Framing ‘Afghani Women’: Gender, Power & Mobility in the Kabul Airlift

This is a reflection on the Afghanistan airlift in August 2021 following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. This piece was originally written in November 2021 for my postgraduate course Migration, Space and Identities at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where I am studying as part of my Marshall Fellowship.

Last month in Prague, my grandmother’s ring slipped off my finger and I spent hours searching for it among the cobblestones. No one offered to help, and the catcalls from passing men were incessant. One man even grabbed my face and tried to kiss me, but I shoved him away and went right back to searching. Then, my guardian angel appeared: a Turkish man who spoke almost no English insisted on helping me. I was sure it was a lost cause and begged him to give up, but he refused until finally we found the ring. Hundreds of people watched me look for this ring, even hitting on me, and this man was the only person who offered to help.

When I think of what I call the four M’s – Muslim, Middle Eastern, migrant men – it’s stories like this that come to mind. Or the time a Moroccan man and a Bangladeshi man invited me to join them for iftar in the back of their Parisian minimart. Or the countless other men who went out of their way to help me when I was lost or struggling with a language barrier.

The four M’s have been on my mind since the U.S.-led evacuation from Afghanistan, when the Taliban took control of Kabul in August 2021. The hierarchy of the evacuees was unmistakable and exposed the influence of gendered and racialized power structures  in determining whose mobility would be facilitated and who would be left behind. Preference was given first to foreign nationals, then to ‘vulnerable’ Afghani women and girls and to families in which the father had worked for a foreign military or government. This fixation on ‘saving the vulnerable’ women and girls in Afghanistan is a well-worn trope clearly visible not only in media headlines but also in civil society and public policy.

Women have undeniably faced horrific violence and oppression from the Taliban. During the Taliban’s previous rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women and girls were banned from attending school, working, leaving the home without a male relative, and wearing clothing other than the burka. Still, framing Afghani women as vulnerable and in need of ‘saving’ from their culture is a form of ‘othering,’ in which “racialized concepts of national … identity … invariably position them as ‘other’” (el-Tayeb, p. 651). This portrayal of Afghani women is yet another reiteration of the Orientalist and colonial script of the West’s ‘civilizing mission,’ which has regained prominence following 9/11. As evidenced by Laura Bush’s infamous November 17th 2001 radio address, the ‘liberation’ of Afghani women was a key justification for the U.S. takeover of Afghanistan in 2001.

The colonial power structures inherent in this argument are illuminated when one considers parallel iterations of power within previous colonial enterprises, such as the British in India and the French in Algeria. The support of ‘western’ women was enlisted by framing these colonial projects as an attempt to ‘save’ native women from their culture and the oppression of their men. The problem with this notion of ‘liberating’ Afghani women is that it depends on and reinforces dichotomies such as superior-inferior, civilized-uncivilized, and progressive-backwards. These women are not only being saved from something but also to something. We must ask ourselves, “what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what [we] are saving them to?” (Abu-Lughod).

This poster from a German Human Rights NGO portrays Afghani women as mute garbage bags, thereby ‘othering’ them and denying them agency. Source: IGFM

The infamous photo of Bibi Aisha, along with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?” reinforces the trope that Afghan women need to be ‘saved’ by the West. Source: TIME

Gender is a valuable lens for examining the intersection of power and mobility. Gendered notions of vulnerability (like in Afghanistan) have led to the creation of a new resettlement category: Women-at-Risk (WAR). The UNHCR defines a ‘woman-at-risk’ as someone who has “protection problems particular to her gender and lacks effective protection normally provided by male family members.” Although displaced women undeniably face innumerable forms of gender-based violence, the categorization of WAR has been criticized for denying agency to Afghani women and portraying them as uncivilized victims in need of rescuing.

Furthermore, this hypervisibility of women’s vulnerability ultimately constructs other refugees as undeserving and dangerous. This is particularly true for young single Muslim refugee men, who are associated with violence, oppression and terrorism instead of seen as persecuted people deserving of protection. Indeed, the four M’s – male, Middle Eastern, Muslim migrants – are “regarded as a ‘threat’ to national security and are subject to more surveillance than perhaps any other category of person” (Kovras & Robins, p. 43).

In this way, migrant men are reduced to what Giorgio Agamben (1998) calls la vida nuda (meaning ‘bare life’) – “perpetual outcast[s] unworthy of sacrifice” (De León, p. 28) or “individuals whose deaths are of little consequence” (Parikh & Kwon, p. 131) In defining the meaning of what it is to be human, la vida nuda distinguishes between “the forms of life that the sovereign will protect and represent and those it will not” (Kovras & Robins, p. 43). This distinction is perhaps most evident in the August airlift. The news was filled with self-congratulatory stories of women-at-risk who had been ‘saved’ by the evacuation, such as female politicians, musicians, students, and athletes. My point is not to disagree that these lives were worth saving, but to ask about those deemed ‘unworthy’ of mobility, those who were left behind.

The Afghanistan airlift illustrates the connections between Agamben’s vida nuda and Achille Mbembe’s (2003) concept of necropolitics, in which sovereignty is defined as the power to relegate people to the margins of life, between life and death (p. 27). This space of indistinction imbues the sovereign with the power to decide – without accountability – which lives can be ‘let die’ or, in the case of the US-led airlift, ‘left to die.’

During the airlift, the ability to move and to live was granted not only on the basis of gender but also race, career path, and even personal values. For example, foreign nationals were given priority over all other evacuees, such as by using helicopters to transport Americans to Kabul airport to bypass the crowds of Afghans trying to enter the airport. Even the UNHCR came under fire for evacuating all 720 foreign employees to Kazakhstan while leaving behind the organization’s 3,000 Afghani employees. The Aghani staff is at greater risk of persecution from the Taliban than other UN employees, who are somewhat protected  by their foreign citizenship and connections with powerful foreign embassies. The decision to prioritize the evacuation of foreign nationals over Afghanis highlights the power structures determining how value is attributed and to which lives.

Similarly, mobility was granted to those Afghans who were considered more compatible with ‘Western values and ideals.’ For example, men who had been employed with foreign military and diplomatic missions were given high priority in the evacuation process via the Special Immigrant Visa program. Surprisingly, the resettlement of these Afghans garnered support even from the U.S. political right, despite the party’s association with anti-immigrant and islamophobic rhetoric. This unexpected backing likely emerged because Afghanis who had worked with foreign governments – sometimes even referred to as “our Afghans” – were believed to share ‘Western values,’ to be ‘civilized, like us.’

The other key segment of the Afghan population deemed to have embraced ‘Western ideals’ were female students and ‘liberated’ women working in fields such as politics, medicine, journalism and law. The case to ‘save’ these women was articulated as necessary to protect them from the wrath of the Taliban, who have not allowed most women and girls to attend school or hold employment. Although the rescue mission was in part a genuine desire to help these women continue their education and careers, their rescue was not entirely altruistic.

This desire to save ‘liberated’ Afghani women was also the “consequence of a failed occupation [in which] the education and promotion of women in (urban) Afghanistan [was] one of the few tangible markers of success” (Sandvik). The airlift was as much about saving the mission in Afghanistan as about ‘saving’ these women, so that political and military leaders can point to them and say “the blood and money of the past twenty years was not in vain.” This reasoning has helped create a new resettlement category: the ‘skilled refugee woman.’ This new trope “represents not only a re-framing of vulnerability, but potentially also a long-term re-direction of deservingness” (Sandvik) in terms of who is deemed worthy of mobility and who can be ‘let die.’

My point is not to criticize who was or was not evacuated from Afghanistan. Rather, I seek to analyze why some people were granted mobility while others were not. What might this distinction illuminate about the intersection of movement and power? What power structures are visible within necropolitics – gender, race, and even career – that make some lives worthy of ‘saving’ while others can be ‘let die?’ My hope is that, by analyzing the power structures exposed by the Afghanistan airlift, we can achieve a broader understanding of how identities like gender and race are used to determine how mobility is granted and to whom.

Want to read more of my academically-oriented musings? Just click here, or you feel free to browse my other pieces on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region here.

Happy Travels!


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