“Freedom to me means having the option to choose your own path”—said Madina Hamidi, an Afghan-Belgian model, refugee, and human rights activist, speaking on a panel about women’s rights in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return. Hamidi’s father had been killed by the Taliban, and the family fled to Europe. The hope was that in the West, the children would have the possibility of choosing their own paths. Today, Hamidi speaks out on the plight of women, minorities, and anyone else who is at risk of the Taliban’s anti-pluralistic backlash. She is not alone.

“I can’t believe it—twenty years later and the situation is exactly the same.”

Joining her on the panel were Manel Msalmi, the Tunisia-born Middle East policy adviser for EU parliament, as well as a political and human rights activist, and Lailuma Sadid, a Brussels-based Afghan journalist and an activist on refugee issues. Before the Taliban’s fall, Sadid dedicated her efforts to educating girls who had been shut out of going to school due to the Taliban’s draconian policies. However, after being caught and whipped twice by the regime enforcers, she was threatened with death if she were to continue engaging in her educational efforts.  

After moving abroad, Lailuma continued covering events in Afghanistan and redoubled her efforts with the return of Taliban to power in August 2021. “I can’t believe it—twenty years later and the situation is exactly the same”—she said. Manel Msalmi organized an event in Brussels to  highlight the plight of Afghan women. But the reaction of the international community to the plight of women under the Taliban has remained muted and relegated largely to verbal expressions of concern.  There have been a few State Department pronouncements. But, there has been no observable outrage in the feminist community about the worst sort of suppression of female freedom.  

Each new imposed restriction on women—from the imposition of separate educational systems to the return to guardianship system to escalation in unjust detentions to cynical restrictions on driving rights—has been met with silence. No major lobbies have come forward to demand pressure on the Taliban, no protests have been mobilized on campuses around the US, Europe, and other Western states, and most of the media coverage and activism on issue has come from Afghan expatriates and diasporas. That’s not to say feminism is completely absent from the international scene.

Ironically, the voices that should be supporting the most vulnerable women in the most critical situations rather tend to focus on small groups of activists in Muslim majority states that are already undergoing reforms with regards to women’s rights. Usually there is no vetting or deep engagement involved; assistance  goes to propaganda campaigns and unconstructive attacks in response to perceived grievances. By contrast, very little feminist fervor is devoted to more mundane issues that affect larger segments of population, such as humanitarian concerns which overwhelmingly impact women and children in conflict zones, or in areas where women’s work and educational options are limited.

Feminism rose as a movement to ensure women’s equal rights under the law. It once rested on a pillar of freedom undergirding  women’s role in society. Today’s feminism has lost the plot. It has ceased being relevant on the essential issue of freedom, demand the ability of female human beings to choose their own destiny.  That  positive outcomes of feminism  can transform a society for the better, in ways that  benefit men as well as women, seems lost. Women’s rights are no longer understood to be human rights—leading to strange backlashes in places. The image of “feminism” is tarnished to the point the concept is no longer taken seriously and corrupted by  activists who know little history and less of the underlying laws and ethics.

Several factors explain why Western feminism is barely recognizable, and why it has turned to having an arguably destructive effect at home and abroad. One issue is the detrimental effect of intersectionality. In practice, rather than enhancing the ability of feminists to focus on the plight of groups most vulnerable to multiple forms of discrimination, as the academic theory holds, it created a domestic victimhood Olympics and took away the focus from minority women in patriarchal societies, who are most likely to suffer from combined forms of oppression. Academic pressures to focus on  ever growing grievances  diluted focus  on wider and more urgent problems out in the broader world.

“Woke” politics in the 21st century essentially erased a feminist sense of identity, replacing a problem-solving approach in tackling problems facing women with emotionalism, virtue signaling, and an advance of increasingly misogynist approaches such as the denial of biological sex and gender identities and displacement of women’s rights with transgender rights. The more feminists were drawn in into increasingly granular domestic battles, the less room remained for the focus on the meat-and-potato issues such as combating domestic violence or promoting skill building in underserved communities.

 These changes reflect  cultural shifts thanks to the pressures of  theoretical academic exports in extreme settings, by the dynamics of an increasingly digitized world, in which  active positive role modeling and cooperation in a community setting has been displaced by politicized and increasingly ideological echo chambers manipulated by the algorithms of digital spaces. Algorithms are a poor substitute for the ideological checks normally forced by real life  and the humanizing effect of personal interactions. The isolation of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns which forced single individuals and people in general into increasingly confined personal spaces and into online world only accelerated that effect.

Solipsistic culture distorts priorities. And, as encouragement of personal grievances are elevated over compassion and a culture of service, so too, active accomplishments have been devalued by the overinflation of self-promotion and the dependence on public recognition for funding and validation. These developments have changed the dynamics of activism from private, result-oriented, campaigning (even in public contexts) to a trend-oriented “influencer” strategy. Receiving public adulation and attacking and destroying perceived enemies to elevate oneself in the hierarchy of zealotry displaced the focus on assisting others. For that reason, real but far away targets for assistance are of little interest and stories and issues that are more likely to result in public acclaim—such as “smashing” whatever passes for “patriarchy”—is more likely to resonate with contemporary feminists than tasks of consistent activism and commitment on behalf of less glamorous, less publicized concerns.

For that reason, “politically incorrect” second-wave feminists like the psychologist Phyllis Chesler who had lived in Afghanistan and whose experiences with conservative & Islamist cultures are now taboo in “polite society” are largely exiled if not outright persecuted in contemporary Western feminist circles.  The feminist movement has lost its soul as academia and society in general, swept by postmodernist fads increasingly fall in line with denying objective reality. This crisis of identity for women’s rights defenders in liberal democratic countries is ruthlessly exploited by domestic ideologues, foreign propagandists and psy-ops experts. It is to the advantage of those who wish to control “the masses” to shape the messaging and to guide the direction of a movement. It is certainly to the advantage of the adversaries of Western values, Enlightenment reasoning, and Constitutional or other protections for individual rights that strengthen Western states against imposition of tyranny, to erase these tenets which bolster their accomplishments.

 By polarizing and increasing infighting among various groups, these propagandists—operating these days as much through social media campaigns as through other forms of infiltration and manipulation—get to take down their enemies from within. The feminist movement, by embracing a mission creep, became vulnerable to manipulation by those with assorted agendas, but also increasingly attracted participants more focused on identity politics and methods of convenience than to measurable results beneficial to all of society. As Madina Hamidi expressed in the panel discussion, the victims of gender role politics by the Taliban in Afghanistan are men just as much as women. They too are forced into restricted roles, such as having to wear beards to the Islamist specifications, being separated from women colleagues, and being beaten or killed for failing to adhere to stringent social codes. By allowing women to be increasingly excluded from communal roles and erased from public participation, the Taliban was also forcing the other half of the population to bear the costs.

The lessons of entrenched social codes from the experience of the Afghanistan should be a warning for the feminists in the West.  Authoritarian conformity can make a movement spread faster, but it also imprisons even those who are part of enforcing it. In a way, the woke movement has had a similar effect, particularly in the United States, but from a different angle. Where the Talban imposed religious mandates and brutally punishes the perceived violators, mostly on an arbitrary basis and with no due process, the woke movement, by imposing identity politics, that allegedly were supposed to free the society from religious, ethnic, racial, and gender/sex prejudices, in fact, brought back the obsession with all these ssues, leadng to incriminations and witch hunts, including by the very people who were supposed to guard against such manifestations. Indeed these witchhunts too, frequently result in social and professional penaltiies for the violators, allegedly for the greater good  but in practice, with no rhyme or reason. As in any authoritarian society, the zealouts find increasingly minute reasons for accusations, and as a result, no one is innocent, no one is spared from the thought crimes and eventual ostracisms. But  academic cross cultural studies have been bogged down in political correctness and the jargon of nearly incomprehensible social science theories, whereas the feminist activists have been kept far and away from seeing the results of particular real life actions by virtue of the bubble effect of the human rights sphere. 

When asked how many feminists have interacted with refugees from Islamist or socially conservative countries on a regular basis, few would admit to that, aside from “preapproved and preselected” activists participating in social events in structured and organized settings. Most do not have the exposure, the cultural knowledge, or even the interest to understand the issue facing Afghan women whether in the United States or abroad. Only 20% of Americans have passports, and  a smaller number  travel beyond Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. So the number of self-identifying feminists having direct experiences of immersion in other cultures is negligible; contemporary feminist paradigms are largely constructed on the basis of US-centric experience.

These are just some of the factors behind the confusion, disaffection, and preoccupation with increasingly trivial navel-gazing issues among feminists. When a movement changes focus from empowering and strengthening participants and communities to achieve both individually beneficial results and to improve society as a whole to embracing a victimhood narrative which rests on destroying others and generating attention on the basis of past grievances and injustices, the result is a loss in agency that makes it difficult to empathize and assist others in times of need.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

 Narcissism evolves from a sense of perpetual victimhood and the need to generate attention to one’s own plight. For that reason, narcissists present themselves as self-absorbed people lacking in compassion and constantly needing to insert themselves in any scenario where another might get attention or empathy. We see the same with the feminists today; they are not able to identify with victims or survivors of injustice elsewhere or to assess and evaluate greater problems because of innate insecurity at the core of the movement today.—Refocusing on providing assistance to those in greater need would mean having to recognize or admit that one’s own situations or needs are not as dire.  

The result of this psychological dissonance between the mission to preserve and defend rights and a quest for personal self-aggrandizement is the schism between the emotional psychosocial chase for validation and the investment into a sense of something greater than oneself, like, say, the defense of freedom. Returning to Madina Hamidi’s words, in a world where there is nothing greater than oneself, where only the ephemeral instantaneous gratification of the ego is the standard by which all success is measured, the idea of pursuit of different options and opportunities and defining one’s own destiny becomes inconceivable and incomprehensible.

Contemporary feminism—or what remains of it—has not only become divorced from the concept of freedom, from liberating an individual and society from the shackles of preconceptions but has come to be in direct opposition to it. Albert Camus once wrote: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”  Women fighting for education under slave-like conditions in Afghanistan are doing exactly that. Lailuma Sadid’s daring to challenge the educational bans imposed by a militant group of Islamists on the entire society at high cost to herself was illustrative of how real feminism  would empower individuals to fight for something greater than themselves, elevating them through freedom, above their oppressive conditions, and encouraging even small gestures that would be seen as quest for freedom itself.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

But in a topsy-turvy society when freedom of choices and of conscience is no longer the ideal but something to be feared, when self-preservation of one’s ego is preferable to risk-taking for a cause, where fear and judgment, not love, courage, and empathy define one’s actions, and where forgiveness and reform are not impossible, where an act of contrition is taken only as an admission of guilt and subject to a perpetual punishment, the Lailuma Sadids and the Madina Hamidis are not the heroines of the story but the villains. The goal of the original feminist movement was not to degrade those who were standing in the way of freedom, not to punish, destroy, or to demean them, but to convert them to the cause, liberate them from the cultural limitations,  show them a better way, and to turn them into allies. Feminism even at the peak of trying to “smash the patriarchy” was about destroying oppressive social constructs, not the human beings victimized by the self-imposed limitations, errors in judgment, and misunderstandings. It was liberating, not punitive, and as such, carried  a possibility of grace, evolution, and growth.

The Afghan women journalists and activists on the panel were not bitter, hateful, or vengeful. They continue to fight for a better society in whatever capacity they can. They know they have a long hard road ahead with no certainty or clarity for the time being. But the essence of their activity is constructive, growth and reform oriented, and focused on freedom—not on being stuck on grievances or drowning in pain and resentment – despite having many perfectly understandable reasons for being both resentful and disillusioned. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said. Unless contemporary Western feminism regains its handle on the value of human life, on the inherent human need for freedom, cooperation, companionship, the reality principle, and the ability to make choices with grace, dignity, and forgiveness for past mistakes, it will destroy itself.