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What About the Women? America's Afghanistan Guilt

August 22, 2021

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

America’s rotting two decades of war and occupation in Afghanistan is oozing an awful stench from its bloated corpse, with the entire world an involuntary witness.

Quite a spectacle confronts us:--caches of arms and vehicles in the hands of burley, grim-faced victors; embassy staff hastily destroying ‘stuff’; a puppet president escaping, reportedly with hordes of cash; tens of thousands pleading for refuge; women disappearing behind barred doors; allies condemning the U.S.’s unilateral retreat; emergency troops arriving to secure Kabul airport while personnel, and more stuff are airlifted away.

Fears grow of how the Taliban might rule; Islamic warrior excesses from the past are recalled; rumors filter in about Taliban’s brutal takeover of outlying regions. Terror directed at minorities and woman is anticipated; assurances of mercy are disbelieved; fanatic pronouncements are expected.

American leaders claim surprise but accept no blame. Journalists are preoccupied with the drama of the mighty retreat. Few try to explain the origin and vicissitudes of this two-decade mess. News commentators turn to speculating what’s in store for those left behind —they suggest only grim scenarios —as they tally the cost: trusted leadership, countless lost and damaged lives, trillions of American tax dollars that could have improved the lives of Americans, or succored the world’s refugees.

(Emails arrive urging us to message Biden and congressmembers demanding no more war. How simple it seems.)

Humiliation is evident. Although no one uses the word. Defeat, rout and failure are unspeakable too, though they hover within the subtext of any discussion about this unnecessary and unwon war.

Remaining largely unaddressed is the immorality of America’s military license in Afghanistan:–tortured captives, bombed homes and farms, fabricated claims of progress, alliances with criminal warlords, gratuitous payouts for ‘ghost soldiers’, unaccounted funding for a plethora of humanitarian projects, manipulation of ethnic and religious factions. The excesses and mistakes by presidents, generals and advisors will occupy analysts for many months.

But the odor of dishonor remains. And it’s repulsive.

Where can America direct this awful feeling of disgrace? (“It’s Your Fault”, one author facetiously argues.) I detect a displacement underway whereby this nation’s shame is transformed into a distorted sense of pride—pride in the high value Americans place on women’s rights, pride in the importance of allegiance among soldiers. Urgent appeals by women’s rights advocates jockey for media time with U.S. veterans of the war demanding asylum for their Afghan colleagues. Women and veteran advocates appropriate whatever moral space is available around the American retreat. Together they dominate the dialogue about America’s most urgent responsibility. Veterans report how their lives were saved by Afghan army partners. Women’s rights activists recall their courageous mission to liberate girls and restore dignity to Afghan women.

Who does not support frightened, imperiled Afghan women? Who would turn away Afghans who saved U.S. soldiers? Who does not feel compassion for girls who experienced the joy of school and dreamed of more enriching lives?

The real moral discussion needed is about military might: is any invasion justified by the dubious principle of the ‘responsibility to protect? (Decried in 2008 by Mahmoud Mamdani as simply “an assertion of neocolonial domination”.) Can any government intent on global dominance be trusted? The moral discussion Americans need is about budgeting war, how to control the obscene, voracious military industry. The moral discussion we need is about ways to live with alternatives to capitalism, to the American standard of a liberated woman. The moral discussion we need is about our cavalier demonization of religion and any independently-minded leader, about how through its global media power the U.S. arouses public fear in order to sanction its military ambitions.

Filmmaker Michael Moore recalls his fear as his countrymen overwhelmingly applauded the invasion of Afghanistan: “…we… are culpable in committing many acts of terror and bloodshed and we had better get a clue about the culture of violence in which we (are) active participants.” Add this Worker's World reflection on Afghan women following their 1978 revolution, as it reviews the leadup to the 2001 U.S. invasion.

        During these ‘Afghan decades’, the U.S., so arrogant with moral superiority, with its search for valor, commitment to capitalism, limitless right to world resources, complicity with fellow colonizing states, has ravaged swathes of the world; it plundered Iraq, leaving it a corrupt and floundering state; it ripped Libya into shreds; it ravaged and destabilized Syria; it applies war sanctions against proud, capable nations rendering them unstable and impoverished—fostering widespread hatred within the U.S. and abroad, all while it sucks up educated professionals and forlorn youths from those nations.

How we shouted on behalf of Afghan women 20 years ago; how we howled against fanatic religious fighters. And here we are. Again.


[ What About the Women? America's Afghanistan Guilt ]

Syrian Olympians: from Ghada Shouaa to Hend Zaza

July 29, 2021

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Congratulations to Syrian table tennis Olympian Hend Zaza. Most press attention to Zaza’s Tokyo presence is her age. Not only has she won qualifying competitions essential for entry into the Olympic rank. At 12, she’s the youngest performer in this year’s games.

Perhaps African Americans—although enduring harsh and humiliating Jim Crow racist-conditions across the USA--when watching their champion athletes excel, experience what Syrians feel today when their achievements are globally recognized.

News of this promising and ardent Syrian, Hend Zaza —an Arab woman too, let’s not forget— invites a dialogue on related issues: first, the pride that this athlete bestows on all Syrians, also on Arab women worldwide; second, her place as successor to the overlooked Ghada Shouaa, Syria’s Olympic gold medalist; third, her outstanding accomplishment in a land smitten by ongoing deprivations of war and sanctions (see below).

Beyond the joy Ms. Zaza will doubtless bring to her family and her coach is national pride for Syrians everywhere, but especially vital in the homeland. Given how little the world knows about real Syrian women and men, this girl’s place in the 2021 Olympics is a window into Syrian’s steadfast and robust character. No champion emerges in a vacuum. Like any athlete Zaza would have had an active career at home before passing a series of qualifiers internationally. This suggests that within Syria healthy competition still endures. Hend is one of countless youths somehow managing to achieve a dream—in any field.

Hend Zaza’s athletic prowess might lead some enterprising journalist to Ghada Shouaa, her worthy Olympian predecessor. Shouaa was more than just another Syrian Olympian. She was a gold medalist, achieved for her outstanding heptathlon victory at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. (When American Jackie-Joyner-Kersee won gold at an earlier Olympics, she was celebrated as an ‘all-time greatest of athletes’, the heptathlon being the most stringent and demanding of all sports).

Shouaa’s 1996 “Olympic Gold” received fleeting mention in the U.S.; even then, Syria was treated as a pariah state; its citizen’s achievements were largely hidden from the public. Today too, it’s not easy to learn about this champion. (Although a Wikipedia editor managed to attach to Shouaa’s listing, a superfluous 2013 civil war entry gratuitously linking her to the Syrian military.)

What is especially noteworthy about Ghada Shouaa is her mettle. (Her athletic potential was spotted at an early age!) The available notes about her career review how, from 1991, within five years, she climbed from a low ranking to victories at regional and global competitions to the summit-- an Olympic Gold Medalist. It’s possible that Hend Zaza too is on a similar path to Olympic gold.

International competitions allow us to identify individuals, in this case, athletes, who are otherwise hidden from history. The rise of these two women cannot be detached from the character of Syrian people. One does not have to reach into ancient Syrian history to recognize the country’s accomplishments. After the nation jettisoned from the USSR’s economic domain in 1989, unlike many former Soviet satellites, with little foreign help—it was denied access to World Bank funds-- Syria became economically self-sufficient. It opened the economy to some private enterprise. Within a decade its graduates ranked among the region’s most sought-after professionals. Syria soon became food independent, and by 2005 its new Arabic language film and television industry rivaled that of Egypt (don’t expect proof in internet searches). Syria’s TV-series became a major export, along with agricultural produce, chemicals and textiles. These are just a few of its past assets.

Since the 2011 uprisings that led to civil war and destabilized the entire region, Syria is unrecognizable. Internal rebellion was aided by outside powers, with Islamic extremism exacerbating strife. The nation’s economy and social fabric were shredded. Reports by journalists Tim Anderson, Eva Bartlett and Mark Taliano provide a picture at odds with biased mainstream media coverage of Syria, but are hard to come by. American troops occupy regions of the country; Turkey controls a strategic northern strip. Added to this is a severe embargo: starting in 1979, expanded in December 2020, imposed and policed by Washington, it intensifies human suffering, makes rebuilding impossible and electricity scarce, lowers food production and spurs young people to flee. Sanctions constitute a well-tested, malicious war strategy to advance the American and Israeli long-term goal of destroying Syria, at any cost.

Tokyo’s spotlight on athlete Hend Zaza may meanwhile offer outsiders the incentive to learn about her country‘s early successes, why it is demonized, and why others found its achievements and independent position intolerable.

[ Syrian Olympians: from Ghada Shouaa to Hend Zaza ]

Rebel Women: Past, Present, Future

June 25, 2021

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Naomi Osaka initially garnered global acclaim as a tennis champion. Today she is a rebel. Thank you, Naomi.

Seeing how she defied the norm regarding participation in press conferences, the public gained a strikingly different perception of Ms. Osaka. Ultimately this athlete’s dissidence may be her most remembered and influential victory.


Riotous, rebellious, defiant; warriors, insurgents, dissidents, sirens, pioneers, innovators:– women and girls who simply will not accept the norms set for them are growing in number, historically and currently (thanks to awakened, skillful researchers).


“I expect something else (other than what you defined for me)”, girls insist. When we realize our dreams for ourselves, inevitably we widen paths for others. We redefine standards, as Osaka’s refusal is surely doing. Let’s also redefine these women as ‘rebels’ since this word symbolizes the insight, the fight and the burden that change calls for.


 Rebel girls were once wearisome, impractical or suspect annoyances. In recent years they became reimagined and popularized as heroes. In the West, this transformation could be traced to its modern feminist movement. In 2016 a dynamic perception of ‘rebel’ was introduced in a children’s picture book chockfull of women stories. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is the creation of pioneer editors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo whose first edition featured not one but a hundred accomplished women from various places and times. Its first edition sold millions and was translated into many languages. New editions, spinoffs and imitations followed.

In the Goodnight Stories portraits, rebellion is not characterized by military figures like Joan of Arc, Maoist guerrillas or African warrior queens. This history highlights scientists, political activists, artists, athletes, and pilots. Significantly, its ‘rebel girl’ is as much the child reader as those accomplished ladies on its pages. These selected ‘goodnight stories’ are for girls’ night-(and day)-time dreams. 

The book’s extraordinary impact is surely due to it being far more than a few page-long biographies; Goodnight Stories actually offers an alternative history of humankind. This isn’t a story of one woman in a news feature, nor an empress, i.e., an exception. Here is a whole race:— accomplished women from across many centuries and diverse cultures. Their personalities and achievements retell the history of civilization. They offer child readers a new vision of human potential-- a host of models, a myriad of ways that youngsters might consider their lives. It rewrites history, and it redefines ‘rebel’.

This collection may also affect how writers, anthropologists and historians reframe their accounts of women, as evidenced in titles of recent biographies. Take for example The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (2021) where authors Jeanne Theoharis and Brandy Colbert examine Parks’ six decades of activism. They challenge earlier perceptions of her as an ‘accidental’ actor in the American Civil Rights Movement. To young people, ‘rebellious life’ might more poignantly characterize that extraordinary career and demonstrate how Park’s contribution was not a single event but an unrelenting campaign. Any woman’s ascent needs to be understood as a sustained struggle against obstacles she confronted, perhaps personally, from childhood, certainly within patriarchal society, and against prevailing cultural norms.

We find rebel celebration in Wake, another new collection designed for young readers. In “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts” author Rebecca Hall defines her subjects, Black women who fought against their enslavers, as warriors. (Only rebels could manage what they did.) This book is moreover written to reclaim a once-secret history. (Black slave revolts by men are fairly well documented, not those led by women.) So, in addition to recording warrior biographies, Wake challenges cover-ups, an insidious all-too-common process that means the pursuit of rebel women’s histories has to address flawed historiography. Our work on rebellious lives frequently involves recognizing and exposing history’s secrets. (See also Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.)

 When I first undertook to record the suppressed careers of two Nepali women Yogmaya Neupane and Durga Devi, both early 20th century rebels, I faced two challenges: I had to rely on oral accounts from a fading source—a community of elderly ascetics living in a hermitage, women dismissed by others as ‘unauthoritative’; then references to both rebels were essentially erased within a few decades of their deaths. Nepal’s ruler imposed a strict ban on Yogmaya and her surviving followers, suppressing any record of her work. While  Durga Devi was made ‘forgotten’ by angry male adversaries after her relentless career of shaming them, first in a (successful) fight for her property rights, then exposing their corruption.

As I uncovered these women’s careers, it became clear how their sheer determination to resist, as we find with Osaka, often necessitates some degree of rebellion.

            Similarly, women like the talented Pakistani vocalists recorded in Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Siren Song needed supreme efforts to persist in the face of personal threats and marginalization in order to protect and foster a rich music tradition. Afzal-Khan’s account of the careers of Malka Pukhraj, Roshanara Begum, and Reshma is a rich biography; it  also illustrates multiple ways women performers negotiate around challenges thrown in their path by political turmoil and by standard societal demands. We may not think of musicians as rebels, but Afzal- Khan’s sirens are just that, as are some of America’s great Black vocalists, e.g. Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye.

[ Rebel Women: Past, Present, Future ]

Smashed houses, crushed orchards—a trail of unrestrained malice

June 16, 2021

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Residents of Sheikh Jarrah’s resistance to eviction by Israeli Jews evolved into a military confrontation so lopsided, the Israeli bombardments against Gaza so terrifying, it drew widespread condemnation (the US government excepted).

The Palestinian dead, injured and homeless are still being tabulated, while eviction processes of Sheikh Jarrah’s Arab inhabitants continue, even as we learn of similar forced displacement of Arabs in nearby Silwan

Another Israeli scheme to dislodge Palestinians is home demolition—they number in the many thousands and continue (in Bustan, Silwan) even as I write. For a glimpse of these all-too-routine violations, I append my (newly digitized) April 5, 1996 Christian Science Monitor article based on what I witnessed -- I likened it to a lynching – when on assignment in the West Bank 25 years ago.


“It’s quite a spectacle, a Palestinian home being blown apart. Furniture, dishes and clothes, hastily removed, are deposited helter-skelter in the path or road....

Villagers stand by, silent and grim . Heavily armed soldiers are massed to prevent any disruption. Confused, awed children turn sullen.

            Americans rarely see Israel’s demolition policy at work; but it’s a regular form of punishment. All Palestinians, from toddlers to the elderly, are familiar with it. Perhaps it’s happened to a neighbor. Perhaps they themselves were hauled out of their house in the early morning and told by a soft-spoken Israeli officer, with his troops surrounding the residence, that he has his orders. The entire town is aroused. Neighbors join in the frantic rush to save some household items; they know it’s useless to protest.

            The silent frenzy of losing a home this way has no parallel. It’s not like a flood or a fire; it’s more like a lynching. There’s no one to call for help. Hundreds of soldiers surround the house and village to ensure no one interferes with the bulldozers and dynamite teams.

Legalized destruction

            It’s all done legally too. That is to say, a paper, written in Hebrew, is presented to the householder spelling out the order to blow up or bulldoze his or her home, or to seal it. Often the order charges that the house lacks a building permit. Typically, a family has two hours’ notice.

            In a village near Hebron in 1991, I saw the remains of a mosque that was flattened weeks before. The land had been cleared because of some building infraction, neighbors told me.

            At other times, particularly during the intifadah (uprising), a family is informed that their son was caught (not convicted but simply picked up and charged) throwing a Molotov cocktail, or that he was captured in an attack on an Israeli.

In some cases, only the family orchard (their livelihood) is leveled. Again, the family is notified when the machines are already on the nearby road. Orchards have been destroyed based simply on a report that some Palestinian children were hiding from soldiers among the trees, or Jewish settlers claim that someone they were pursuing was heading in that direction.

            During the first three years of the intifadah (1987-1991), when communal punishment was the norm for civil disobedience, the Palestinian Human Rights information Center recorded 1,726 demolitions or sealings of homes. On average, there are nine Palestinians living in a home; so those lost houses represent about 15,000 men, women and children, forcibly made homeless during that time. Often the dwelling is not even the family’s original home but a shelter inside a crowded refugee camp built with the help of United Nations funding.

            Israel says it demolishes certain houses because they’re the homes of “suicide bombers”. The news media, which remains silent about these actions, are effectively sanctioning the policy. So conditioned is the public that whatever is done to an “Islamist terrorist” seems justified and is endorsed. Are we right to stand by silently and accept that?

            Consider this: The demolitions are retaliatory actions that strike deep into the core of Palestinian identity. They are bound to have some traumatic effect on children. Such devastation may quell opposition temporarily, but the long-term effects may be very different. People may become more embittered and hostile towards Israeli authority. Blowing up the home of a family may in fact move the brothers and sisters of a dead man into closer identification with his actions.

            Israel does not respond in this manner to all heinous acts. Look at the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by the Israeli law student. Look at Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron mass murderer. Their actions repelled most Israelis, yet their homes and families remained unharmed. No, these destructive acts are specifically designed for and executed against Palestinians.


Palestinians’ view

            Palestinians see this type of punishment as another method Israel uses to “clear the land”, to deny their existence, to implement its “cleansing” policy. People deprived of a home may have one less link with the land. But such actions have other consequences. Children witness their homes, the places they were born, blown apart. They watch fathers and other male relatives helplessly held at gunpoint. They imbibe the horrified reaction of their mothers and grandmothers.


The house as the center

            Because this form of punishment is so rare, few can imagine the impact of a house being blown up in front of its owners. We have to understand how central the house is to Palestinian life. Even today, most Palestinians are born at home. This is the place for daily prayer, for family meals, for weddings, for homecomings from jail, and for funerals. This is where everyone gathers to pass the evening. It is not a shelter; it is a community. It is the place for consolation and joy, the haven and the refuge.

            Mother is the manager, so the home is unequivocally associated with her power and protective role. Harming the house is like violating the mother. Many children will feel they must avenge this injustice. Especially with the world community standing by seeming to sanction the destruction, family members may feel more responsibility to seek justice. Anyone who understands this would advise Israel to cease this practice for these reasons, if not for moral ones.”


Postscript: Israel’s removal of Palestinians is interminable: sometimes it’s by shrewd legal maneuvers; sometimes it’s by harassment, sometimes it’s violent takeovers, and sometimes it’s brutal demolition. A protracted process, it’s so routine that it hardly garners outside attention. Besides residences, Palestinian orchards and nature preserves are savagely destroyed by Israeli forces with another egregious case reported last February by my colleague Raouf Halaby in Counterpunch.










[ Smashed houses, crushed orchards—a trail of unrestrained malice ]

It's Only A Lawn Sign. Or Perhaps It's More

November 04, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz


            With quarrels raging over disappearing campaign lawn signs, rattled American liberals may now appreciate how being ‘a minority’ feels.

            Desecration and theft of lawn signs in support of Republicans or Democrats are reported in many American neighborhoods this year, with Democrats being particularly unsettled by what they regard as an existential threat. (Although their experience surrounding this issue is trifling compared to what Muslims, Black, and Jewish minorities historically encountered, and still face.)

            I appreciate the panic aroused by gatherings of armed Trump supporters and other menacing actions, most recently against Biden’s bus. But perhaps fears manifest around lost lawn signs by these mainly white middle class folks are exaggerated and misplaced.

            One local upstate N.Y. paper tactfully addresses the problem of stolen campaign posters with “When political signs disappear”. It may have adopted this approach to temper overstated calls for help.

            I agree that anything stolen off one’s manicured lawn is upsetting. But, hey: it’s only a two-foot square paper poster pushed into the turf-- a rather timid expression of one’s political leanings.

            From reports of thefts I’ve tracked in my county, local police (often mistakenly perceived as solidly allied with ‘conservatives’) swiftly responded, charging two suspects—in one case a known teenage vandal, the other a sole 20-year old. There was no indication of armed vigilantes shooting up Democratic neighborhoods or defacing homes. Although unfounded rumors prompted some Democratic supporters to remove their signs or spurn the suggestion they host one (“I think I’ll pass this year”, or “Let me think out it”). True, some signs were stolen or dislodged. But crying “I felt violated!”, as one householder wrote on a community website about a stolen poster. Really? What about brave citizens who film police wantonly brutalizing and murdering our Black men in the street?

             The current dilemma over lawn signs derives in part from stress surrounding this contentious presidential election at the same time that Covid restrictions continue to unravel our lives. 

            Something else is at play. Fear aroused by these posters is related to changing demographics in regions like mine where a population of newcomers, mainly former New York and New Jersey urbanites, are not integrated into these rural surroundings. Many are retirees who had enough of city life. Others can afford a weekend home in the bucolic Catskills. Younger arrivals here find they can manage their business by internet. Growing herbs and squash, raising goats and chickens as a hobby, they constitute the new gentry. Only now, they realize they’re outsiders who arrived from places where they’d been the majority, snugly surrounded by other Democrats. They read their revered New York Times while frequenting country taverns where they share advice re local sources for multi-grain-seed-saturated breads, and rustic furniture. Perfectly understandable.

            That’s their culture. Like migrant minorities anywhere, their values differ from longtime residents who in this region prefer beer, who like deer hunting and fishing, who regularly attend church, whose parents are military veterans, and who work in local diners and municipal offices. And yes, most drive trucks.

            There’s little socializing between the two communities. A newcomer driving through our forested hills reacts to a barn with a Trump sign plastered across its side, as if there’s a sniper behind the weather vane on the roof. Self-proclaimed progressives assume any truck owner is not college educated, probably owns a gun, and really doesn’t understand politics. They call them ‘trumpers’ and whisper really ugly epithets about ‘them’.

            These newcomers are rattled not because of any significant physical threat. They feel, in many cases for the first time, that they are a minority. When they realize this is the source of their discomfort, they can move forward, and maybe learn to dialogue with their opponents, something they have not managed despite proud declarations of ‘getting to know our neighbors’.


[ It's Only A Lawn Sign. Or Perhaps It's More ]

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