Afghanistan En Vogue
It was never actually about helping women.
Vogue magazine. It’s not the first place you look to get your seasoned foreign policy opinions. But as articles like “5 Direct Ways to Help in Afghanistan” and “What Will Happen to the Women and Girls of Afghanistan Now?” pepper its pages after the U.S.’s upstart withdrawal from 20 years of failed attempts at democracy, the fashion industry has taken up a loud voice in the Afghanistan conversation.
Because caring about the women in Afghanistan is fashionable.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the beauty industry and its giants have a significant interest in the continuation of the global capitalist enterprise. Western values in the Middle East are good for its $511 billion net worth; burqas, on the other hand, make cosmetics and dieting tips a harder sell. Not to mention, the industry’s key market is known to shop its worldview—why shouldn’t the military industrial complex play the woke capitalism game, too?
Yet the agility with which the internet gods and goddesses transformed thousands of normal women into democracy fighters, passionate about the Afghan women’s plight and desire to go to college despite only just learning about it, is almost entirely organic. On Instagram, influencers found it in their interest to switch keys from reviewing products and sharing “What’s in My Bag?” videos to weighing in on the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.
What makes the internet so powerful is that every social media influencer doesn’t have to be told to post about the latest disaster; so long as one or two do, the rest will follow. This was the case with Afghanistan, as it was with Black Lives Matter, and Covid, and every prior Big Important Cause that the gods in our machines told us we had to care about. When Afghanistan started making headlines, it was like clockwork: stylish graphics were created and circulated within hours; girls reposted videos of the terrors on the ground in Kabul to their Instagram stories with the caption “please read”; in general, everyone felt certain the crisis abroad was nothing short of a global catastrophe. Women were about to lose everything, massacres about to break out.
Overwhelmingly, they were opposed to the withdrawal. Overwhelmingly, they were female.
And why wouldn’t young women feel the pain of that crisis in particular, when they are fed horrific images and stories and told the United States is leaving their sisters to a fate worse than death? The female heart is, after all, empathetic. Thus, at least temporarily, media and tech giants successfully gin’d up support for a cause that 70 percent of Americans oppose, simply by setting their sights on female empathy.
It’s not the first time the elite have done this.
As early as the 1960s, Vogue magazine was paying attention to an increasingly Western Middle East. Following an American woman’s efforts to get Kabul women out of strict traditional dress, the gold standard in women’s fashion donated 200 clothing patterns to a burgeoning sewing school in Kabul. Styled as a way to support Afghan women in their interest in dressmaking, it was also a way to influence tastes in a bright new market where modern fashion was catching on. If photos can be believed, Afghanistan didn’t look too different from Los Angeles in the 1960s, with women baring their legs to the knee, arms to the shoulder, and even uncovering their hair.
Despite setbacks from war and the Taliban regime, in the early 2000s Western media actively campaigned against the burqa in something like the Eastern equivalent to the bloomer movement. Radical Islam, unsurprisingly, wasn’t exactly vibing with that. So Vogue and others made opportunity out of opposition—and a new trend out of the full-coverage robes, to be bought, sold, and accessorized.
In her article,”The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan,” Ellen McLarney describes this phenomenon:
In the months leading up to 9/11 and in its immediate aftermath, American and British media demonized the burqa as “Afghanistan’s veil of terror,” a tool of extremists and the epitome of political and sexual repression (Shah 2001). But after the Taliban’s fall, when women failed to unveil in large numbers, there were noticeable shifts in the media’s representations of the burqa. Extensive exposure had already familiarized this sign of absolute difference, transforming it into a commodity used to sell news, films, documentaries, and magazines. In Spring 2006, the burqa emerged on Paris runways and later that year in Vogue fashion spreads photographed by the venerable doyen of fashion photography, Irving Penn, and modeled by girl-of-the-moment Gemma Ward (Penn 2006). This article charts the burqa’s evolution from “shock to chic” in the pages of American Vogue, as “that which yesterday was reviled becomes today’s cultural consumer goods” (Lefebvre 1971). Incorporated into the imperial imagination, the burqa became a fetishized commodity and an exotic good.
In 2018, when Vogue Arabia published a provocative cover of a Saudi Arabian princess at the steering wheel of a car, it wasn’t because Vogue was bravely standing up to misogyny and the Middle Eastern patriarchal society. Women behind the wheel means more women flaunting expensive cars, using credit cards, and desiring all the lavish status symbols that come with modernity. The plastic world clapped its hands and said yes and amen.
Vogue wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last in the fashion and beauty industries to use politics for the sake of selling product. The push to commoditize culture continues unsubtly all across the industry while brands continue to succeed at extracting sales via social causes. The laws of fashion are remarkably effective at winning women to these kinds of causes, not because women are frivolous, but because, as Rousseau pointed out in Emile, appearances and reality are equally vital for the female life. Our natural sense of beauty, combined with our remarkable capacity for empathy, are our unique power. Yet we can follow these tendencies to a fault.
In sum: The female virtues make her both a formidable force for justice and a prime candidate for good marketing.
What has fashion to do with Afghanistan? When the the neoliberal consensus needed to drum up support for that vastly unpopular project, it found its greatest success by wooing women. Last week wasn’t a first in this regard, either. As the Robin Williams character, teacher John Keating, says in Dead Poet’s Society: “Language was invented for one reason, boys: to woo women.”
In a 2010 CIA document that has since been leaked, the American intelligence agency proposed a new narrative for Afghanistan which would improve support for a continued presence in the country, as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) declined in popularity. Their method was simple: leverage female indignation and guilt over feminist causes, to show the liberal West there was a real need for American presence in Afghanistan.
The document reads:
Western European publics might be better prepared to tolerate a spring and summer of greater military and civilian casualties if they perceive clear connections between outcomes in Afghanistan and their own priorities. A consistent and iterative strategic communication program across NATO troop contributors that taps into the key concerns of specific Western European audiences could provide a buffer if today’s apathy becomes tomorrow’s opposition to ISAF, giving politicians greater scope to support deployments to Afghanistan.
Conversely, messaging that dramatizes the potential adverse consequences of an ISAF defeat for Afghan civilians could leverage French (and other European) guilt for abandoning them. The prospect of the Taliban rolling back hard-won progress on girls’ education could provoke French indignation, become a rallying point for France’s largely secular public, and give voters a reason to support a good and necessary cause despite casualties.
Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.
According to INR polling in the fall of 2009, French women are 8 percentage points less likely to support the mission than are men, and German women are 22 percentage points less likely to support the war than are men.
Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.
Read the full document here.
Afghanistan was never about actually helping women. The CIA used (the plight of Afghan) women to target (the sensibilities of Western) women, and in the end, the women still got the short end of the stick—manufactured desires for things they’ll now likely never receive, like college and equality, thanks to Western intervention. That’s woke capitalism; that’s the reality behind the slogans and programs that claim to be freeing girls from the oppressions of patriarchy.
It was never about the women, and much of the care for them was fake, but the Afghan women who went to college and who now won’t be able to are real, and they pay a very real price.
A lot of ink has been spilled in the last 10 days on Afghanistan, and most of it amounts to a general groan. The hawks are screeching, the doves are cooing, and the Twitter-types have found endless fodder for complaints, as they always do. The most serious voices in the masses have not spent much time on the female plight in Afghanistan, however, which is telling. It’s not that Afghan women shouldn’t go to college, or that their rights are not significant, but rather that their misfortune is only a piece of the greater tragedy, which includes all the lives lost in a costly and foolish attempt at nation-building.
The shot is a sobering one: American intelligence agencies, American military, and the American corporate media are responsible for lighting this match in someone else’s barn. The chaser: At least we stopped spending money on matches last week. Add a sardonic twist of wealthy Instagram influencers, beauty industry moguls, and technocrats who talk about Afghan women like they have an interest in anything more than clicks and social credit, and you’ve got yourself the cocktail du jour.