Regents' Professor delves into plight of Afghan women in new book

Sally Kitch

In her new book, “Contested Terrain: Reflections with Afghan Women Leaders,” Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Sally Kitch seeks to shed light on the role Western intervention has played in the fate of Afghan women.

Through the narratives of two women – Judge Marzia Basel, founder of the Afghan Women Judges Association, and Jamila Afghani, founder and director of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Center – Kitch gives a human voice to the oft-ignored perspective on the personal and professional lives of Afghanistan's women.

Kitch, who teaches Women and Gender Studies in the School of Social Transformation, also recently wrote an op-ed piece for Foreign Policy on the topic. It can be read in full here.

ASU News sat down with Kitch for a Q&A session about her new book, which launches Thursday, May 28, with a discussion co-sponsored by The McCain Institute for International Leadership and The New America Foundation. The event will take place at 12:15 p.m. Eastern time (9:15 a.m. Arizona time) at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

You can follow the discussion on Twitter using #AfgWomen and by following @McCainInstitute and @NatSecNAF. The event will also be livestreamed here.


Q: You’ve said that it is often the case that when you tell fellow Americans that you have conducted research on and written a book about the female leaders of Afghanistan, they give you a blank stare. Why do you think that is?

A: I think that most Americans, unfortunately, including people who are policymakers in our government, have a picture of Afghan women as burka-clad, silent, repressed and powerless. And while there is certainly some truth to that characterization – especially in rural areas where a large part of the population does live – it is also the case that there have been women leaders and activists in Afghanistan for decades.

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

A: I realized that I was witnessing an important gender issue of my time, but I was also witnessing a replay of an old script in the colonial world, which is that we, in the West, are smarter, better, more evolved than others, and our role is to save them.

Laura Bush, when she was first lady, gave a speech right after the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan … and she said that part of the fight against terrorism – of course, she was confused a little bit between terrorists and Taliban, but nevertheless – is to advance the rights and dignity of women. And I agree that we should be advancing the rights and dignity of women all over the world, but I don’t agree that we do it without ever consulting them. So I thought that it was very important that I try to figure out some role to play in this important event. That’s what I strove to do, and that’s what this book is sort of a culmination of.

Q: What do you seek to answer in writing this book?

A: I wanted to become engaged in this moment where a group of women were identified as victims of a clearly misogynist and rights-empty sort of world, and I wanted to see what really made sense to do. What could we do in the West instead of lording over them and sending them aid that they may or may not have asked for? I call it the “about them without them” phenomenon.

The West was implicated in a variety of ways in shaping Afghanistan and, I argue in the book, in actually creating suffering for Afghan women through our political maneuverings. So my goal was to be a different kind of Westerner, a different kind of American.

Q: In your op-ed for Foreign Policy, you write that many U.S. officials consider the negative effects of Western influence on Afghan women’s lives to be merely “collateral damage.” Why do you think that is? 

A: What I argue is that the U.S., among other powers, has negotiated about Afghanistan throughout history, particularly since World War II, for its own advantage, even if it meant that rights-seeking efforts by Afghan women or by others on their behalf would be sacrificed.

[For example] Communism was a huge political organizer for the United States for 40 years after World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. [During the 1980s] the fact that there was a party in power in Afghanistan that was even nominally backed by the Soviet government meant that the U.S. felt it had to oppose everything. But under that rule, there were equal rights for women; Afghan women were not required to wear modest dress, they could be educated alongside men in universities, they could walk in the streets without being accused of enticing men. They had a number of rights that you would think the United States would support, but we did not because it seemed like those were Communist ideas under those circumstances.

And in the 1980s, we helped to give birth to the Taliban, which then were the most repressive force against women that Afghans had ever seen, among many repressive regimes. We backed the group that gave birth to the Taliban because they would be anti-Communist. So we backed well-known misogynist forces that were raping women and depriving them of even the simplest rights, even their rights to sustenance.

Q: What do you think the U.S. could have done differently to avoid perpetuating Afghan women’s abject status?

A: We made some big mistakes, in my view, in 2002 forward, where there was an actual window of opportunity for engaging with women leaders. All of that was squandered in the name of U.S. mega reconstruction projects, some of which failed dismally, including the building of the schools.

I remember one program that I write about in the book, under the Bush administration, was to bring lipstick to Afghanistan. There was some beauty company that got a contract with the U.S. government to bring makeup [to Afghanistan]. Well, women who don’t have water to drink or sanitation facilities … this is the way to address their concerns? Only from somebody who hasn’t ever asked them what their concerns are.

And an important thing the U.S. government missed was the fact that there were already women activists working for women’s rights and for social justice in general.

Q: Your book focuses on the lives of two Afghan women leaders, Judge Marzia Basel and Jamila Afghani, from 2005 to 2014. What was going on in their lives during that time?

A: One of the lessons of that time period is how they persisted. [In the book] I recount their changing moods and attitudes. They were very hopeful in 2005. By 2010, they thought the jig was up. They were pretty despondent, and it was in 2011 that Marzia made the decision not to go back to Afghanistan because she felt that her life was truly in danger … I talk about the night letters that the Taliban sent, where they made unbelievable threats.

The other thing that happened in that 2005-2014 period is they both got married. So I tell the dramatic stories of how they got married, and what their marriages are like, and the upsides and the downsides for them.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with your book and the accompanying book tour?

A: I wanted to do what I owed them, and what I owed them was much thanks for sharing their stories with me, for asking me to write this book … So I thought that I would use my resources to help that happen. …

I wanted to make these arrangements so that they could be heard publicly, in places where the media would be invited to be present, where people in government would be invited to be present, and where the book would also sell because all the proceeds of the book go to them and their causes. This is for them as much as I can make it for them.

The School of Social Transformation is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.