Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Laura Bush: Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's former first lady, Laura Bush, speaking in November 2001 after the US invaded Afghanistan. The justification for the post-911 invasion of Afghanistan was framed in part as an imperative to rescue women in the country. While there's no question that the Taliban severely restricted the rights of Afghan girls and women, there's also little evidence that US military intervention has made meaningful improvements in women's lives. Indeed, two decades of war have deepened vulnerability and made women's lives more precarious.
The Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan than they did in 2001. As the final US troops withdraw, there are few measurable improvements in the lives of women. Here to discuss the possibility of a genuinely feminist foreign policy is Shreya Chattopadhyay, a reporter and researcher at The New Republic and a contributor to The Nation. Nice to have you.
Shreya Chattopadhyay: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shreya, your recent article titled, As the US Leaves Afghanistan, Anti-War Feminists Push a New Approach to Foreign Policy. Talk to us about what a new approach to foreign policy might look like in just broad strokes.
Shreya Chattopadhyay: Generally, the Feminist Peace Initiative, which I wrote about, seeks a fundamental reorientation of US foreign policy, one that's opposed to US military intervention in all its forms. Broadly, that looks like defunding the military along with police jails, prisons, and detention centers, organizing against US military intervention in all its forms. That actually includes opposing sanctions and other forms of economic coercion, which the writers of the Feminist Peace Initiative see as a form of US military violence.
Also, it takes the ideals of collective care and reparations and includes that also in what foreign policy looks like, asking the United States to take actions that reverse and repair the harms that it's caused both by invading its forms of Neo-imperialism. That looks like putting money to aid where before it would have gone to military intervention. Broadly, the goal is to achieve global feminist democracy, which Larrick Aswani, one of my sources, told me is essentially about self-determination. Feminist Foreign Policy is really looking for a very fundamental redistribution of political and economic power, as well as priorities on behalf of the United States, but also on behalf of feminist activists who are pressuring the government and pressuring nongovernmental actors.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me to understand a bit, because, on the one hand, I love the vision of this self-determined aspect, this notion of a feminist world order. I know that's not quite what it's called. Help me to understand whether from that perspective of the folks who you interviewed and talked with if the goal is an interventionist US foreign policy, clearly not one that is about war. Is it interventionist or is it a bit more hands-off?
Shreya Chattopadhyay: It's hands-off in terms of US military presence. In the context of Afghanistan, part of that is looking at, Biden is removing troops on the ground, but the extent of the full military withdrawal's unclear. In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was looking for other locations around the region to store drones, bombs, and artillery to shore up the Afghan government. In 2017, the US relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan and the number of civilians killed by those airstrikes increased by 330%.
I think part of the non-interventionist element of it is very much like making sure that it's not just troops on the ground, but all military presence is fully withdrawn. The flip side of that is recognizing that the United States does bear responsibility for its past actions. I think the more interventionist element would be less in terms of how foreign policy is usually talked about and more in the context of reinvesting the funding formerly used for war into peacebuilding, into supporting Afghan Civil Society, into supporting the Human Rights demands of Afghan women.
Biden has recently requested an additional $300 million in aid to Afghanistan. I think it's pushing for more things like that and less things like maintaining a military presence in the region even if troops are on the ground.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's helpful. Let's also just make this as concrete for folks as possible, because as I was reading your piece, I was thinking of how over the course of a two-decade war, it has been easy to lose focus on what even the discourse or the language was about why we claimed we were going in. Just talk me through what women in Afghanistan face right now in terms of particular issues, dangers, restrictions related to the Taliban's control of so much territory.
Shreya Chattopadhyay: Absolutely. Women in Afghanistan face both the general increased violence of the region as the Taliban has made a huge resurgence either controls or contests 80% of the districts in the country. Women are, of course, subject to that violence. The war has brought around 241,000 dead, including 71,000 civilians, poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, environmental degradation. All of that is a type of violence that women, as well as everybody else, are experiencing. Then women are also subject to the gendered violence that comes with any form of resistance in such a context.
The Taliban is known for targeting female journalists, news anchors, people who work in media are often targeted and murdered by gunmen, by bombs, as well as human rights activists. I think the UN estimates that 65 human rights defenders and media professionals were killed between January 2018 and January 2021. That's the type of violence that the Taliban is known for perpetrating. Along with that, in May, there were bombings in Kabul, specifically targeting a girl school that killed-- I think the death count was initially 85 but has been increasing as more information has been found out.
There's very straight up violence and murders that women face, but at the same time, Human Rights Watch did a report that came out a few days ago that outlined the ways the Afghan government has systematically denied women legal protections while facing violence, whether that's intimate partner violence, forced marriage, or whether that's being prohibited from going to school or acquiring property. All of which women are technically protected under, under the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. It's been the Afghan government, not the Taliban, that has failed to protect those from the right not to be subject to that kind of violence in an ongoing manner.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to dig in a little bit to the language of feminists because I think feminist means a lot of different things to different listening audiences. I want to be clear here around the notion of a feminist foreign policy not meaning an imposition of a particular Western ideal of particular policy positions or ideologies on any other group of men, women, and children.
Shreya Chattopadhyay: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the really interesting and important things about the Feminist Peace Initiative that I wrote about is that it doesn't see the United States government as the sole actor on the global scale, of course. Obviously, the US military is what needs to stop occupying the country of Afghanistan, but the initiative is also speaking to feminists in the United States who are seeking to be in solidarity. That means not imposing a Western understanding of what feminism is, not speaking on behalf of women in Afghanistan, who historically have been the ones who have gained rights for themselves.
In early July, women in the central province have themselves staged armed demonstrations against increased depression in the current context. I think when we're talking about Feminist Peace Initiative and being in global solidarity, the goal is actually to, first and foremost, for feminists in United States, stay the hand of the United States. Make sure that the United States doesn't do any more harm than it's already done. Secondarily, really be in service and be led by women in the actual country-- There are organizations like RAWA, which is the Revolutionary Association for Women in Afghanistan, who have schools and orphanage--
Hospital for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who are doing work on the ground like that, lifting up work like that, and then also supporting and lifting up the demands of the women who staged demonstrations in July. I think it's a real reorientation where, in the past, there was a lot of orientalizing language, a lot of focus on veil as a site of women's oppression in Afghanistan, but that's not actually the case. The hope is that those in the United States and the West can actually listen to women who are actually on the ground and what they're actually calling for.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you just maybe give me one more beat here around education and girls, which has been, again, obviously a critical part of the discourse and the analysis? What is the state of education for girls in Afghanistan right now?
Shreya Chattopadhyay: As of 2018, two-thirds of girls in Afghanistan are not in school and the Taliban has only gained power since then. Education was really used as a big reason for intervention. A lot of emphasis was on the fact that the Taliban didn't allow girls to go to school, which was true and not something to be discounted, but at the same time, Human Rights Watch has done many analyses and the most optimistic evaluators estimate that, at its peak, post-US intervention, girls education level in Afghanistan was just over 50%.
Those gains had really leveled off since 2011 and have actually sharply decreased recently as the Taliban gains power, and also as fighting increases and women are not able to literally physically make it to school. Even those numbers might be inflated because the Afghan government's method for counting counts a child as attending school until she hasn't attended for up to three years. You can see how those numbers could also be inflated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shreya Chattopadhyay is a reporter and researcher at The New Republic and a contributor at The Nation. Take the time to read her recent article, As the US Leaves Afghanistan, Anti-War Feminists Push a New Approach to Foreign Policy. We'll be sending it out on our social media for sure. Thank you for joining us today.
Shreya Chattopadhyay: Thanks so much for having me.
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