When feminism legitimizes war

The war in Afghanistan is a war to liberate women, supporters claimed. Eight years later the voices that spoke on behalf of Afghan women have fallen silent. “The women were used in a rhetoric of silence,” according to researcher Berit von der Lippe.
Afghan women in burkas were often the focus of war rhetoric prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in autumn 2001. (Illustration photo: Istockphoto)

“This is a war of liberation and also a war to liberate Afghanistan’s women. So the aspect of women’s rights is crucial for me. For many years I have been greatly concerned about the extreme oppression of women under Taliban rule. Here in the West we close our eyes to the grotesque treatment women are subjected to because it does not affect us.”

Marit Nybakk, then chair of the Norwegian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, made this statement to the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet in August 2002. In the interview Nybakk expressed her support for the decision to send Norwegian troops into the war, which at that time had been going on for almost one year.

US First Lady supported the war

Nybakk was not the only one who used the Taliban’s oppression of women as an argument to go to war in 2001. In a well-orchestrated campaign in the USA, First Lady Laura Bush told Americans about the conditions that Afghan women and children lived under and about the necessity of waging a war to free them.

”Suddenly we saw that very powerful people were taking it upon themselves to speak on behalf of Afghan women,” says von der Lippe. In an article in the forthcoming international anthology entitled Rhetoric and Citizenship – Public Deliberation, she writes that the role of Afghan women in the war rhetoric is one example of how people in power use the rhetoric of silence.

Von der Lippe is inspired by the US professor of rhetoric Cheryl Glenn, who is known for her concept on the “rhetoric of silence” in which she links silence with power. 

“Classical rhetoric is mainly concerned with what is said, what is written and how this is done. But we can learn a great deal by studying silence – that is, what is not said and who does not speak and why they are silent. I am especially interested in those voices that speak so confidently on behalf of the voices we do not hear,” says von der Lippe.

“The voices we did not hear in autumn 2001 were those of the Afghan women. As we all know, their silence was not their choice; it was a result of local as well as global power relations. Therefore, it was easy for Western women to portray themselves as the ones who gave Afghan women a voice. Laura Bush and other Western women took the opportunity to speak on their behalf and tell the world what the Afghan women wanted and needed,” explains von der Lippe.

Opportune silence

When the Taliban fell after some weeks of fighting, the president’s wife declared that Afghan women and children were now “free”. But in subsequent years the silence surrounding the topic of Afghanistan’s women has grown. This is just one more example of how silence plays an important role in rhetoric, von der Lippe believes.

Dr Berit von der Lippe. (Photo: Kristin Engh Førde)

“The number of women wearing burkas has not decreased since 2001, if you take my point. The situation for women in Afghanistan has not improved much, so the argument for going to war to liberate women no longer holds. Nobody finds it opportune anymore to be the one to give these women a voice and then they choose silence instead,” says von der Lippe, and refers to Cheryl Glenn, who writes that self-imposed silence can be used strategically and productively.

“The rhetoric of silence is closely tied to power. The Afghan women’s silence was a choice others had made, and the people in power could use this silence to their advantage.”

Protection in the USA – liberation in Norway

A considerable body of evidence suggests that the rhetoric of women’s liberation had the desired effect, both in the USA and in Norway, according to the researcher.

“Laura Bush won the hearts and minds of her countrymen with her care and concern for the Afghan women and children. Her campaign probably gained added strength from the fact that she otherwise came across as a rather humble – and apolitical – woman, quiet and unassuming at her husband’s side. When she took up the cause, it was not as a politician but as a woman and conscientious mother who worried about other women and innocent children – always with a large press corps at her heels. The women’s perspective played a crucial role in the Bush administration’s war game on global power,” says von der Lippe.

In Laura Bush’s speeches the terms “protection” and “women and children” assumed a key role. Nybakk spoke about “liberating” Afghan women, not “protecting” them. Nor were children mentioned in the same breath as adult Afghan women. These differences are not coincidental, according to von der Lippe.

“In the USA, playing on the family and women as mothers is an effective strategy, and one that resonates especially with neoconservatives. In Norway such an approach would likely cause a negative reaction. Here the argument fell more in line with liberal feminism as it focused on women’s freedom and their right to participate in the public sphere,” she says.  

UN resolution

When Anne-Grethe Strøm-Erichsen later became Norway’s Minister of Defence, she toned down the explicit rhetoric on women’s liberation and instead continually emphasized UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security that focuses on women’s contributions to conflict resolution and sustainable peace.

“This is a more subtle method of argumentation because the resolution is inevitably rather vague. The UN resolution also focuses more on women’s ability to take action as participants in the process rather than on mobilizing forces to ‘protect’ or ‘liberate’ them.”

”By the same token, I see many similarities between the American and Norwegian rhetoric even though many politicians were very concerned with distancing themselves from the USA,” adds von der Lippe.

The rhetorical journey

As a public figure, Marit Nybakk herself was a long-time feminist and member of the Labour Party’s women’s movement. Her close ties to feminism gave legitimacy to the women’s liberation argument, von der Lippe believes. At the same time, feminism had come a long way from its origins in the women’s movement before it became a key ingredient in the geopolitical war rhetoric. In the field of rhetorical research, this “journey” is often referred to as co-opting.

“In brief, the term ’co-opting’ denotes words and expressions that originate at one level and change meaning in their journey through various institutions and levels. The term also says something about hierarchical structures within various institutions. Abstractions ‘everyone’ can applaud – so-called ‘god terms’ such as human rights, gender equality, democracy and peace-building – are filtered and emptied higher up in the ‘system’ of the content that persuasive expressions of this type are intended to represent. Often the word will have a completely different meaning at the end of the journey,” explains von der Lippe.

In her article she describes how feminism’s co-opting can readily help to empty terms of their meaning.
“In the Western world, the phrase ‘equality between the sexes’ has become so commonplace that is it almost meaningless; nobody is against gender equality. Consequently, it had a rhetorical effect in connection with the war in Afghanistan. After all, nobody could be against liberating Afghanistan’s women and it became more difficult to oppose the war on that basis.”
Feminism’s anti-imperialistic and anti-authoritarian position was long forgotten.

“For me as a feminist it was a paradox to see how an ideology that has criticized the universal positions and demanded women’s right to self-representation was used to legitimize the decision to go to war,” says von der Lippe.

“Most people know that this ultimately has to do with military strategy. It gives UN Resolution 1325 and its good intentions a precarious basis on which to build peace and security.”

Translated by Connie Stultz

The researcher

Berit von der Lippe is Associate Professor at Department of Communication -Culture and Languages at the Norwegian School of Management (BI).

She is one of the contributors to the forthcoming anthology Rhetoric and Citizenship - Public Deliberation.

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