of trauma and war to one that has maintained peace on its own soil since 1865. Afghan women face a much higher rate of violence than women in America and most other countries. That is why I do what I do. However assuming that gender-based violence is somehow inherent or pathological in Afghan men, and not a problem in the U.S., is racist.

Another reason I can no longer silently tolerate the misuse of my oppression as a means to dismiss American women’s rights advocates is that women’s oppression is global. During my speeches I often use the metaphor that patriarchy is the same monster everywhere, but it has different faces. The root essence of patriarchy- to take away power from women, to own and exploit women’s bodies, to diminish women’s contribution to society- are the same in nearly every context, but the symptoms are different.

Whether we are forcing girls into marriage in Afghanistan or blaming women for getting raped in the U.S., the message we are sending is this: Women’s bodies do not belong to themselves. Women do not get to choose what to do with their bodies or where to exist. This is why women who say “no” to their solicitors are punished both in the U.S. and in Afghanistan. The moment women take ownership of their bodies, they are seen as criminals.

Not only are the roots of patriarchy similar round the world, its enforcers are often cut from the same cloth.

Enter the global misogynists’ brotherhood. I have advocated for ending sexual harassment and assault in Afghanistan and in the U.S. In both contexts, people blame women for dressing “improperly” and causing rape and harassment. Apparently, women’s bodies are provocative whether they are covered in burqas in Afghanistan or skirts in America. In both contexts, and around the world, women are held responsible for the lack of morality among men.

In both countries, I have heard people say that if women did not go to certain places, act a certain way or appear in public at certain times, they would be safer.

The same Afghan men who opposed the killing of Farkhunda, argued that if women were dressing properly in Afghanistan and not provoking men, this crime would have been prevented. Misogynists on my American college campus, where I joined protests to change our school’s policies on sexual assault, also argued that if women dressed more modestly they would not be raped. It is curious then that when women are dressed “properly” and staying at home being “proper” wives, they are still murdered and raped by their husbands, both in America and in Afghanistan.

Once again, the violence committed against their bodies and souls is justified using the same arguments. It is enraging that I have heard the sentence “she must have done something” more often than I have heard the sentence “he shouldn’t have killed her.” This should enrage you too.

Not only do misogynists in both contexts use the same excuses to protect their status in society, they also use each other to defend their own behavior. I run a blog for gender equality and social justice in Afghanistan. Nearly every time I publish an article about gender-based violence or other forms of abuse women face, I receive comments about how Afghan women should be thankful because they are treated with more respect and dignity than Western women “who are objectified and exploited as sex toys.”

The men who write these comments point to the sexualization of women in Western media and pornography or to the hideous TV characters who perpetuate this sexualization. They remind me of all the things I should thank them for and tell me, “Well, we might hit our wives when they get out of line, but at least we don’t treat them like sexual objects and dress them in bikinis for men’s pleasure.” The truth is that hitting women and selling them in marriage is as objectifying- if not more so- as using their bodies in humiliating TV commercials to sell products. In addition, Afghans who watch American pornography- and they do- are as impacted by its misogyny as Americans.

On the other hand, American women who write about sexual violence and street harassment are told, “you call our compliments harassment, but hey, at least, you are not getting stoned to death like those Afghani women.” In both situations, the issues women face are belittled and women are told that their demands for safety- which is the least they deserve- are bogus.

In these arguments, misogynists on both sides help each other maintain control. The only losers are women and girls whose bodies and souls continue to be exploited, abused, trafficked, sold, and disrespected.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not imagine that there is a global sisterhood. There is no united feminist movement where brown, black, white and all other women are speaking out with each other with mutual respect and understanding to fight all forms of oppression. I am as quick to critique privileged feminism as I am misogyny. There is a lot to criticize when many privileged feminists spend more time writing about Miley Cyrus than about the fact that women of color in prisons do not have access to pads and tampons and Native American women do not have equal legal protection against sexual violence. I realize that in the fight for racial, economic, and gender equality my other sisters of color and I often stand marginalized and alone.

Privileged- most often but not always, white- feminists, will cheer for us when we speak about misogyny, but silence us when we explore its intersections with race and global inequality. This is not news to me. However my allies are not the misogynists who discredit those feminists who speak against sexual violence, street harassment or any of the other real injustices women face.

To American misogynists, I say: my oppression, as a woman of color from the global south, is not a weapon to hide your misogyny. The fact that the Taliban kill women for speaking up in Afghanistan, does not diminishyour threats to kill American women who are talking about inequality in STEM. The fact that some 80 percent of Afghan women face violence at home does not make the sexist hateful murders by Elliot Roger dismissible. In fact, your reasoning is too familiar to me. You justifying the Reddit sex crime, euphemistically misnamed “the fappening,” is the same as Afghan misogynists fabricating pornographic photos of my family members to silence my activism.

Yes, I want the world to care about Afghan women. But Americans’ concern should not come at the expense of seeing us as voiceless, agentless victims in need of rescuing, nor through a lens that sees Afghan men as savages and American men as heroes. Gender-based violence is global.