Are old photos of ‘westernised’ Afghan women driving Trump’s foreign policy? | Rossalyn Warren

Donald Trump’s feigned concern for women’s rights, apparently based on a handful of photos from the 1970s, is no substitute for actual research and expertise

In a televised address to troops in Virginia on Monday night, President Trump outlined his plan to recommit the US to war in Afghanistan. Trump didn’t share any new initiatives, nor did he specify how many additional troops would be sent. Instead, in his typically animated style, Trump described how the US would “fight to win” by “obliterating” and “crushing” the enemy.

His speech marked a U-turn from his previous stance on Afghanistan. During his presidential campaign, Trump called for a military withdrawal from the country. So what helped to change his mind?

Well, for one, apparently a photo of Afghan women wearing miniskirts.

According to the Washington Post, one of the ways national security adviser HR McMaster helped to convince Trump was to show him a black and white photo from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through the streets of Kabul. The idea was to show him “western norms had existed there before and could return” and that Afghanistan was “not a hopeless place”.

Black and white photos of Afghan women in the 70s have consistently gone viral over the years. The photos are a fixture on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter, and regularly shared on “History in photos”-type accounts, which share a range of “never seen before” or “forgotten” photos from the past. The most popular photo shows three unveiled Afghan women in long-sleeved shirts and short skirts, strolling along in a line wearing square heels and smiling. Often, they’re shared by well-meaning people who exclaim how jarring it is to see “liberated” Afghan women compared with the typical depiction of them being “oppressed” and “silent”.

The photos are also regularly discussed on Reddit threads, with “Afghan women in the 70s vs Afghan women today” photo comparisons popping up year after year. Often, Reddit users make smart observations about the photos. In one thread, they discuss how “this is what life was like for a very small part of the elite around Kabul … the vast majority never saw anywhere near this level of westernisation.” Another snarkily added: “Because, as we all know, the entire modern history of a nation can be summed up by a single image with absolutely no context.”

And there’s also another area online where these photos are always widely shared – on far-right social media.

As a journalist covering women’s rights, I observe far-right online spaces for work purposes, focusing on how women are discussed, depicted, and treated by far-right social media users. I’ve seen the same images of women come up time and time again: “feminazi” memes; outspoken women photoshopped to appear nude; targeted harassment campaigns; “debunking” of feminist myths such as the pay gap.

Another image the far right has often shared on Facebook and Twitter is of the Afghan women wearing miniskirts, or anti-Islam memes such as this one that suggest the arrivals of migrants in Europe mean it will become “like how Afghanistan is today”. Accompanying the photos, they write comments that compare Afghan women with western women, claiming Islam has “oppressed” women to the point where they can no longer dress how they want, and that they should take note from western women because they are “free”.

Young women wearing mini-skirts walking down the street in the city of Kabul, 1972.
Young women wearing mini-skirts walking down the street in the city of Kabul, 1972. Photograph: Laurence BRUN/RAPHO

To be clear, I am not suggesting anyone who has ever shared those photos of Afghan women is associated with the far right. And it’s perhaps unsurprising that it took a visual aid of women being a prop – not research, expertise, or, say, history – to shape Trump’s decision on Afghanistan.

But it’s important to highlight that these photos of Afghan women in miniskirts have always gone viral specifically in far-right online spaces because the people who share them are also some of Trump’s loudest supporters. They are the same people who helped him to win the presidency, and who are now rallying together to move their online white supremacy presence into real-life spaces, such as the protest in Charlottesville. And it’s also the same far-right social media users in the US or Europe who feign concern for women in the Middle East for the purpose of undermining, derailing or silencing women, preventing them from speaking up about feminist issues at home. A photo that the far right has long wielded as a sexist trope against women, and as an anti-Islam meme in their social media feeds, is now being presented to Trump by national security advisers.

When it comes to the photos of the Afghan women, context is key. Selective photos showing women from different parts of the country (city and rural), backgrounds, and class can not begin to accurately depict the reality women have faced in Afghanistan over the past 40+ years. Discussing women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as the photo of Afghan women in miniskirts, Amnesty International says: “Until the conflict of the 1970s, the 20th century had seen relatively steady progression for women’s rights in the country … But during coups and Soviet occupation in the 1970s, through civil conflict between Mujahideen groups and government forces in the 80s and 90s, and then under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan had their rights increasingly rolled back.”

And certainly, Afghan women continue to face grave human rights violations. Some women are being subjected to “virginity tests” to determine if they’re guilty of “moral crimes”. Even though Afghan women are making their own gains when it comes to advancing their own rights and involvement in politics, they’re also being pushed out from being involved in the country’s peace talks, which is especially important now as the number of female casualties in Afghanistan leapt 23% since 2016.

But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Trump’s decision to recommit to Afghanistan has anything to do with supporting Afghan women’s rights.

It’s not new for the US and other countries to believe it’s up to them to “liberate” women in countries embroiled in conflict and war. But the concern for women’s rights is usually short-lived, often only used as a tactic to initiate military action, and not an end goal. And much like the far right’s fake concern for women in the Middle East to be “free” like women in their country, Trump is also conveniently overlooking his past record regarding women’s rights. This is a man who has openly bragged about sexually assaulting women, signed in a global gag rule that’s been described as a “death warrant for women around the world”, and repeatedly attacked Planned Parenthood in the hope of rolling back American women’s access to reproductive healthcare. So it’s hard to believe that he’s stumbled on to a new-found concern for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

• Rossalyn Warren is a foreign affairs journalist, reporting mostly on women’s rights and gender violence


Rossalyn Warren

The GuardianTramp

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