For 20 years, the U.S. proclaimed it went to war in Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons. The U.S. maintained it was “saving women” to secure democracy, advance women’s rights, or ensure the destruction of the Taliban to help women. Yet the talk about “helping Afghan women” was just a means to securing domestic support for an imperial war that only made matters worse for Afghan women.  Now that we’re out, Afghan women are all but forgotten as we move on to lionizing Ukrainian women in ways the U.S. corporate media would never do for Palestinian women.

U.S. rhetoric regarding the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021 reinforces the hypocrisy of this so-called humanitarian war. The outcry in August about the rapid collapse and departure of U.S. military forces, and the awareness given to the many refugee resettlement organizations conducting urgent relief work, was only a media blip. It is as if the crisis is now over. The U.S. military came, saw, and destroyed, leaving Afghanistan more dangerous than when we entered and starvation a real possibility as we now focus elsewhere.

Ensuring the arrival of Afghan refugees is not enough. How are refugees surviving in the face of immense trauma and loss after they get here?

Many were forced to leave loved ones in one of the poorest countries in the world where they contend with the U.S. seizing assets and face rapidly declining living standards. One in 10 Afghans is now addicted to opium as a result of Afghanistan accounting for 90 percent of the global heroin market since the U.S. invasion which brought the deaths of 45,000100,000 Afghans.

Afghan refugees who came to Chicago during the fall of Kabul are struggling with their recent displacement. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Muslim Women Resource Center (MWRC) in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood supported thousands of women who were left to support their families after the U.S. deported Muslim immigrant men en masse.

As Chicago welcomed approximately 3,000 Afghan refugees after August, the MWRC supported the movement of Afghan refugees from military bases and is temporarily housing them in hotels as they secure long-term housing. Although the U.S. corporate media singled out August 2021 as their media-worthy moment of crisis, this was just the beginning of these refugees’ nightmare in the U.S.

Their nightmare emerges in the mundane aspects of daily life many of us take for granted: remembering how to find one’s apartment after a walk to the grocery store, communicating on the bus without English language skills, and the ongoing pain of missing loved ones.

Yet if we really want to grasp the full plight of Afghan refugees, we must see it through an anti-war/anti-imperialist feminist lens.

This means noticing how the trauma of family separations disproportionately falls on women. Afghan refugee and founder of the MWRC Sima Quraishi told me that one mother who traveled to the U.S. immediately after the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport believed her daughter had died in that explosion. Eventually, she learned her daughter was alive in Afghanistan. This mother, now in Chicago with wounds from the bombing, wants nothing more than to be reunited with her daughter. Another mother, currently separated from her young children, one of whom is autistic, also strives for family reunification.

Afghan women refugees face a double burden in overcoming their own personal struggles while helping those around them do the same. They are protecting loved ones while they are personally suffering. They are caring for children, taking neighbors to see doctors, and feeding people while they strive to care for themselves.

Yet our society must stop explaining this gendered division of labor through racist ideas about “Afghan culture” or “Islam.”  The invisible emotional labor Afghan refugee women are conducting across Chicagoland, like soothing traumatized children who have lost siblings and loved ones while they are also grieving, is an outcome of the war on terror and the heteropatriarchal underpinnings of nearly every culture and society – not simply “Islam” or “Afghan culture.”

And these realities devastate women’s mental health, sparking spikes in anxiety and depression that take a physical toll on refugee women’s bodies. As Sima Quraishi told me: “Afghan women refugees lose their health.”

Chicago’s Afghan women refugees are not victims but survivors and fighters. With community organizations like MWRC behind them, they are learning English and taking action to get back on their feet.

After 9/11, anti-imperialist feminists said “no” to justifying war through racist ideas about “Afghan women’s oppression.” Twenty years later, let’s say no to the media’s momentary recognition of Afghan refugees’ struggles and insist on a deeper engagement with what has forced them here and the gendered burdens they face in adjusting to a traumatic new reality.  This Women’s History Month, let’s stand with Afghan women refugees. Locally, we can mobilize our communities to end deadly U.S.-led wars and ally with organizations supporting them to work through the horrors they’ve witnessed over the past two decades and to thrive.

Nationally, we can support passing the Afghan Adjustment Act which allows certain Afghan evacuees an opportunity to seek lawful permanent resident status. Globally, we can support groups like the Feminist Peace Initiative that are pushing back against misogynist state violence and all movements striving to demilitarize our schools, our neighborhoods, our borders, and every area of our lives.

Nadine Naber

Nadine Naber is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). At UIC, she is the founding director of the The Arab American Cultural Center.

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