Cheryl Benard's 'white saviour' attitude undermines years of work by Afghan women

Cheryl Benard's 'white saviour' attitude undermines years of work by Afghan women
7 min read
07 March, 2019
Analysis: The wife of Washington's Taliban negotiator has sparked outrage with an essay saying Afghan women were relying on US troops and cash to achieve liberation.
Afghan women protesting 2009's 'family law' called it a step back towards the Taliban [Getty]

Last month, a US-based academic published an article in National Interest entitled Afghan Women are In Charge of Their Own Fate.

Though for many English-speaking Afghans the headline seemed innocuous enough, the contents of the article - widely regarded as symbolic of a white saviour complex - and its author, Dr Cheryl Benard - married to the man Washington has tasked with handling the Taliban negotiations in Doha - presented a double-whammy to Afghans who felt their work and sacrifices were suddenly being discounted by outsiders.

With statements like: "As women in Western civilisation, we didn't get our rights because people from a different culture far away felt sorry for us and sent their soldiers and tons of their money to lift us out of oppression," the online backlash was fast and furious.

Afghans in Afghanistan and the diaspora quickly took to Facebook and Twitter to lambast the article for discounting the decades-long efforts of Afghan women who had begun their own suffrage movement long before the 2001 US-led invasion of their country.

A since-deleted post on Benard's Facebook page encouraging people to leave their comments was swiftly inundated with angry critiques challenging her assumption that: "Emancipation and equality aren't the product of pity or guilt, and you aren't owed them by someone else's army or taxpayer dollars."

Dr Orzala Nemat, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit who has been working on women's rights since before the Taliban came to power, called the article a "condescending" work that managed to privilege the efforts of Westerners over the sacrifices of thousands of Afghans through the years.

"I invite her to Afghanistan for a visit to universities in the provinces of Nangarhar and Herat where she can have a face-to-face debate with female students. I am confident that if she did, she would take her condescending words back," said Nemat.

Nemat feels the article was too blind to Afghan history, something that could easily be remedied with a basic online search.

"She could have easily Googled essays, articles and papers written by Afghan women to first educate herself on Afghan women's struggle throughout our history, including the rule of the Taliban," before writing her article.

For others, Benard's declaration: "Afghan feminists, once they put their minds to it, will find that their path is actually quite clear," was seen as coming from a place of privilege that overlooked the struggles of far too many.

Elay Ershad, one of more than 60 women in the Afghan Parliament, said reading Benard's article reminded her of a similar conversation she herself had with a US senator who claimed Afghan women must do more to defend their rights:

"I told her to study her own country's history to see that even in the United States, where there was no war, women had to fight for something as basic as the right to vote."

Ershad says Benard's words were a reminder that too often foreign diplomats, researchers and activists do not take the works and words of Afghan activists, academics and politicians into account.

"What she wrote was indicative of what always happens when foreigners come to Afghanistan," she said. "Rather than speaking to women and the youth who have struggled for their own rights, these foreigners always immediately turn to warlords who ravaged this country for their thoughts."

In part, this a reference to Benard's husband, Zalmay Khalilzad, seeking out warlords such as Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf - a civil war-era militia leader who is accused of carrying out a 1993 massacre that led to the disappearances of more than 700 people in Kabul - and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - who until 2016 headed the second-largest armed opposition movement in the country - instead of the nation's 69 female MPs.

Ershad said if foreign representatives had first turned to Afghan activists, the ongoing peace talks in the Qatari capital - where there are currently no representatives of the Afghan government or its civil society - would have been more productive and reflective of the will of the 32 million people who will have to live through the outcome of any deal struck between the Trump administration and the Taliban.

"The warlords are all fighting to retain their own power and privilege, why ask them and not the university professors and the students and the PhDs here in Afghanistan?" asked Ershad.

The outrage extended far beyond Afghanistan, with Afghans based in the United States expressing their own anger at the article.

Nura Sediqe, a political science PhD candidate at Duke University, likened Benard to Marie Antoinette.

Sediqe said the article amounted to an "irrelevant and disconnected point of view from someone who has financially profited from the violence Afghan women face".

During the Bush era, Khalilzad served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as his continuing role as chief negotiator with the Taliban. Sediqe does, however, see a silver lining in the outrage the article has sparked.

"Her analysis has stoked a fire that has engaged a growing number of the diaspora in the peace talks. It has led us to organise movements to have our voices heard," she said.

As taxpayers in the US, Sediqe said Afghan-Americans such as herself are now "acutely aware that it's our taxpayer dollars that are intertwined in the 18-year war in our homeland. We have serious stakes in this entire process for multiple reasons, and that's a point of view we need amplified in this discourse."

Benard has not been without her supporters. Among them are an Afghan media mogul, a former government official and an adviser to a European embassy, however, the overwhelming majority of voices have expressed their opposition to Benard.

Adding to the anger is the fact that Benard's husband is himself an Afghan-American academic and diplomat who has closely allied himself with the Republican Party. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad is regarded as the only person directly engaging with the Taliban, a fact they see as both problematic and dangerous.

Nemat, the AREU director, says that though Khalilzad grew up in Afghanistan, his decades working with political elites in the US have left him immune from the ravages of a war that continues to see record increases in civilian casualties.

"I wish the lead negotiators, men and women alike, were Afghans who have family in Afghanistan, people who know what it means to lose someone to war and violence," said Nemat.

Ershad agrees, saying the current process, including Benard's article, ignores the root causes of the current conflict, which stretch back to the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan:

"I urge people like Benard to ask themselves why we have suffered through 40 years of an imposed war that began with the US and the Soviet Union."

Ershad says that when world powers deign to start a war in another country they must take responsibility for their actions and play a positive role in the ending the ensuing conflict. This is especially pressing, given both Trump's recent rewriting of what led to the Soviet occupation and repeated reports of his fervent desire to withdraw US troops from the country.

"When there is a 100 percent ceasefire and a proper election, then the United States can leave, but until then, they must address a mess they helped create," said Ershad.

A hasty US withdrawal, she adds, would only benefit Afghanistan's neighbours, namely Iran and Pakistan, both of which have been accused of aiding and abetting the armed opposition in Afghanistan.

"The Pakistanis and Iranians want nothing more than for the US to leave. How can we, as Afghans, accept a situation where neighbours that don't want what's best for us have their wishes granted?"

Despite her criticisms of the peace process so far, and of Benard's condescension, Nemat says she is confident that Afghan women will find their place at the negotiating table. Nemat bases this assertion on her own experience as an activist in Afghanistan and refugees camps in neighbouring Pakistan.

"I have seen with my own eyes how the women's movement in Afghanistan has evolved over the decades," she said.

"Today, I see a younger generation of women who are stronger and more articulate than the Afghan women who paved the way for them in past. No one, not the US and not the Taliban, will be able to deny their voices now."

Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye