“I am from Afghanistan, a country famous for War. Let’s change the topic, let’s bring PEACE with art.”

These are the words which introduce the Facebook page of Shamsia Hassani, a famous Afghan artist. Scrolling down the page though, powerful drawings of solitary women, gloomy scenarios and monstrous Taliban characters appear on the screen like an ever-ending scream of pain in black and red flashes of colour. Indeed, as The Guardian warns us: “Afghanistan’s shrinking horizons: ‘Women feel everything is finished’”[1], the situation in the country of the “horsemen”, according to the etymology of its name, is quite bad, especially for its women. In fact, giving account of “Afghan women’s defiance and despair: ‘I never thought I’d have to wear a burqa. My identity will be lost’”[2], most of media accounts remind us that “the Talibans are actually erasing women”.

Still, whilst the current dramatic events happening in Afghanistan are a global call for action which cannot but engage all of us, post-colonial, feminist accounts have described this public obsession with the image of the oppressed veiled woman as an updated version of what feminist critic Gayatri Spivak described in the formula “white men saving brown women from brown men”. Indeed, the risk of living again the episodes of 2001, when Laura Bush addressed the United States of America with a long speech directed at supporting the US military campaign seen that “[b]ecause of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment”[3], is very high.

Consequently, in order to effectively promote women’s security, it is fundamental to look at the way women are described in public discourses. Considering the main relevance of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in relation to women’s security on the global scenario, it is necessary to look at how women are represented in these global policies. A matter which is critically urgent looking at the situation in Afghanistan and the way it brutally escalated.

Indeed, this global agenda has been introduced on 31 October 2000, a year before the attacks of the 9/11, by means of the resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council and at present is made up of a total of ten resolutions, the last two adopted in 2019. The WPS agenda has been triumphantly celebrated as a feminist victory in the war against war and UNSCR 1325, the first resolution of the Security Council on the topic of women, peace and security, as a “landmark resolution” representing a “new, daring, and ambitious strategy for anti-war feminists” [4]. Yet, while it has undeniably given a major contribute to the mainstreaming of gender in peace and security processes and discussions, it has also been strongly criticised for representing women as “victims to protect” rather than “agents of change”. In this sense, various feminist scholars have struggled with the concept itself of “victim”, a very problematic and debated argument also within the overall analysis of the discourses which constitute the WPS agenda. As James Dignan, formerly Professor of Comparative Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds, remarks, some people “consciously reject the victim ‘label’, either because they consider it to be pejorative or because they prefer to pursue or promote other ‘coping strategies’” and prefer for instance the term ‘survivors’”[5]. Accordingly, already in 1985 authors such as Elias argued for a “victimology of human rights” which represents individuals neither as victims nor as survivors but eventually as rights-holders. In fact, feminist analysis, within critical victimological theories, reminds us that victimisation is an integral component and result of power structures configurating a patriarchal system where men dominate over women[6] and where, in addition, “victims and survivors are constructed in ways that we may or may not be aware of” as Sandra Walklate[7] reminds us.

As observed at the beginning of this post, a particularly evident and up-to-date example of narratives and counternarratives on womanhood and victimhood in an environment which has been strongly under the focus of the maintenance of international peace and security is Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of the 9/11, the support for military intervention in Afghanistan was firmly built on the discourse of saving Afghan women from the Taliban. Indeed, professor and researcher Laura Shepherd has examined the core role of these rescue narratives in order to create a legitimate narrative of war in the US, based on political and public support, narratives which actually shaped our own relationship with international relations and gender politics. While she defines these rescue narratives as “justifications focused on rescue narratives based on gender constructions of the male hero (US) and female victim (Afghan woman) and male perpetrator (Taliban) and female victims (women in general)”[8], many authors, such as Professor Chandra Mohanty or postcolonial theorist Edward Said, have addressed the construction of Third World Women as victims in need of “Western” help. These descriptions are grounded on the representation of non-Western cultures as “Other” and opposed to the Western “Us”. Thus, as pointed out by researcher Lema Salah, whereas Western society is constantly assumed to be developed, rational, flexible and superior, Muslim women are oppressed by Islam, consequently Afghan women cannot emancipate because of Muslim fundamentalists and traditional cultures related to Islam.

In this framework, also the WPS agenda, which is meant to present a holistic approach to security comprehending four main pillars: Participation, Conflict Prevention, Protection and Relief and Recovery, has been questioned for being primarily centred on the pillar of protection. This focus is characterized by a global rhetoric about victimhood and protection which offers an understanding of women solely in terms of victims who need the paternalistic protection offered by the international community, as feminist scholars Ní Aoláin and Valji contend. Similarly, Professor Laura Shepherd underlines that UNSCR 1325 describes women as “fragile, passive and in need of protection”, which is especially problematic taking into consideration that “victims are rendered vulnerable through their very construction as victims” in the words of feminist author Cecilia Åse[9]. In this sense, further, it is important to take into account not only the ordinary dimension of women’s discrimination and subjugation, but also the interaction between cultural understandings of victimhood and the escalating politicisation of victim issues and victim policymaking in the twenty-first century.

For example, analysing specifically the UN “Zero-tolerance policy”, introduced in order to fight the phenomenon of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations, Professor Dianne Otto underlines that it recurs to a

protective representation of women that have long been recognized as inconsistent with the realization of women’s human rights, and revives the conflation of women and children seen in early international legal texts, when it was still accepted that women and children were the property of men

On the other hand, she emphasizes that for women not to be seen as powerless victims but as agents it is necessary “an approach that takes women’s autonomy and equality seriously”[10].

This unidimensional understanding of women solely in terms of victims within the whole WPS framework can, though, be related to the very international legal system. In fact, looking at the structure of international humanitarian law, it is possible to notice that the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two Additional Protocols are formally based on a principle of equality, stating that it is not possible to discriminate according to the sex of the individuals, unless it is beneficial for them. In this sense, there are special provisions to protect women which make reference to the “regard” or “consideration due to women on account of their sex”. On the other hand, though, these legal provisions outline a representation of women where they are considered only in terms of their characterizing weakness, at the physical and psychological level, and resulting need of protection, and in terms of their sexual and reproductive capacity, both as civilians and combatants. Further, for what concerns sexual violence, this is addressed only referring to the honour of the women involved, recurring to terms such as chastity, modesty and weakness. Overall, thus, there is no conceptualization of women as autonomous subjects but only a patriarchal delineation of women as the property of the men they are depending on. Thus, feminist scholars argue that these clauses do not actually have a neutral impact, but that they necessitate to be reformulated in order to actually promote a comprehension of women as legal subjects, moving away from a currently out of tune notion of women’s honour to a more empowering understanding of women’s rights. Only this way it is possible to build a coherent discussion on the concept of victimhood and of women as victims in the international legal context and in the very WPS agenda, moving possibly toward reconfiguring women in completely new terms, not as passive players on the global scene but as active ones.

In fact, an intersectional perspective is fundamental. As researcher Susanne Zwingel reminds us, “Afghan women are the protagonists in their struggles for a better society. They are not a monolithic bloc but differ widely in terms of beliefs, goals, skills and the constraints they find themselves in”[11], what they do need is Recognition, Not Rescue.

Consequently, only a new understanding and construction of women at the international level, starting with the very and crucial WPS agenda, can bring also to a new understanding and construction of women at the domestic level. What is needed is a careful reformulation of international policies, starting with the core sector of international peace and security, in terms of empowering women. An empowerment which cannot be built by means of an empty rhetoric recurring to the overstressed expression “women’s leadership and representation”, but which needs to be based on giving real agency to real women, first of all disjoining the two quite different categories of women and children which always recur as a stand-alone phrase in the cherished wording “women and children”, in the international language.

[1] See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/12/afghanistans-shrinking-horizons-women-feel-everything-is-finished

[2] See https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/aug/15/afghan-womens-defiance-and-despair-i-never-thought-id-have-to-wear-a-burqa-my-identity-will-be-lost

[3] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/laurabushtext_111701.html

[4] See for instance Cohn et al. 2004, 130 at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c4f3f4355b02cbdd03b550c/t/5c5b893f971a1856633d7a53/1549502783463/-Women%2C+peace%2C+and+security-+Resolution+1325.pdf

[5] See Dignan, J. (2004, 18). Understanding Victims And Restorative Justice. McGraw-Hill Education

[6] See for instance scholars like Brownmiller 2005; DeKeseredy and Schwartz 1998, 2005, 2009, 2013.

[7] At pages 27-28 of her work: “Researching Victims of Crime: Critical Victimology”, Social Justice, Fall 1990, Vol. 17, No. 3 (41), Feminism and the Social Control of Gender (Fall 1990), pp. 25-42

[8] See Shepherd, L. ‘Veiled references: Constructions of gender in the Bush Administration discourse on the attacks on Afghanistan post-9/11’, in: International Feminist Journal of Politics 8/1 (2006), at page 25.

[9] See Åse, C., 2019. “The gendered myth of protection”, In: Gentry, C.E., Shepherd, L.J. and Sjoberg, L. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Security, London: Routledge, 273-283, at page 280.

[10] See Otto, D., 2007. “The Sexual Tensions of UN Peace Support: A Plea for ‘Sexual Positivity’”. Finnish Yearbook of International Law, Volume XVIII, 33–57, at pages 35 and 38.

[11] See Zwingel, S. 2021. “What Afghan Women Need From Us Right Now”; https://genderpolicyreport.umn.edu/what-afghan-women-need-from-us-right-now/