By Madeleine Freeman and Sou Mi – Sep 11, 2021
With the narrative of justifying imperialist intervention in the name of women’s rights called into question by 20 years of disastrous U.S. occupation in Afghanistan, the space is open for rethinking what it means to take up the fight for women’s emancipation with a staunchly anti-imperialist perspective.
This article is the third 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.
The disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan ripped open a deep crisis for the Biden administration, exposing the ugly face of U.S. imperialism and its declining hegemony. Even as they decry Biden’s decision to withdraw, much of the bourgeois political and media establishment are forced to admit that 20 years of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan — and decades of being caught in the middle of Cold War conflict and civil war before that — have only put the vast majority of the country’s population in increasingly precarious conditions: complete dependence on international aid, starker divisions between urban and rural areas, mass poverty and unemployment, widespread displacement, crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure, and the predominance of reactionary and repressive local rule by the Taliban and other forces.
This defeat for U.S. hegemony internationally has called into question the lie of liberal feminism — of emancipating Afghanistan’s women and children from the tethers of Islamic fundamentalism and misogyny through capitalist development, whether it is at the point of a gun or by the pursestrings of an NGO. This particular brand of liberal feminism argued that the best way to achieve women’s liberation was through imperialist intervention, enforcing capitalist “democracy” and equality in law through alliances with puppet governments and the elevation of a small portion of women above the vast majority of working and poor women across the country whose living conditions barely changed or even worsened after years of civil war and invasion.
While many politicians and analysts point to the quick fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban as evidence that continued U.S. intervention may have offered the stability required to improve conditions for Afghanistan’s women, the 20 year history of the U.S. occupation — one of the most expensive wars in U.S. history — tells a different story.
The new capitalist era promised by the U.S. invasion could never emancipate the women of Afghanistan. A new Constitution brimming with the language of women’s rights meant little to the working class in a country where more than 47% of the population lives beneath the poverty line and millions of people have been displaced as U.S. and Taliban bombs alike rained down upon their homes. Its empty promise of equality between men and women means even less when alliances with regional warlords allows the regular beatings of women for leaving home without a chaperone and when dissent is harshly repressed by police and militia-men armed with U.S. made weapons. U.S. intervention — in all of its forms — was never meant to help Afghan women. As we have stated previously:
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.”
With liberal feminism unable to offer a path forward, the space is open for rethinking what it means to take up the fight for women’s emancipation with a staunchly anti-imperialist perspective, one that rejects the false universalism of liberal feminism that merely substitutes one oppressor for another. It is a pressing question of strategy for feminists across the world, both in imperialist and semicolonial countries alike.
As we have outlined previously, the rich history of feminist struggle in Afghanistan hints at an alternative path, one that is intertwined with the struggles against colonialism, imperialism, and religious authoritarianism. But a truly anti-imperialist feminism is one that extends beyond a given national context to understand how those conditions of gender oppression are created as a product of a global system of capitalist domination that puts all of the world’s resources in the hands of a few to be turned into a profit by the exploitation and oppression of the rest of us. Such a feminism recognizes the key place that women play in the global economy, and in doing so, fights for the liberation of all humanity, taking as its foundation that the struggle against oppression is the struggle against capitalist exploitation.
Anti-Imperialist Feminism without Strategy
In her essay, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism,” María Lugones argues that gender as a binary is rooted in the colonial project. Using examples of pre-colonial, native formations, Lugones argues that gender is a colonial imposition which continues to permeate all aspects of social existence and gives rise to new social and geo-cultural identities, thereby creating gendered identities, as well as racial identities, and class identities.
Lugones takes a classically intersectional approach in her understanding of the construction of these identities, claiming that to offer any specificity — reduced to “hierarchy” in her framework — to these categories is to adopt an inherently colonized logic. In this scheme, class is diluted as one more identity in a sea of identities, blurring the lines between oppression and exploitation.
For Lugones it is necessary to decolonize feminism by shedding the “coloniality of gender,” first and foremost by unlearning these colonial relationships through a constant process of individual and communal “resistance.” But in this task of resistance, Lugones and the framework of decolonial feminism, which puts abstract notions of “power” at the center, seems a little more vague. Lugones clarifies that the task is not to unsee the “imposition of the human/non-human, man/woman, or male/female dichotomies” in everyday life. “One resists it from within a way of understanding the world,” she writes, “and living in it that is shared and that can understand one’s actions, thus providing recognition.” The act of resistance, thus, is not individual, but in community, and one that puts community and human life over profit. For Lugones, it is this affirmation of multiplicity that becomes the task of resistance, as opposed to the reconfiguration of the material condition that gives rise to and sustains the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, which seemingly will naturally follow. The question of feminist resistance, therefore, requires embracing pre-colonial plurality and community, and making space for such plurality in the world to replace the patriarchal profit driven capitalist system.
What is missing from these arguments is the role played by capitalism and the state that supports it that upholds the heteronormative patriarchal gender binary for its own benefits. Blurring the line between colonialism and imperialism, Lugones ignores the fact that, as José Carlos Maríategui once explained, “The international character of the contemporary economy…does not allow any country to escape the transformations flowing from the current conditions of production.”1 It is true that colonialism, in imposing new productive relationships onto oppressed nations, also violently imposed new social relations, including gender roles. It did so, as Marx once said, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” But those relationships changed and were enforced in new ways during the imperialist epoch, reaching new heights as the global economy underwent deep structural changes. While colonialism made possible the emergence of industrial capitalism, imperialist penetration implied the massive integration of human beings — specifically women — into the proletariat. Imperialism also imposed a new international division of labor based on imperialist oppression, the plundering of the natural resources of the semi-colonies, and more recently the creation of a cheap labor force in the semi-colonies that swells the profits of the big imperialist corporations.
So, while even Lugones admits, there is no going back to a utopian vision of “pre-colonial” social relations in a world transformed first by colonialism, she underestimates the deep structural changes wrought by imperialism. And so Lugones also underestimates the task of emancipation as one of real struggle to overthrow capitalist productive relations in their current form. The oppression that women face isn’t just an ideological hurdle to cross and thereafter reconfigure society in the image of pluralism, but takes the form of an active social, political, and economic barrier that maintains women in precarity.
For us, as socialist feminists, the task of resistance therefore does not begin at the realm of ideological transformation. Resistance begins with the uncompromising struggle, the collective action, of the working class and oppressed in the streets and in their workplaces fighting against every attack on their social and political rights. Liberation, however, begins at the most advanced stage of this struggle, at the level of the social transformation of society and the overthrow of capitalist productive relations in their current form in the imperialist epoch. While destroying the fetters of these exploitative productive and social relationships will not automatically erase sexism, racism, transphobia, or any other oppression, it is the material change in the lives of the oppressed — in this case, the lives of Afghan women — that will create the conditions for increased social and political participation and ideological transformation.
Colonialism, in order to find new markets as society transformed from feudalism to capitalism, didn’t simply erase cultural plurality across the world with an ideological apparatus; it replaced existing social relations with or adapted them to the notions of the bourgeois family, private property, and gendered division of labor. Capitalism has, for centuries, used sexism to suppress half of the population to maintain private property, subsidize the work of social reproduction, and divide the working class. The creation of a society that is free of gender and sexual exploitation, wherein one can fully explore and express their identity, is only possible by first removing the material basis of gender, which is deeply ingrained in capitalism. It is not simply one we can abolish or ignore as a social construction; we have to replace it with new social and economic relations that can be the foundations for the end of the bourgeois family order. In ignoring the material bases of the very real oppression women across the world face every day, the project of decolonization gives up the real struggle for emancipation from imperialist oppression and renders its anti-imperialism both toothless and without allies.
For Internationalist Feminism, Not International Charity
In Afghanistan, women play a key role in the economy. As we have explained previously:
Far from simply being passive victims of oppression, these women also make much of society run. Even in the pre-war era, much of rural society was kin-based with a broad division of labor. In addition to tasks of social reproduction such as child care, cooking, and household financial management, women also play a central role in the fields, from harvesting crops to prepping the soil for the season and tilling the land. Women are also the traditional creators of Afghanistan’s famous rugs and handicrafts. Today, they are also increasingly participating in livestock production and dairy processing.
With the important place they occupy in the economy, women can fight against both the continued oppression of foreign forces and the increasingly authoritarian rule of the Taliban. But this alone is not enough. The majority of women are overwhelmingly kept in the informal workforce, are tied to traditional gender roles, and are disciplined with violent attacks. Consequently, the fight for women’s rights has to necessarily, first, take up the feudal and capitalist relations that form the very basis of such oppression.
Proletarian women in Afghanistan, as in countries of the Global South, have more in common with other working women across the world than they do with bourgeois women of their own country. The urban bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie have not only been able to access the civil rights that millions of others have been denied, but, whether through their participation in government, the army, or their collaboration with the many outfits that promote international “aid,” continue to uphold a capitalist state apparatus that benefits from the oppression of rural and working women. From Myanmar to Bolivia, working class women have been at the frontlines of class struggle in the last years, showing clearly the connection between their identity as women and the class oppression they face under capitalist exploitation.
But in a country where the working class is weak and underdeveloped, with millions still relying on subsistence agriculture, international solidarity is crucial in the fight against gender oppression and the eventual revolutionary transformation of society. It is essential that workers across the world rely not on the goodwill of their oppressors and the state that supports them, but independently organize themselves and support the fight of the oppressed across the world. As Trotsky writes,
Internationalism is no abstract principle but a theoretical and political reflection of the character of world economy, of the world development of productive forces and the world scale of the class struggle.
It is the recognition that while these productive forces in the world economy have expanded exploitation and oppression, they have also made our common enemies show their faces. For feminists, this means that the fight against gender oppression is international in character. Far from offering a false universalism that erases the cultural particularities of oppression and reduces the goals of the liberation of women to those of the most well-positioned women in society, this means realizing how the particularities of this oppression fit into a larger scheme of capitalist domination and taking up these fights across borders and other manufactured divisions with a unified fist that attacks capitalism at its roots. This common struggle must be taken up by feminists in both imperialist and semicolonial countries.
As a response to the atrocities wrought by imperialism across the globe and influenced by postmodern cultural relativism, some feminists deny the possibility of this shared struggle, saying that there is no experience common to “all women” and therefore a common vision of liberation is limited if not impossible. On some views this means identifying all people living in imperialist countries as “colonizers,” equating them with the bourgeois capitalists who oppress and exploit working people at home and abroad and reinforcing the divisions that capitalism imposes on the international working class. At best, this view limits us to abstract notions of solidarity amongst atomized struggles.
Under such a worldview, “Solidarity” takes the form of supporting whatever forces oppose U.S. imperialism — whether they are foreign powers looking to shore up their international influence or national capitalists and politicians promising democracy — and donating to the “right” organizations or individuals as a form of reparations. In the end, though it might be dressed up in more radical rhetoric, this is nothing more than an adaptation to the contours of neoliberalism which expanded the influence of the state through the predominance of NGOs and other social and labor organizations that could contain and diffuse class antagonisms. Indeed, since the brokering of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal in February 2020, more NGOs have begun collaborating with the Taliban to maintain capitalist stability and continue “business as usual,” even while the women they purportedly serve were being subjected to increasing restrictions and oppression. Instead of forging a fighting pole, NGOs maintain a clientelist relationship with those they provide aid to, keeping them as a passive force dependent on the crumbs of global capitalism.
While it is true that gender identity does not unite women’s struggles as one of common experience, and while it is true that the specific forms of gender oppression operate within national and cultural contexts, such a view denies the global reach of capitalism and its effect on social relations. As Andrea D’Atri explains in Bread and Roses:
In the capitalist system, every uniqueness of use values is subsumed into the universal abstraction of exchange values; every individuality of subjects — whether they can be exploited, or on the contrary, exploiters — is subsumed into the formality of equality before the law in the figure of the free citizen. The arbitrariness of universalization on the legal or political plane is only the reverse side of a society fragmented into classes. Questioning the former without condemning the latter means upholding — by omission — the material basis of class society, anchored in the economic structures of the social relations of production.
In omitting the material basis of class society, substituting it for abstract notions of intersectionality and power dynamics, these feminists misidentify the locus of the struggle against gender oppression as being rooted in culture and “discourse.” They underestimate the state apparatus and productive relations that sustain gender oppression, and in doing so, give up any hope of a truly anti-imperialist feminism that fights for liberation — since the fight to overthrow imperialist oppressors is the fight against capitalism as a whole, a global project requiring the efforts of a united working class.
Added to this, the premise of cultural relativism adopted by such views makes oppression a moral category that is respective to each culture, meaning that what is or what is not considered gender oppression, for example, varies across cultures and therefore can only be resolved within those cultures themselves. But the violent oppression Afghan women face under the rule of religious authoritarianism, which predates and includes more than just the Taliban, cannot be solved simply by reexamining the tenets of Islam or magically ridding them of the influence of colonialism. Such a view misidentifies the origins of such oppression and in doing so fractures and hyper-localizes the struggle against gender oppression. It can even go so far as to apologize for oppression in the name of respect for cultural differences.
But the imperialist imposition of “universal” women’s rights is not the answer either. Gender oppression cannot be fought with the “lesser evil” of military occupation and financial dependence. Nor can it be eradicated by issuing Islamophobic decrees outlawing the veil. These merely serve to justify repression and intervention cloaked in the language of human rights.
Instead, we must denounce and support the fight against all instances of religious fundamentalism and attempts to control women’s bodies. In Afghanistan, this means fighting against the restrictions and violence of the Taliban as well as imperialist Islamophobia.
This struggle begins with the movement of Afghan feminists to protect their rights from the onslaught of the Taliban. Even now an increasing number of women are disappearing back into their home as the effects of Taliban rule begin to take shape. But they are not going quietly. Even faced with brutal repression, women and youth are at the frontlines of the struggle against Taliban rule. We must support all efforts of Afghan feminists to use their numbers and strength to fight back against both Taliban officials and the members of the fallen Afghan government who are now collaborating with their supposed enemies. The fight to protect what gains the feminist movement has made over the years will depend on the self-organization of Afghans against the Taliban and other nationalist forces, and imperialist intervention in the fight to determine their fate.
We must be clear, however, that this struggle is one against the capitalist state whether it’s in Afghanistan or the United States. While some anti-imperialist feminists do recognize the need for shared and international struggle, they see this as part of remaking the capitalist state in a more humane and “feminist” image, as if we could separate capitalism and imperialism. International NGOs, like MADRE, who have been outspoken opponents of both U.S. intervention and the conditions of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, see the path forward in Afghanistan as one of creating a global “feminist economy” and on-the-ground support. In this scheme, U.S. military intervention should be replaced with humanitarian aid that is somehow allocated fairly and with the input of the Afghan people in the abstract. But this just gives imperialist exploitation a new face, and ignores the real obstacles facing working women and all oppressed people living in Afghanistan, a country in turmoil and with few resources or infrastructure. Instead, this places the driver of change in society, not on the Afghan people these organizations are hoping to lift out of oppression and misery, but on extensions of the capitalist state and in collaboration with national governments, in this case the Taliban. Relegating the fight against gender oppression to the governments and agencies that uphold the system that created that oppression in the first place, just like feminists who pay lip service to anti-capitalism in talking about decolonization, their strategy is limited to treating the symptoms of gender oppression rather than confronting their cause. It is limited to constant resistance without ever posing the question of how to eliminate the roots of gender oppression for good.
Socialist internationalism provides an alternate solution. The fight against gender violence and oppression will be led, as it always has been, by feminists in Afghanistan. But their success depends on rejecting any alliance with the few people who have benefitted from the development of capitalism in Afghanistan. As Afghanistan is under threat of continued international intervention in response to the Taliban’s rule, we must unconditionally support their right to self-determination without giving tacit support to national bourgeois forces who promise to oppose the Taliban and usher in “Democracy” once again — the last 20 years have proven this much. Instead, it means recognizing that they have crucial allies in the working class and poor women, many of them Afghan refugees themselves, who live and toil in imperialist countries and who are in a particular position to fight against the imperialist machinations of their own bourgeoisie. And for feminists in those imperialist countries, they must realize that their own fight for liberation is tied to destroying this imperialist machine with the power of the united international working class. The politicians who are now wringing their hands over the plight of Afghan women suffering under the yoke of religious fundamentalism are those who are now paving the way for the walking back of reproductive rights in the name of religious fundamentalism in the United States.
A truly internationalist feminism in Afghanistan must take up the fight for women’s liberation from both within Afghanistan and in the countries that have created the conditions of repression and poverty that Afghan women face today. In the United States, this means that the feminist movement cannot relegate itself to fighting only for the rights of those of in the United States. Recent attacks on reproductive rights are setting the stage for a resurgence of the feminist movement in the United States; but any movement that fights to protect those rights — without just begging for their formal recognition by the state — must take up anti-imperialism as a central tenet of this fight. For U.S. intervention abroad weakens the international feminist movement and sets the foundation for continued oppression across the world. As we’ve made clear, our enemy, or the enemy of Afghan women, aren’t the workers and oppressed in other parts of the world, but a capitalist world order that divides and isolates us so we can’t fight back. Rather than sitting back and offering passive support, feminists here in the U.S. must actively take up the fight — with all our power as workers and in the feminist movement — to cut all funding to the U.S. military, close all U.S. bases, and open the borders for all people escaping oppression in their home countries.
In Conclusion: On Permanent Revolution and the Struggle Against Gender Oppression
In the face of the instability and repression engendered by Taliban rule which puts Afghan women in even more dire conditions, we have argued that the struggle against gender violence and the struggle to protect the gains of the Afghan feminist movement rests in the hands — not of politicians, policy-makers, and capitalists — but in the independent organization of the Afghan feminist movement with the support of the Afghan and international working class. But to make the elimination of gender oppression possible means overthrowing capitalist social relations and reorganizing society to function without classes. But how is this possible in a country like Afghanistan, whose economy has been stunted and its working class decimated by decades of war? Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution offers a way forward.
As history has borne witness, the capitalist state, even when diverse in form, is incapable of being a vehicle for justice for the vast majority of people. Though for different reasons, both liberal feminists and even self-proclaimed anti-imperialist feminists alike point to the complicated and tumultuous history of factionalism in Afghan’s feudal-like society to explain why foreign intervention failed to create stability in the country that would better conditions for Afghan women. The former uses this to excuse the active role U.S. imperialism played in creating the situation in Afghanistan today; as we have shown, the latter uses this to justify a brand of cultural relativism that relegates class to one more link in a series of oppressive relationships that must be fought locally and individually, making true international solidarity and struggle impossible.
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Against this, the theory of permanent revolution provides another path forward. For the toiling masses, the struggle for liberation from imperialist oppression as well as Islamic fundamentalism has to be the struggle to overthrow their national bourgeoisie who enrich themselves on foreign aid and have nothing to give to the working and peasant masses except misery. To win social, economic, and democratic rights for the working class and oppressed, to fight back against imperialist control, and remake society into one that is free of all oppression, it is necessary to take up the path of socialist revolution.
Independently weak and tied to imperialism, the national bourgeoisie is unable to successfully lead the fight for national liberation, democracy, and industrial and agrarian reform. It is only the independent action of the working class in alliance with the peasantry that can deliver on the democratic tasks that face society. In this way, a revolutionary process in a backwards country could thus directly pass from its democratic stage to a socialistic one. Trotsky writes,
While the traditional view was that the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat led through a long period of democracy, the theory of the permanent revolution established the fact that for backward countries the road to democracy passed through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus democracy is not a regime that remains self-sufficient for decades, but is only a direct prelude to the socialist revolution. Each is bound to the other by an unbroken chain. Thus there is established between the democratic revolution and the socialist reconstruction of society a permanent state of revolutionary development.
But the revolution doesn’t stop at the point of revolutionary overthrow. Instead, as the working class in alliance with the peasantry are confronted with the task of putting an end to capitalism and private property, they transform all of the country’s productive capacities not towards profit making, but towards the development of society.
This transformation of property relations happens as the workers’ state takes up the structural tasks of the bourgeois revolution, such as the question of national independence and unity, the redistribution and reorganization of land among the peasantry, and others that would have lit the spark of such a revolution. The revolution is permanent because in addition to transformations in political and economic relations, the changes in material conditions fosters subsequent revolutions in society and culture. The reorganization of labor from a capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production, opens up new avenues for change and creates the foundations for the transformation of the material conditions that oppress the masses, including women. Unfettered by the desperation to produce surplus value and profits for capitalists, such a state can socialize child care and housework along with implementing access to education, and equal pay for equal work, thus freeing women from the traditional gender roles that class society has kept them in and opening them up to new ideas in the continued struggle for women’s emancipation in the revolutionary transformation of society. Though this process is not immediate and requires an active fight against misogyny and all other oppression when the material bases of these oppressions are eliminated, the conditions are set for a society to emerge that is truly equal and liberatory for all, free from the misery of exploitation and subjugation.
Featured image: A painting by Afghan graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani