Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

Perfect Girls, Starving DaughtersCourtney Martin’s new book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” addresses a topic that affects every single one of us, female or male, young or old, brown or white, rich or poor. It is a book about the physical, and, more importantly, mental effects of our obsession with being thin. Going beyond the usual reasons of how society influences our behavior, Martin candidly, and at times, poetically, explores the hidden world of our deepest, darkest, desires to be perfect. While the book focuses primarily on young women, it applies equally to those of us women in our thirties and older, as well as men who are increasingly adopting dangerous eating habits themselves or are surrounded by women they love who are anorexic/bulimic or on the verge.

“Perfect girls” are intelligent, high-achieving, often athletic, and effortlessly thin – or so they would like to seem. But inside each perfect girl is a starving daughter who is aching to fill a void inside herself, who binges and purges with regularity, or who counts every calorie and skips meals toward starvation. This analysis by Martin aims at a particularly vulnerable place for every single one of us. We all know the psyche of the perfect girl and the starving daughter. We have either been there ourselves or are surrounded by people who have. Refreshingly in her book Courtney Martin reveals her own past struggles with being on the verge of an eating disorder.

The only rational reason for wanting to lose weight, says Martin, is for health reasons. Yet, the drastic measures many women (and increasingly men) take to lose weight are anything but healthy. Yo-yo dieting strains the heart, over-exercising ruins the joints, constant starving and malnutrition worsens the immune system, bingeing and purging causes gastro-intestinal problems, anorexia while pregnant increases the chances of birth defects, and so on.

On the other hand, eating sensibly, while occasionally indulging in a glass of wine, or a slice of chocolate cake is far more healthy. A regular and reasonable exercise regimen of 3-5 hours a week improves the immune system, maintains a healthy heart, etc, etc. But, it may not be enough to make those among us who are naturally heavy, appear skinny. So our image-conscious, skinny-obsessed society condemns us to perceptions of laziness, ill-health, and avarice. When in fact it is likely the other way around. Worse, our society rewards the emaciated, the bony, and the unrealistically proportioned among us. Hence, it rewards starvation, body obsession, and ultimately, ill-health.

But who among us has not observed our thick waistlines in the mirror and balked in disgust? Who among us has not skipped a meal as a result of that disgust? And who among us, after feeling starved for a few days, has not broken down and consumed a pint of ice cream or a package of cookies? The only ones among us who are effortlessly thin are those who are genetically pre-programmed to be so. They are the lucky ones whose DNA has hit the jackpot in our thin-rewarding-era. No matter what or how much this small minority eats, they remain skinny. The rest of us pretend we are really naturally skinny people trapped in the bodies of outwardly normal people. We want our battles with weight, when they are successful, to seem effortless, as though we too are among those pre-programmed by our DNA to be thin and thus powerful. But eventually we have to face our truths and our bodies as they are. And we have to love ourselves as we are.

But it is SO damn hard when everywhere around us women are pictured on billboards as stick figures coveted by all, filled not with flesh, but power. These emaciated women, whose thighs are the size of my upper arms, are physically waif-like, but appear omnipotent. And if the women in the magazines and on billboards are not really as skinny as they are supposed to be, a little creative Photo-shopping will do the trick! Such images must make even the models and actresses themselves unable to live up to their air-brushed selves. And if they can’t who can?

One of the most disturbing things Martin reveals near the end of her book is the increasing prevalence of pro-Anorexia and pro-Bulimia websites run by and for young women looking for positive affirmation of their endless pursuit of skinniness. The sites are short-handedly called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia.” Imagine if alcoholics began posting to one another about the pleasures of their addictions, happy to have found a community of like-minded drunks!

Three times a week I sweat away at a local gym, lifting weights, dancing on steps, struggling to lose my pregnancy weight. I often notice the bodies of two of my instructors in particular – women taut with muscle but also fleshy. They teach up to 4 classes a day at various local gyms. I envy their bodies but then realize that I would have to match their grueling exercise routines in order to get where they are – and these two women are not even skinny enough for MTV or Cosmo! And then I wonder – what would their bodies look like if they didn’t work as exercise instructors, spending 3-4 hours, 5-6 days a week, working out? Perhaps they would look like mine.

And if I spent all that time working out, I would have little time left in the day to play with my son, cook a creative meal, enjoy eating it with my husband, read books like Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and, of course, write blogs like this. I would spend more time worrying about my appearance than enjoying my brief time on this earth. I would waste away striving for a perfection that is illusory and more painful than it is worth. No thanks.

I highly recommend Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters to parents of young girls who may have started to become self-conscious about their growing bellies and hips, friends of “perfect girls” who seem to be disappearing in front of their eyes, and anyone who has ever personally struggled with their weight.

For more information about Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and its author, Courtney Martin, visit www.courtneyemartin.com.

NOTE: I interviewed Courtney about her book when it first came out in hard cover last year. Read/listen to the interview here.

Stick With the Taliban?

bush bin ladenThis morning I was a guest on a Grit TV with Laura Flanders, alongside a number of other Afghanistan experts – we were discussing the proposed increase in US troops in that country and Flanders (who, by the way, is one of my favorite radio/TV hosts!) asked the question, “Is this the right war?” as many Americans across the political spectrum often proclaim. I said what I’ve said publicly before: that a military solution to Afghanistan is not the answer, that US/NATO troops are doing more harm than good, that Afghans have turned against the occupation, and that the occupation should end. I added several more details to what should happen instead but you can get all the gory details by watching the show here.

And then tonight I received a cute little email, I’m assuming in response to the interview, which I’ve pasted below:

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Stick with the Taliban.
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:29:36 -0500
From: Go Isolationist!!!!! (mike@whydowesupporttheworld.com)

Since you are so incensed at the US killing civilians, then why are you here in the US? You seem to have liked life when the Taliban Ruled in Afghanistan, correct? We are just looking for the head ring guy Bin Laden. You bring us him, and we\’ll leave your country and you can welcome the Taliban back with open arms. Is that a deal?

——————–
REMOTE IP : 75.45.166.228
DATE/TIME : 2008-09-11 10:29:36

It always makes me smile to receive such messages – they speak for themselves. It affirms my increasing suspicion that those who blindly support war and in fact, well, not so bright.

But maybe I should humor Mike. So Mike, if you manage to read this, perhaps you could respond to the following questions that struck me while reading your email:

Q. Is the US searching for bin Laden or defeating the Taliban? Because you see those are two separate goals and bin Laden sure must be one smart guy to elude so many US troops for so long.

Q. How does killing thousands of civilians, including women and children, help us get closer to finding bin Laden?

Q. If the US hates bin Laden so much, why did the CIA work with him in the 1980s to help recruit jihadi fighters to Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation?

Q. If the US hates the Taliban so much, why did we not speak up when three of our key allies and weapons buyers recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan in 1996 (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.)?

Q. What if the Taliban offered bin Laden to Bush and he turned them down?

Q. Why do you assume I’m from Afghanistan?

Thanks Mike!

The Ignorance and Selfishness of Drilling

gas guzzlerWith the chorus of “Drill baby, drill,” emanating from the halls of the Republican National Convention, Republicans (and to a lesser extent, Democrats) have latched onto what they consider an important election-era economic issue that will draw American votes.

And, as this Pew Research poll shows, they are correct in assuming the utter selfishness and ignorance of Americans.

As a society we seem to balk at the increased price of gas far more than that of milk and vegetables. Our gas guzzling tanks are more precious than food on the table.

So when Karl Rove and his proteges capitalize on such sentiments by announcing oil drilling as a way to lower prices at the pump, Americans rejoice.

polar bearsAnd we stick McCain-Palin signs on our front lawns blissful at the prospect of saving a few hundred dollars a year, some day in the distant future, when all the polar bears and glaciers are gone, when our wallets are empty and our stomachs growling, but our oil executives are fat and rich and our cars purring and gleaming.

First of all, drilling will not lower oil prices – not for a VERY long time. Who says so? The US government. Really. According to the Energy Information Administration, which releases official energy statistics from the government, offshore oil drilling “would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.” Read the whole report here.

Secondly, what we lose as a result of this drilling is far too precious and irreversible. The Natural Resources Defense Council, in an excellent report on the impact of oil drilling on the environment, urges us to rethink this madness: Drilling for oil could seriously damage our oceans, coastal communities and marine life.

Reflections on the RNC (And, A Resolution to Blog More Frequently)

stepford wivesI recently returned from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota where I was part of a Pacifica Radio nightly live broadcast. While there it hit me time and again, that I felt completely out of touch with the type of Americans that identify as Republicans. Waiting in line to get into the convention hall, I was surrounded by perfectly coiffured white women in shades of pink, white, and powder blue, teetering on impossibly high heels, and smiling broadly. They sported brightly colored buttons, some with flashing lights, supporting McCain for President. I wondered: Do these folks really support brutal wars? Do they really deny global warming? Do they really want to endlessly consume oil and make corporations rich? Do they really not care about the destruction of the planet? Or the lives of soldiers (forget Iraqis and Afghans – I didn’t even go there)?

I kept being reminded of the film, The Stepford Wives. Maybe all these people are really fake robots, programmed to accept the status quo in favor of the wealthy and elite. Then I realized, no – they are the wealthy and elite.

Obama Intends to Swap One Failed War for Another

Published on Friday, February 29, 2008 by CommonDreams.org

by Sonali Kolhatkar

Lately, in spite of my better judgment, I’ve found myself inflicted with a major case of “Obamania.” I cannot help but be excited at the prospect of a brilliant, younger-than-average, black president who could unite this polarized country against the failed policies of George W Bush. But each time I get optimistic that we are finally on the verge of entering a saner era, Obama makes a terribly foolish statement about the US occupation of Afghanistan.

His latest quip is a prime example: in retaliating against McCain’s attacks on his position on the Iraq war, Obama responded: “I intend to bring [the Iraq war] to an end so that we can actually start going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan like we should have been doing in the first place.”

He simply wants to swap one failed war for another: out of Iraq and into Afghanistan.

Obama, who openly says he is a “strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan,” is counting on American ignorance of the fact that since 2001 we have carried out a smaller scale version of the Iraq war in Afghanistan. In fact, in some respects Afghanistan was the testing ground for Iraq. Broaden the war in Afghanistan and you simply export the Iraq debacle to the middle of Asia.

While the scale of the two operations are vastly different, US policies in Afghanistan have shown eerily similar results to Iraq. After what seemed to be a brief period of positive change in the post-Taliban era, Afghanistan has plunged into despair once more. There has been a huge jump in suicide bombings, greater political power for fundamentalist forces, increased oppression of women, an unprecedented boom in opium production, and greater civilian deaths at US/NATO hands.

If Obama intends on pursuing a more constructive policy in Afghanistan than the current one, I’m all for it. Having studied the war in Afghanistan from its inception, I can make several recommendations including: generous funding of indigenous grassroots health, educational, and employment efforts; disarmament of US-backed criminal warlords and a war crimes tribunal to help national healing; protection of journalists and independent members of Parliament, especially women; viable and lucrative alternatives to poppy farming for local poor farmers; and of course the most important one of all: an immediate withdrawal of US/NATO combat troops with a corresponding increase in transitional UN peace-keeping forces (to remain in the country for purely security purposes until a democratic Afghanistan is ready to kick them out too).

These recommendations are not sure-fire but stand a good chance at actually helping ordinary Afghans, ending the reign of impunity enjoyed by the warlords, undermining any base of popular support enjoyed by the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda, and driving fewer people to resort to suicide bombings as a way to end a foreign occupation. Best of all, they can give real democracy a chance – the best antidote to terrorism.

Obama has not suggested any of these types of policies. He has not come even close. Instead he wants to take “the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan” by increasing the troop presence – a change that is already taking place under the Bush administration (3,200 additional troops are headed to Afghanistan this summer).

I’m not saying Americans should not vote for Obama (assuming he ends up winning the Democratic nomination). On the contrary, he and the movement that supports him represents perhaps the most viable hope of ending the Iraq war on the horizon today. What I am suggesting is that Obama’s antiwar supporters ought to be prepared for the sleight-of-hand war-swapping he has planned. They can do that best by starting right now, to hold Obama accountable for his extremely mis-guided position on Afghanistan. They can do that by guiding him firmly toward the more constructive goal of ending that war too, which in the long term will do far more to actually end terrorism.

Sonali Kolhatkar is host of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program and co-Director of Afghan Women’s Mission. She is co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories, 2006).
levitra
buy levitra
cheap levitra
levitra online
buy levitra online
order levitra
cipro
cipro online
buy cipro
zithromax
buy zithromax
zithromax online
viagra soft
viagra soft tabs
buy viagra soft tabs
cialis
Buy Cialis
Buy Cialis Online
cialis online
Online Cialis
Order Cialis
Cheap Cialis
Discount Cialis
rimonabant
buy rimonabant
cialis soft
cialis soft tabs
cialis soft tab
buy cialis soft tab
amoxil
buy amoxil
amoxil online
order amoxil
voltaren
buy voltaren
order voltaren
voltaren online
finasteride
buy finasteride
finasteride online
flagyl
flagyl online
buy flagyl
vardenafil
buy vardenafil
vardenafil online
sildenafil citrate
sildenafil
buy sildenafil citrate
buy sildenafil
propecia
buy propecia
order propecia
cheap propecia
propecia online
buy propecia online
lasix
buy lasix
lasix online
purchase lasix
accutane
buy accutane
accutane online
cheap accutane
buy accutane online
diflucan
buy diflucan
diflucan online
viagra
buy viagra
buy viagra online
viagra online
discount viagra
order viagra
cheap viagra
acomplia
buy acomplia
buy acomplia online
acomplia online
tadalafil
buy tadalafil
soma
soma online
buy carisoprodol
order carisoprodol
carisoprodol online
buy soma
order soma
levitra
buy levitra
cheap levitra
levitra online
buy levitra online
order levitra
cipro
cipro online
buy cipro
zithromax
buy zithromax
zithromax online
viagra soft
viagra soft tabs
buy viagra soft tabs
cialis
Buy Cialis
Buy Cialis Online
cialis online
Online Cialis
Order Cialis
Cheap Cialis
Discount Cialis
rimonabant
buy rimonabant
cialis soft
cialis soft tabs
cialis soft tab
buy cialis soft tab
amoxil
buy amoxil
amoxil online
order amoxil
voltaren
buy voltaren
order voltaren
voltaren online
finasteride
buy finasteride
finasteride online
flagyl
flagyl online
buy flagyl
vardenafil
buy vardenafil
vardenafil online
sildenafil citrate
sildenafil
buy sildenafil citrate
buy sildenafil
propecia
buy propecia
order propecia
cheap propecia
propecia online
buy propecia online
lasix
buy lasix
lasix online
purchase lasix
accutane
buy accutane
accutane online
cheap accutane
buy accutane online
diflucan
buy diflucan
diflucan online
viagra
buy viagra
buy viagra online
viagra online
discount viagra
order viagra
cheap viagra
acomplia
buy acomplia
buy acomplia online
acomplia online
tadalafil
buy tadalafil
soma
soma online
buy carisoprodol
order carisoprodol
carisoprodol online
buy soma
order soma
levitra
buy levitra
cheap levitra
levitra online
buy levitra online
order levitra
cipro
cipro online
buy cipro
zithromax
buy zithromax
zithromax online
viagra soft
viagra soft tabs
buy viagra soft tabs
cialis
Buy Cialis
Buy Cialis Online
cialis online
Online Cialis
Order Cialis
Cheap Cialis
Discount Cialis
rimonabant
buy rimonabant
cialis soft
cialis soft tabs
cialis soft tab
buy cialis soft tab
amoxil
buy amoxil
amoxil online
order amoxil

Go See Persepolis!

PersepolisI didn’t think Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age-in-Iran memoir could be much improved by animating it, but having just seen the Oscar-nominated film Persepolis, I realize I was wrong. I described it to a friend interested in viewing it thus: a black-and-white, animated film in French with English subtitles about a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. That description sets up a number of obstacles to a mainstream American audience. But Persepolis is absolutely worth watching. About 10 minutes into the film, you forget it’s black and white, you forget it’s animated, and you forget it’s in French. Satrapi’s story is honest and authentic, personal and political, all at once.

The type of story Marjane Satrapi’s weaves about her life is too often told by Western storytellers who can’t help but exoticize, trivialize, and patronize readers in the telling. So many things about her experience reminded me of my own: figuring out how to be a “normal” kid in a fundamentalist culture, grappling with the alienation of being a foreigner, suffering the pain of separation from one’s family at a young age. So, when I first came across part 1 of Satrapi’s deeply moving graphic novel about her early years, I read it in one sitting. I read part 2 in the book store before I could even finish paying for it.

The women in Persepolis, like the storyteller, are strong-willed, real women who struggle for their rights heroically. Satrapi’s relationship with her smart-talking grandmother is central to the film. Her grandmother teaches her to believe in herself, scolds her when she is selfish, and reminds her to take a principled stand in all things. It’s an image of Iranian women we rarely see in Western media.

The simple lines of her pen convey volumes about family, society, war, and religion and are a testament to her artistry, both as a story teller, and a graphic artist. It would almost have been too easy to make a traditional film based on her books, complete with actors and location shoots. In translating her graphic novels into an animated film, she chooses to keep her story in a realm that is one step away from reality: just like our own memories.

Enemies of Happiness (Film Review)

Enemies of HappinessEnemies of Happiness is not The Beauty Academy of Kabul. It is not about a Western woman traveling to a war-torn country to save brown women. It is about an Afghan woman, Malalai Joya, who has chosen to risk her life to fight for her own people.

Eva Mulvad’s award-winning film opens with footage of Joya’s dramatic public denunciation of the criminal warlords who dominated the 2004 loya jirga (constitutional convention) in Afghanistan. This was the fateful moment when ordinary Afghans discovered their most dedicated spokesperson—a twenty-six-year-old woman who was willing to risk her life to give voice to her people. It was also the moment that cast Joya into international fame, and into the crosshairs of the most notorious Afghan criminals—the “enemies of happiness.”

The loya jirga incident was the impetus for Joya’s bid for a parliamentary seat, and her election campaign is the focus of the rest of the film. It is Joya’s unconventional method of winning over the voters of rural Farah Province that makes this film utterly fascinating.

Joya does give an inspiring campaign speech or two to women who have never voted and cannot read or write. But the poor residents of Farah are more impressed by her dedication to solving the myriad social and political problems that plague their society. A drug addict who abuses his wife and threatens to leave his family receives a stern lecture from Joya. A warlord who is intent on forcibly marrying a young girl is reported by the girl’s family to the police at Joya’s urging.

Enemies of HappinessAnother reason why her people love and trust her is that she is quite literally one of them. Eva Mulvad’s skillful and unobtrusive camera work captures the impoverished lifestyle that is unfamiliar to Joya’s Western supporters. We see her cooking a modest meal, squatting on her haunches as she washes her clothes, and sleeping within a ramshackle hut. Mulvad’s decision to forgo a narrator gives the film a rare intimacy and authenticity. Malalai and other Afghans speak for themselves, allowing the film to avoid the paternalism that affects most Western-made documentaries about “Third World” nations.

Throughout the campaign Joya remains stoic, knowing that if elected, her intent to expose the warlords will bring her even closer to death. Many Afghans have been brutally murdered for doing and saying far less. But in one meeting with a close friend, the immense gravity of her actions becomes apparent and she breaks down, begging Mulvad to turn the camera off.

Enemies of Happiness leaves off where Malalai Joya’s contentious career in Parliament begins. The film’s only flaw is that its triumphant ending obscures the greater danger that lies ahead: in May 2007, Joya was suspended for “insulting” her fellow MPs and ordered to face a court of law.

Still, this remarkable story of how one woman has risked everything for her people is devastatingly compelling. It is a lesson in deep democracy that elected representatives in the United States could stand to learn.

—Sonali Kolhatkar

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2007-08 issue of make/shift magazine (www.makeshiftmag.com).

Find out more about the film at www.enemiesofhappiness.com, and about Malalai Joya at www.malalaijoya.com

RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation

Published on Znet on June 1, 2006
By Sonali Kolhatkar

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the US on September 11th, 2001. Despite interviews with Larry King Live, and promotion by Oprah, few mainstream media outlets examined the radical nature of RAWAÂ’s political vision and strategy, or their organizational structure. Sadly, many on the left have also overlooked the lessons we can learn from this extraordinary womenÂ’s movement, choosing instead to relegate support of RAWA to mainstream feminist groups.

Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, women’s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?

To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, “With All Our Strength” by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Historical context

Afghanistan’s brutal history of war naturally shapes RAWA dramatically. The 1970s were a time of intense student activism and protest. In 1977, a young Kabul University student named Meena founded RAWA to struggle for women’s rights. RAWA was born into a nation on the brink of imperial war, occupation, and reactionary forces from which it has yet to emerge. A year after RAWA’s formation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began a ten year long occupation. RAWA’s initial goal of women’s emancipation, was broadened to include national emancipation. They participated in the nation-wide non-violent resistance, or jihad, against the occupation. But RAWA was also seen as a threat by the fundamentalist, misogynist forces which the US chose to work with. In fact, RAWA’s work was increasingly threatening to both Soviet imperialists and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1987, Meena was assassinated by a collaboration of both forces – KHAD (Afghan secret police, controlled by the Soviet government), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the largest recipient of US financial aid).

Rather that destroying the organization, Meena’s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meena’s face has essentially become RAWA’s face.

Political Vision

RAWA’s underlying philosophy sees women’s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, women’s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the US, leftist Afghan women like Meena realized that the men in their movements paid lip service to women’s rights but did not see it as important as class, or other struggles. Women were told that their freedom would automatically follow from other social changes and that it was not necessary for women’s rights to be central to their struggles.

RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate “economic democracy,” and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.

Excerpts from RAWA’s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aims [1] as:

(1) women’s emancipation, “which cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole,”

(2) separation of religion and politics, “so that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives,”

(3) equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups,

(4) “economic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation,”

(5) commitment to “struggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture,”

(6) “to draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially,”

(7) to serve and assist “affected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy,”

(8) establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations “based on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs,”

(9) “support for other freedom and women’s movements worldwide.”

RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and “the party line.”

Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:

We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Sudan and other fettered peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting for their rights against reactionary and anti-liberty states and powers.[2]

Strategy

For the formation of a free, independent and democratic Afghanistan the joint striving and struggle of pro-liberty and democratic forces is indispensable. This objective can only be achieved through relentless struggle, not through compromise and capitulation.

— RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.

RAWA’s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.

Education

Education is seen as part of RAWA’s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.

RAWA’s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled “income-generating projects.” The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.

RAWA’s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that “Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education … speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses.” RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.

Health Care and Humanitarian Aid

Despite much-touted progress, Afghanistan still suffers from shockingly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality. In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 in the UN’s Human Development Index. With so much suffering around them, it is impossible for RAWA to speak of human rights and women’s political rights, without also addressing the lack of access to food and health care, which are prerequisites to other rights.

RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s refugee camps. In many cases, the people they serve have no other access to health care. When the need arises, RAWA conducts emergency relief operations alongside their political and educational work. They often assists refugees during harsh winter months with blankets, food, and medical aid.

Because of the large numbers of orphans in Afghanistan, RAWA runs several orphanages for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (They do not, however, offer Afghan children up for adoption in Western countries and urge instead urge Western supporters to sponsor orphans so that the children can remain in their own country while having access to education, shelter, etc.)

Media, Documentation, and Technology

From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.

Payam-e-Zan (translated as ‘Woman’s Voice’) is RAWA’s main publication — a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan “operates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment tool” for RAWA, “serv[ing] as a place to document RAWA’s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.”

As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from Afghanistan, decided to document the rampant human rights abuses through still photography and video. Photographs documenting the victims of the fundamentalists, or in some cases, violence in action, are published on their website and magazine, along side reports by the RAWA members with details such as the date, time, names of victims, and perpetrators, etc. Digital cameras have made RAWA’s documentation much easier and also enabled RAWA to share the images of human rights violations more easily with an international audience via their website.

Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWA’s own archive. The most famous example of RAWA’s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in Kabul stadium. After 9/11, this video was viewed all over the world, despite the fact that it was more than 2 years old. When initially offered to news media in 1999, no one would touch the gruesome footage until it was politically convenient. The footage was also used in Saira Shah’s widely acclaimed documentary, Behind the Veil, which was re-aired repeatedly on CNN after 9/11.

The advent of the internet catapulted RAWA into the international like no other new technology. Wisely seeing the potential for international solidarity, and drawing world attention to a forgotten crisis, RAWA launched www.rawa.orgin late 1996. One member explained:

We never imagined the internet would bring such a positive result for us. It is very important and something that now we can’t imagine we could work without … At the time I remember it was kind of amazing. The first email from the US that we got, we all called each other to come see this and our eyes were so big… [3]

Most of the relations between RAWA and their international supporters have developed through their website and e-mail. I too first discovered RAWA through their website and wrote to them expressing my solidarity.

RAWA’s website is the perfect portal for them to express their political views and publish their documents while preserving the anonymity of their members. Additionally, large amounts of material can be published and archived with little additional cost.

While Payam-e-Zan is still RAWA’s primary outlet to reach the majority of Afghans – who live in a poor country with little internet access, RAWA’s website is the main method of communicating with the outside world.

Political Demonstrations

RAWA organizes public protests up to several times a year to mark various dates: March 8th, International Women’s Day; April 28th, the “black day” when the fundamentalists entered Kabul in 1992; and December 10th, International Human Rights Day. According to Brodsky, “demonstrations are one of the large-scale non-traditional ways that RAWA educates and enlightens people.” [4] They are usually held in Pakistan, as Afghanistan is still too dangerous. Thousands of women are bussed in from across the border to march with signs and banners. Sometimes the women carry sticks for self-defense, or are accompanied by male supporters who walk beside the march. The demonstrations often culminate in a rally in front of the United Nations Office in Islamabad and elsewhere.

One member of RAWA explains the importance of demonstrations:

When a demonstration happens, some in backward places can’t even think a woman can stage such a thing. Our mission is to change that mentality and let women know they are human beings and equal to men.[5]

RAWA’s demonstrations also highlight events in Afghan history that either are forgotten or have been re-written. For example, the bloody events of fundamentalist infighting and civil war that followed April 28th 1992 are resurrected each year on RAWA’s signs and placards.

The women in RAWA’s demonstrations march militantly with faces uncovered and fists in the air. Their signs are explicitly pro-democracy and anti-fundamentalist. As such, the public demonstrations also challenge pervading assumptions among Westerners who were obsessed by images of mute, burqa-clad, helpless looking Afghan women, after 9/11.

Organizational Structure and Decision making

While RAWA had adopted a committee structure from the beginning, their founder Meena operated as a de-facto President. Her tragic assassination in 1987 highlighted the organization’s vulnerability with having a high-profile “leader” who could be easily targeted. After Meena’s death, RAWA changed its structure so that no single member could assume a leadership role. Their goal was to “create a leadership structure that was democratic, collective, and as non-hierarchical as possible, thus promoting the equality and democracy that RAWA seeks for Afghanistan at large.” [6] This manifested itself in the form of a “leadership council” of 11 members. These members are elected every two years by the entire membership.

The election of the Leadership Council is to my knowledge, unique among “subversive movements.” Because of RAWA’s underground nature, its members are geographically dispersed and cannot communicate with one another frequently. Consequently there are no nominations or election campaigns. Members simply submit in writing 11 names of members that they think ought to comprise the Council. The top 11 vote-getters are then elected.

Leadership Council members simply continue in their daily functions as RAWA members, while taking on the responsibilities of that particular committee. They meet several times a year to oversee RAWA’s operations and author RAWA’s standpoints and statements in a way that reflects the membership’s sentiments by conferring with the spokespeople from all the underlying committees. Their names are never revealed outside the membership for security reasons. RAWA’s structure is consistent with their philosophy of the collective being more important than the individual.

The remaining RAWA members join any one of the following seven standing committees (see Appendix B). These are:

1. Education
2. Social (humanitarian)
3. Finance
4. Reports
5. Publications
6. Foreign Affairs
7. Cultural [7]

Each committee has a number of sub-committees focused on its various responsibilities. All committees, including the Leadership Council, are composed of an odd number of members to avoid deadlock in decision making.

Each committee has a “mas’ul” which is Persian for “responsible person.” The mas’ul functions like a spokesperson for the committee, to whom members can turn for mediation, or to make complaints. They are also responsible for communication between various committees. Brodsky elaborates: “Overall, RAWA’s committee structure can be thought of as having branches in which each mas’ul is the sole connection between the committees and members she is responsible for and the next level up in the committee structure.” This fosters the “relatively independent operation of each committee,” and ensures projects that are “locally responsive.” [8]

As any serious activist knows, committees cannot function without regular meetings, and RAWA members have their fair share of frequent meetings. One of RAWA’s most interesting type of meeting is a mechanism that enables them to deal with internal conflict: the “jelse entaqady” or “mistake meeting.” This is an “evaluation and correction mechanism that operates at all levels of the organization in order to facilitate RAWA’s distributed decision making style, and address mistakes, problems, and differences of opinion.” [9] Differences of opinion or disagreements are directly addressed with the people involved. The committee mas’ul is often a mediator in such meetings, and an odd number of attendees ensure that there can be no deadlock.

Secrecy is a huge factor in RAWA’s operations because of the dangerous nature of their work. As a result most members often know only a small number of other members personally at any given time. RAWA’s dispersed committee structure, and its members’ belief in the collective having more importance than the individual, ensures the organization’s continued functioning.

Only Afghan women based in Afghanistan or the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran can be RAWA members. Men are not allowed to be members. However, many male relatives of RAWA members are dedicated to supporting the organization in any manner available to them. Male supporters often help with security at public events, escorting foreign supporters, passing out RAWA literature, etc.

What we can learn from RAWA

RAWA’s approach to activism is very practical and tailored to suit the needs of their situation. Their political vision is simple, yet adheres to some basic fundamental truths such as the universality of human rights and democracy. While this may make some Western leftist ideologues scoff, it is an approach that, at the very least, works in a country like Afghanistan which has lost so much and is struggling to preserve the most basic of rights.

However, RAWA’s simple political vision enables it to be flexible to situations as they arise. For example, RAWA does not denounce capitalism. Rather they call for “economic democracy.” This enables them to train women in marketable skills through their “income-generating projects.” The practical short-term goal of enabling economic independence for a poor struggling, often illiterate woman, is achieved in this manner. RAWA does not engage in micro-lending however, preferring to grant women the basic foundation they may need to start up an operation, free of charge.

RAWA’s organizational structure is also quite practical, having preserved the organization for nearly two decades after Meena’s death. Rather than strain to achieve some idealistic but impractical notion of absolute participatory democracy, they have instead conceived a structure that has limited hierarchy (the Leadership Council), which is outweighed by ample democracy through simple and functional elections and committee membership.

RAWA’s emphasis on the collective over the individual is also a philosophy worth aspiring to. Among Western activists we have seen an increasing tendency to valorize individual figures, at the expense of collective action.

Appendix A

RAWA’s Educational Policy, from www.rawa.org

We teach our students:

Recognition of these basic principles and values:

– Everyone must respect all human beings regardless of language, religion, race, color, etc.
– There is no difference between people; no human being is superior to any other because of class, color, language, race, or religion.
– All human beings do not have to think alike or live the same way.
– It’s to the benefit of society that all human beings live in peace, understanding, and harmony.

Religious Tolerance:

– Respect all religions and their followers.
– Understand that followers of all religions can live in harmony and peace.
– Do not discriminate against the followers of religious sects different from your own.
– Understand that religion is a private matter that cannot be forced on anyone else and nobody should be allowed to misuse it for any end, it must be kept separated from politics.
– Do not allow criminals in the future to dare to commit crimes in the name of religion, as did the Jahadis and Taliban.

Ethnic Tolerance:

– Respect all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
– No ethnic group is superior to any other and no one should be allowed to look down on others.
– All members of all ethnic groups have the right to speak their own languages.
– Respect for each language means respect for the culture of those people who live in different regions and cities.
– Prevent ethnic divisions and the kind of conflicts that, unfortunately, today have reached their peak because it is practiced by the criminal fundamentalists.- To know the history of their own and other countries and about those who sacrificed their lives for freedom; set them as an example for themselves.

Gender Tolerance:
– No human being is better than any other because of gender; contrary to the belief of the fundamentalists who treat our women as cattle and represent them as mentally deficient.
– Avoid any kind of behavior that promotes gender apartheid.
– Invalidate antiquated myths stories or poetry wrapped with religious, traditional or cultural reasons that portray women as powerless and less equal than men.
Handicapped:
– Respect all people who have infirmity, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
– Promote a good relationship with the handicapped, and promote their involvement in society.
– Respect and promote the right of all children to live in harmony.

Environmental Sensitivity:
– Save mother earth with all its richness.
– Avoid using items that pollute the environment.
– Teach that animals have a right to live and avoid wanton killing; don’t kill them except for food purposes.
– Do not injure animals.
– Preserve animals that are endangered or threatened species.
– Preserve trees and jungles and don’t pollute the air and water.
– A culture of peace is not possible if it does not promote conservation of the environment.

Violence:
– Avoid harsh treatment of human beings and animals.
– Recognize the causes of anger and actively try to help diminish the causes.
– Never hurt any human being who is not going to hurt you.
– Recognize the execution and killing of human beings as unacceptable and cruel.
– Avoid words, programs, toys, entertainment, and movies that promote and glorify violence and anger.
– Promote an understanding that anger and the exercise of violence is not the first and only way of solving problems.

Core Values of Life:

– Encourage a respect for the value of life and implement them in their lives.
– Honesty, decency, simplicity, unity, love, patience, responsibility, happiness, respect, and help for others are the values of life that should be inculcated and practiced routinely by everyone.
– Encourage eagerness in understanding the ideas of others.

Family Values:
– Encourage respect for one’s own family and those of others.
– Promote the understanding that everyone, regardless of where they live (suburb, city, or our country), is part of the bigger family that we all belong to.
– Respect the wisdom and dignity of the elders in every family.

Partnership Values:
– Encourage listening to the ideas of others.
– Respect teamwork and focus on the success of common goals.
– Engage in the activities of others and involve others in one’s own activities.
– Avoid unilateral decision-making and imposing one’s will on the majority.
– Should not allow themselves to make decisions individually and impose them on others.

Freedom Values:

– Promote respect for the difference between human beings and an understanding that all human beings don’t have to think alike.
– Avoid pre judgment.
– Avoid anything that damages and debases the values of human beings.
– Respect freedom of thought and avoid imposing one’s ideas on others arbitrarily.
– Respect the freedom of all human beings.
– That freedom has real meaning only with justice and democracy.
– Teach the idea that freedom doesn’t exist without justice.

Individual rights:
– Encourage an understanding of one’s own rights.
– Understand human rights and respect them.

Peace Values:
– Encourage work for world peace and make peace a priority over conflict.
– Exercise love for human beings.
– Promote peace by learning other countries’ cultures, and learn that living in peace and harmony is the only right way for human beings.
– Understand that peace will come to our country only when there is no sign of Jahadi/Talibi fundamentalists as military, terrorist and troublemaker force.
– To never let Afghanistan, which today has become a field for dogfighting and bloodbaths, be a place for the monster like fundamentalists, Parchami and Khalqi traitors.

Appendix B

From Anne Brodsky’s “With All Our Strength” (p. 159)

[1] Anne Brodsky, With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, (New York: Routledge, 2003), p169.

[2] RAWA statement, Overthrow of Jihadi and Taliban Criminals is the Only Guarantee of Human Rights in Afghanistan, December 10, 1998, http://www.rawa.org/dec10-98.htm.

[3] Brodsky, p160.

[4] Brodsky, p110.

[5] Brodsky, p110.

[6] Brodsky, p153.

[7] Brodsky, p156.

[8] Brodsky, p157.

[9] Brodsky, p170.

LA’s New Immigrant Movement: Observations and Questions

(Published on Dissident Voice and Znet)

Los Angeles is being seen as the epicenter of the new immigrant movement, mobilizing the largest numbers of people nationally at the recent protests. On May Day, there were two separate marches and I was fortunate enough to be at both, reporting for KPFK, Pacifica radio. While the mass-movement for immigrant rights is still relatively new, it’s time for some observations and questions.

Observations

LA immigrant marchesFirst, the movement is the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. At the downtown rally location on May Day, the marchers arrived and wave upon wave of people streamed into the streets. I ran out from behind the media enclosure to see them, take pictures, and gather sound. Women pushing their baby strollers and leading young kids by the hand, men carrying signs and waving flags, and older immigrants chanting militantly, marched toward the stage. They were wearing white and carrying hand made signs that reflected their indignation, and their dignity. I was moved to the point of tears. This is a movement of families who are sick and tired of being marginalized while their work literally makes the city run. Many bring with them a culture of dissent and political expression from their home countries, including traditional song and dance.

Second, the movement is galvanized by an existing network of leftist Chicano/Latino activists, immigrant advocacy groups, various influential political and religious leaders like Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and popular broadcast personalities who have access to powerful commercial Spanish language media outlets. LA’s huge Spanish speaking immigrant community has been mobilized by a confluence of all these factors. But because of these factors, the movement is overwhelmingly Latino. Los Angeles is home to dozens of immigrant communities and there are about 30 countries in the world that locate their largest populations outside their own borders in Los Angeles. Yet, these other communities are not as visible. African Americans are also not prominent in this movement.

Third, the backing of powerful political leaders like Mayor Villaraigosa, State Senators Gloria Romero, Liz Figueroa, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, has given the immigrant movement a sort of legitimacy. Perhaps because of this, the Los Angeles Police Department, well known for its ugly brutality against people of color, has been overwhelmingly subdued and well-behaved. At most of the recent public protests, LAPD presence has been minimal, and in some cases, actually cooperative and helpful. As a result, the protests have been perceived as very peaceful — another factor that lends it legitimacy in the US and the mainstream media. This is not the case in Orange County, a more conservative region, where political leaders have not been as vocal, and police have been more brutal to immigrant protestors.

Fourth, while the members of the movement seem fairly unified in their struggle, there is dissent among the organizers. LA’s two separate marches reflect two organizing approaches:

1 — A radical, militant approach, backed by an older, Chicano/Latino activist network who cut their teeth in the Chicano rights movements of the 1960s. This group advocated a full-blown national boycott and general strike on May Day: “A Day Without Immigrants.” They reject guest worker programs, and any compromise on full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.

2 — A more cautious, reformist approach backed by the politicians, religious leaders, commercial DJs, and immigrant advocacy groups. This group, more influential than the first, felt that a boycott would alienate allies, create a backlash among mainstream America, and endanger workers’ jobs. They embrace a path to earned citizenship or residency, and are opposed primarily to the draconian Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants.

Fifth, this is also a movement of youth. Paralleling the major mobilizations of families, middle and high school students who are immigrants or children of immigrants, have taken bold steps to express themselves politically. On March 27th, two days after the historic million strong march in LA, tens of thousands of students seemingly spontaneously walked out of their class rooms all across California and other cities. The walkouts were loosely organized, without visible leaders, by word-of-mouth and using new technologies (cell phone text messaging, Myspace.com bulletins, etc). Claiming to defend their immigrant parents, the students tended to carry more Mexican flags than US flags. However, the independence and initiative shown by the students has come under some criticism from their own community. Some adult organizers criticized the walkouts as being too radical, citing the struggles of immigrants to fight for their children’s education.

LA immigrant marchesSixth, regardless of the political background of the organizers, the movement is largely mainstream. From my observations, they embrace the ideal of the so-called American Dream, are eager and willing to learn English, assimilate, and wave a US flag (alongside a Mexican flag). There is a clear understanding that the attacks against them from the government and vigilante groups like the Minute Man Project, are racist. But there is no obvious connection being made to the US’s war on Iraq or Washington’s backing of neo-liberal trade policies. This is a movement of working people who want nothing more than to live and work hard in peace in the US, and without the fear of being imprisoned or deported.

Questions

First, what does it mean for this movement to claim patriotic props like the US flag, a symbol of colonialism, oppression, blind patriotism, and war fervor? On the one hand, it can silence the right wing criticism that immigrants are alien foreigners with greater allegiance to their home country than the US. On the other hand, it buys into the right wing idea that to be accepted in the US, one must be a “good,” flag-waving, patriotic American. The imminent release of Nuestro Himno, the Spanish language version of the Star Spangled Banner has sparked an instructive debate. On the one hand, most of the rally speeches in Los Angeles were in Spanish, particularly at the noon-time boycott march, and the DJs that helped mobilize marchers are on Spanish-language stations. But on the other hand, most immigrants seem to be distancing themselves from Nuestro Himno, fearing a backlash from English speaking US citizens. They want to sing the Star Spangled Banner in all its English-language war glory perhaps in an attempt to prove their worthiness to stay.

Second, is this movement a Latino movement, an immigrant movement, or a people-of-color movement? Judging by appearances, in LA it is currently a Latino movement. Latinos are the best mobilized (for reasons explained above), and most dominant and visible in the marches. But there are other immigrant communities particularly Asian, such as Koreans and South Asians present in small numbers. African Americans are largely absent. Some have claimed (Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Jasmyne Cannick) that immigrant leaders are not reaching out enough to Black Americans. But many Latinos are retorting that it’s high time they had the limelight. In proportion to their numbers in the US population, there is no question that Latinos are marginalized in politics, media, education, and other sectors. Is this a new civil rights movement for Latinos?

Third, will this movement be shaped by a handful of “leaders,” or develop autonomy by region, employment sector, etc? Currently it is too early to tell. On the one hand, the logistics of the major actions have been organized by relatively small groups of activists and organizers. But immigrant workers have also taken matters into their own hands by mobilizing their work places, organizing local rallies and boycotts, etc. The student walkouts were also unplanned and autonomous.

Fourth, how will progressive America deal with this new Immigrant movement? The links between unjust immigration policy and war, racism, and corporate globalization are clear. Will we make them? Will we find enough common political ground to express solidarity? Possible obstacles are:

1 — The patriotic symbols of the immigrant movement. Personally I am reluctant to buy into right-wing definitions of who is worthy of US citizenship. However, many in the anti-war movement have also embraced the flag under the rubric of “dissent is patriotic.”

2 — Contradictory political beliefs. Many in the largely Latino, largely Catholic immigrant movement are anti-abortion, and anti-GLBT (and increasingly Republican).

3 — Existing racism among progressives. On a national scale, most progressive activists have not considered immigration issues as worthy of activism. Alternative media outlets have not adequately covered immigration issues until recently. There is an underlying bias and racism among progressives toward immigrants, particularly the undocumented, that has to be admitted and overcome.

No one expected that in the post 9-11 era of xenophobia and fear, immigrants would organize so boldly and visibly. Despite the many questions on the future of the movement, one thing is certain — the new immigrant movement heralds the possibility of a major political change in the US.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and producer of Uprising, a drive time radio program at KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. She is originally from India, was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, and has been a “resident alien” in the US for 15 years.

Detestable Murderers and Scumbags: Canada in Afghanistan

by Justin Podur and Sonali Kolhatkar; Briarpatch; December 05, 2005

ON JULY 11, 2005, WITH great nuance and tact, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Hillier described the forces arrayed against the NATO mission in Afghanistan: “These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I’ll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties.”

This was not Canadian officialdom’s typical line on operations abroad. Canada’s Haiti mission, for example, is framed in terms of “helping” Haitians with democracy. Although the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Haiti, Denis Coderre, occasionally uses violent language about “terrorists” (following the normal practice of presenting such labels without evidence) to describe Haiti’s ousted Lavalas government, for the most part Canada’s foreign policy is presented to the public as “peacekeeping,” helping those “failed states” to build “capacity.” Canadian military operations are likewise presented as somehow peaceable.

Hillier was explicitly trying to dispel this image, and not merely with the tactics of demonization (“detestable scumbags”), fear and racism (“they detest our freedoms”), and repetition (“they detest our liberties”). Hillier also wanted to dispel perceptions of the Canadian military as a peaceable, humanitarian force in world affairs: “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.”

Hillier continued the fear campaign: “Osama bin Laden, some time ago, indicated Canada was a target,” he said on Canadian TV. “As a responsible citizen of the world, we have been involved in the campaign against terrorism, and, of course, we try to bring stability to places that are unstable and therefore have acted as hotbeds for supporting terrorism. All that, I think, does make us a target.”

To use military language, Hillier created an “opening” that Major General Andrew Leslie exploited at a conference in August called “Handcuffs and Hand Grenades.” “Afghanistan is a 20-year venture,” he said, but “there are things worth fighting for. There are things worth dying for. There are things worth killing for.” Explaining why Canada had to be in Afghanistan for 20 years, Leslie said it was because “every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you’re creating 15 more who will come after you.”

It doesn’t take a military genius to recognize that Hillier and Leslie are making self-contradictory statements. If every time Canada kills someone overseas it’s creating 15 “angry young men,” does that make those 15 people “detestable scumbags?” If killing is so incredibly counterproductive, does it make sense to proudly announce that “our job is to be able to kill people?” And if every killing of these “detestable scumbags” creates 15 more enemies, should that really be considered a goal “worth killing for?”

Hillier and Leslie’s comments can be understood as media operations intended to legitimize a more aggressive military role for Canada in the world. That their speeches sound like warmed-over propaganda scripts of American neoconservatives should not be surprising, since the US is the only possible contemporary model Canada could have for aggressive militarism. But the comments by the generals are more aggressive than Canada’s official foreign policy doctrine. That doctrine was more systematically expounded by Canada’s Foreign Minister Bill Graham in a speech in September on Canada’s Afghan Mission.

In that speech, Graham described the ideology motivating Canada’s more aggressive posture. The idea is that there are “failed states” from which danger “leaks out” into other areas. Afghanistan fits into this scheme as a country with an “unfortunate history of war and misrule… culminating in the rule of the Taliban and their support for al-Qaeda and their attack on New York.”

While there may seem to be a large space between Graham’s “helping” approach and Hillier/Leslie’s “kill people” approach, Canada’s real foreign policy path is actually rather narrow: it involves supporting and legitimizing US foreign policy, whether through “failed state” rhetoric, military support, or profitable arms manufacturing. Canada’s Afghan mission fits the bill on all counts.

Canada in Afghanistan

IN 2002, CANADA sent 800 soldiers to Kandahar to join operations with the United States. In April of that year, Canada took its worst casualties in the mission when four Canadians were killed by bombs from a US F-16.

According to Graham, Canada then “spearheaded the effort to have NATO take over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul” from the United Nations. Today ISAF has 8,000 troops from 35 countries, with Canada contributing some 2,600 troops. In August 2005, Canada sent another 250 troops to Kandahar, along with officials from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Foreign Affairs. In February 2006, Canada will be adding a headquarters in Kandahar, with 350 troops commanding the international force and an addition 1,000 troops as a one-year task force.

Given that Canada has roughly the same population as Afghanistan and very limited military resources, the Afghanistan deployment is a major foreign policy effort.

NATO’s Real Mission

ISAF WAS TAKEN OVER by NATO in August 2003, in its first ever mission outside the Euro-Atlantic region. ISAF was initially established by the United Nations to ostensibly provide security in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but its greatest failure was that it was restricted to the capital, Kabul, because of strong pressure from the US. In rural provinces, which comprise the majority of Afghanistan, peacekeeping troops could have made a huge difference in bringing order. Instead, these areas are overrun by US backed militias, warlords, local commanders, and US troops engaged in their “hunt” for Al Qaeda and Taliban. US troops collaborate directly with local authoritarian warlords, rewarding them with weapons and aid in exchange for “intelligence” on Al Qaeda and Taliban.

As a result, since the fall of the Taliban, the country has become a progressively more dangerous place. This year, more US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan than in any previous year, and warlords are more entrenched than ever. Meanwhile, according to United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) estimates, the amount of land dedicated to opium poppy cultivation has risen to up to eight and a half times the amount for 2001. If ISAF’s real goal was peacekeeping, US actions have directly hindered that goal. But perhaps “peacekeeping” was never the mission of ISAF.

When asked by one of this article’s co-authors, Sonali Kolhatkar, what ISAF does on an on-going basis, NATO/ISAF spokesperson Major Karen Tissot Van Patot (a Canadian), stationed in Kabul, said that ISAF’s goal is to “provide a secure and stable environment.” When pressed for details, she explained that in Kabul, where ISAF’s headquarters is located, ISAF and the Afghan central government work closely: “We work together… [we provide] whatever they need. Whatever they ask for…. We’re here at the behest of the government to provide them with assistance.”

Given that Hamid Karzai, the head of the new Afghan government, was propelled into power by the US, and remains protected by US forces, it’s fair to conclude that NATO is in Afghanistan at the behest of the US government. This includes strategically providing the Karzai government with security for the US-designed nation-wide presidential and parliamentary elections which attracted international media attention.

The real goal is not peacekeeping, but rather the illusion of peacekeeping so as to make the installation of a US-friendly regime palatable to Afghanis. ISAF’s intense propaganda efforts attest to this. Kabul city sports huge billboards advertising ISAF’s contributions to the Afghan people. ISAF also runs radio and TV stations in the local languages to highlight the benevolence of the foreign troops. At the heart of NATO’s job as ISAF is an effort to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. This benefits all Western forces present, including the US.

NATO’s main propaganda effort is in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are groups of soldiers engaged in a strange mix of providing security, carrying out small reconstruction and humanitarian projects, and eliciting intelligence information. US troops pioneered the use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and NATO forces are following suit. In response to years of calls from aid agencies, human rights groups, and even the Karzai government, ISAF began expanding its mandate outside Kabul. But instead of real peacekeeping – disarmament, protecting civilians from armed groups, etc. – the expansion was done through the use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Today, ISAF has ten such teams in various Afghan provinces.

The aid provided by Provincial Reconstruction Teams is minuscule compared to the nation’s needs, and far more expensive than that provided by aid agencies. Ultimately, the main goal of Provincial Reconstruction Teams is to impress upon the Afghans that Western forces are there to help them through delivery of food, construction of schools, wells, etc. Meanwhile, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have angered many aid agencies who bitterly complain that mixing military and humanitarian projects jeopardizes aid workers, and holds the receiving population hostage to military demands. InterAction, a coalition of 159 organizations including Doctors Without Borders, CARE, and Oxfam America “does not believe the military members of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams should be engaged in humanitarian and reconstruction activities.”

Ultimately, NATO (and Canadian) forces serve US interests in Afghanistan. NATO has had to re-invent itself to suit US needs, and create a role for itself in a post-Cold War world. In October 2001, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson declared his hope that NATO would be part of whatever response the US decided upon after 9-11: “We stand together. Europe and North America are one single security space…the events of September 11 have not invalidated NATO’s pre-September agenda. If anything, they have reinforced the logic of that agenda…if the US Congress asks the Europeans “what have you done for me lately?” – we should be ready to give a decent answer.

Afghanistan Today

IF THE UNITED States justifies its international aggression in terms of its own national interests and security (as Hillier and Leslie were trying to do for Canada), Canada’s politicians prefer to suggest that the real beneficiaries of our military maneuvers are in the countries targeted for intervention. Bill Graham expressed it this way: “When I hear voices who call for the withdrawal of our troops, who suggest that we are engaged there in a war against Islam, as a recent visiting British politician suggested, I say: Let them talk to the Afghans, Afghans who are Muslims themselves, Afghans who want us there to help them transform their country and allow them to live decent lives; to allow them to conduct fair and democratic elections free from fear and intimidation.”

‘Let them talk to the Afghans’, indeed. Doing so might yield different prescriptions than Graham’s, however.

In 2004, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a government-funded agency, conducted a nationwide survey of the Afghan people. Their results were published in a report entitled “A Call for Justice,” which showed that a majority of Afghans consider themselves victims of war, whether at the hands of the Mujahadeen, the Taliban, and/or the Soviet Union, and want an end to war, and justice for war crimes. Western governments like Canada could provide constructive help to the Afghan people to bring war criminals and their benefactors to justice. The trouble is that the main benefactors are the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who provided weapons, training, and funding for the war criminals.

Another strong desire among Afghans is nation-wide disarmament. In 2004, Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), a coalition of humanitarian organizations, published a report based on another survey called “Take the Guns Away.” When asked what was the most important thing to do to improve security in Afghanistan, 65 percent of Afghans surveyed said disarmament. This number was much higher – 87 percent – in the province of Mazar-e-Sharif where US-backed warlords often clashed. Western nations could fully fund disarmament projects in Afghanistan. Instead, highly selective and politicized disarmament has taken place, leaving intact most of the privately-run warlord militias. Full disarmament would run counter to the US practice of condoning arms proliferation at best, and at worst, actually engaging in arms proliferation.

The most frequently mentioned human rights desired by respondents of the HRRAC survey included “ethnic, religious and gender equality; political rights such as the right to participate in free and fair elections; and the right to education.” Even though the Bush administration often cites that millions of Afghan girls are now attending school, there are very few schools in rural areas, and those that are in operation have curriculums limited to Islamic studies, reminiscent of Taliban-era education for boys. RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Their schools, which teach a balanced curriculum based on gender, ethnic and religious tolerance, and women’s rights, are facing closure due to lack of funds. Western nations could greatly benefit Afghanistan by fully funding schools designed and led by Afghan women. To date, only a small fraction of aid to Afghanistan goes toward education.

Much is made of women’s rights after the fall of the Taliban. It is indeed true that some women, particularly in Kabul, enjoy greater freedom to appear in public, dress the way they want, and have the right to housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. However, for millions of Afghan women outside Kabul this means very little. A woman in a rural province had no education, healthcare, or employment before the Taliban came to power. She then had those things legally denied to her by the Taliban. After the fall of the Taliban, she still has no education, healthcare, or employment, even though she has legal rights. For all practical purposes, her life is no different compared to before or during the Taliban. Western nations could truly support Afghan women’s rights by moving beyond token, high-profile projects, and instead funding easily accessible education, healthcare and jobs for all women in Afghanistan. These projects should be designed and run by Afghan women, who best understand what they need.

The largest segment of Afghanistan’s economy is based on the drug trade, revived by US-backed warlords and regional commanders. Instead of criminalizing poor farmers for growing poppies, Western nations could help Afghans reduce their dependency on a drug economy by providing full compensation to farmers who have gone into debt to grow and harvest opium. Additionally, farmers could be assisted with alternative and sustainable farming that would benefit their families and their country.

The problem, of course, is that focusing on constructive projects such as those mentioned above would benefit only the Afghans, and not US, Canadian, or NATO interests. They would strengthen the people of Afghanistan and enrich their democratic development, while weakening the power of US and Afghan warlords.

Why is Canada involved?

CANADA’S NEW FOREIGN policy doctrine of “responsibility to protect” the people of “failed states” misplaces the emphasis. The doctrine suggests that the reasons for Canada’s intervention are to be found in the countries in which we intervene: Afghanistan suffered from “misrule,” Haiti is a “failed state.” The true reasons for Canada’s interventions, rather, is to be found in the relationship between Canada and the United States.

During the US invasion and occupation of Vietnam, Canadian corporations profited by supplying the American military, and Canadian diplomats ran interference for the US in the “International Control Commission,” a “neutral” body that was supposed to monitor the conflict between the US and the Vietnamese. Then, as now, Canada’s image as more multilateral, less militaristic and imperialistic, was a useful counterpoint to the aggressive posture of the US. Canada could use its good reputation to play the “good cop” to the US “bad cop,” thus providing tactical support in accomplishing US foreign policy goals.

The same relationship holds today. Canada presents itself as a friend to those countries it is intervening in, with a “3-D approach” (defence, diplomacy, and development assistance) as an option over the more unilateral and aggressive approach of the US. If, as a consequence, Canadian corporations like Bell win a one billion dollar contract with the US military to supply helicopters, or CAE wins a $20 million contract to supply combat simulation technology, perhaps that is just another “dimension” to be added to the 3-D approach.

Because the real reasons for intervention are not genuine help and solidarity, Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan has little relationship to what the people of that country actually need. Instead, under the guise of helping Afghanistan, Canada is actually providing a kind face to US contravention of the laws of war. In spite of mountains of evidence exposing US torture and murder of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan (never mind Canada’s own experience with its troops torturing a youth to death in Somalia in the 1990s), Canadian troops are capturing people and handing them over to the US in Afghanistan. The US, the “detainee authority” in Afghanistan, defines people it captures as “unlawful combatants” and denies them Geneva Convention protections. If pronouncements by Rumsfeld or Bush about “hating our freedom” found their Canadian echo in Hillier and Leslie, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s comment about the Geneva Conventions being “quaint” found its Canadian echo in Brigadier General Mike Ward, who in September 2005 talked to the Canadian Press about how Canadian forces have killed and captured Afghanis in coordination with the US. On the US record of torture of detainees and the use of the “unlawful combatant” label to justify contravening the Geneva Conventions, Ward said, “It’s the fact of the treatment that we specifically get into detail about, not whether in fact their status is identified as ‘prisoner of war’ or ‘unlawful combatant.’”

Where the US military leads in the “war on terror,” Canada follows. The Canadian engagement in Afghanistan enables Canada to be a useful tool of American imperialism, a junior member of the “winning team.” The price of accommodation with empire is high for all involved. Those whose sovereignty is violated get the worst of it, facing hunger, disease, bombs, torture, and death. But for the accomplices, there is a steady diet of fear and racism, as well as the erosion of democracy, ethics, and even basic logic. That Canada is experiencing such erosion is evidenced by Major General Leslie being able to hold up a claim that killing young men overseas is worth dying for.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission and the host/producer of Uprising, which airs Monday-Friday on KPFK, Pacifica radio in Los Angeles. She visited Afghanistan in February 2005, and has co-authored a book about US policy in Afghanistan due out in Spring 2006.

Justin Podur is a writer and editor at ZNet. He has reported from Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Israel/Palestine, and other countries, and is based in Toronto.