Afghan Women Betrayed

The Legacy of Imperial Feminism

September 4, 2021

This piece is an edited extract from the forthcoming second edition of Deepa Kumar‘s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, set to be released next week for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

On September 10, she will be launching the new and fully revised edition, with commentary from Keeanga-Yamahtta TaylorNaomi KleinJasbir Puar, and Noura Erakat. You can register for the event here.

A nine-minute interview with religion scholar Reza Aslan on CNN featured a news ticker at the bottom with the question: Does Islam promote violence? Anchor Alisyn Camerota began the program by stating that while defenders of Islam insist that it is a peaceful religion, “others disagree” and point to the “primitive treatment in Muslim countries of women and other minorities.” Co-anchor Don Lemon, who is African American, nodded as she spoke, signaling his overall agreement with her framework. Aslan, visibly surprised by this question, responded that the conditions for women in Muslim-majority countries vary. While women could not drive in Saudi Arabia, in various other Muslim-majority countries women have been elected heads of state not once but several times. Before he could complete his sentence that the United States had yet to elect a woman as president, Lemon interrupted: “Be honest though, Reza, for the most part, it is not a free and open society for women in those states.”

For Lemon, “Islam” and the “Muslim world” is a homogeneous space. In this imagined geography, as Edward Said has pointed out, “Islam” is the antithesis of the “West.” It is “primitive,” as Camerota opined, and therefore anti-modern, misogynist, unfree, and violent. Lemon is so sure of this worldview that he feels vested with the authority to call out an established scholar of religion like Aslan for intellectual dishonesty. To add weight to this view, the program featured two clips, one from political commentator Bill Maher and the other from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Aslan expertly countered their arguments. And while the anchors were unable to refute Aslan’s points, they nevertheless felt confident to speak in generalities about what they think happens in “those states.” Aslan repeatedly highlighted the diversity of Muslim-majority countries, even pointing out that to bring up two or three examples and then generalize to about 1.5 billion Muslims is the very “definition of bigotry.” Yet despite all the evidence adduced by Aslan, for instance, how genital mutilation is more widespread in Christian-majority nations in Central Africa, the anchors remained undeterred in their opening thesis that Islam is violent because of “its” treatment of women. Thus, while the ticker posed a question about whether Islam promotes violence, the entire segment was about proving that it did.

This interview captures taken-for-granted ideological frameworks that have become common sense in the West. While these frames have a longer history, Orientalism (or perhaps neo-Orientalism) was broadened and consolidated in the aftermath of 9/11. The racialized Muslim was created as a composite group that could be understood through a handful of characteristics or beliefs. While race is dynamic, contingent, and contextual—with Muslims being variously cast as “bad” or “good”—the ideology of Islamophobia attempts to fix what it means to be Muslim and to create a reified Muslim whose behavior can be predicted, explained, and controlled.

All societies develop a set of assumptions or beliefs that are held in common and become “common sense,” that is, taken for granted. These dominant beliefs then constitute an ideology that sets the limits of permissible thinking on a topic. As Stuart Hall writes, ideologies

work most effectively when we are not aware that how we formulate and construct a statement about the world is underpinned by ideological premises; when our formations seem to be simply descriptive statements about how things are (i.e. must be), or of what we can “take-for-granted.” “Little boys like playing rough games; little girls, however, are full of sugar and spice” is predicated on a whole set of ideological premises, though it seems to be an aphorism which is grounded, not in how masculinity and femininity have been historically and culturally constructed in society, but in Nature itself. Ideologies tend to disappear from view into the taken-for-granted “naturalized” world of common sense. Since (like gender) race appears to be “given” by Nature, racism is one of the most profoundly “naturalized” of existing ideologies [emphasis added].

In other words, frameworks that help one to “understand” the world are in fact ideological and are based on a host of assumptions about the “natural” order of things. Anti-Muslim racism as an ideology operates in precisely this way. While blatant racism is obvious and recognizable as propaganda, assumptions about Muslim states as misogynist parade as truth statements, as simply how things are. The CNN interview is an excellent example of how this works. We also saw how any alternative framework is labeled as dishonest because it is “well known” that the “Muslim world” is undemocratic, sexist, violent, and anti-modern.

Hall also argues that the preferred cultural framing of an issue acquires dominance through a process of repetition within a context where competing frames are silenced. He notes that “in order for one meaning to be regularly produced, it ha[s] to win a kind of credibility, legitimacy or taken-for-grantedness for itself.” Moreover, this takes place on a terrain where other constructions become “literally unthinkable or unsayable.” While Aslan was given a space to voice his arguments, typically guests on these programs are those who reinforce the status quo. In this case, the interview ended with an acknowledgment of a plurality of “perspectives,” a self-congratulatory stance on CNN’s liberalism and multiculturalism. However, Camerota is quite clear that this is simply Aslan’s point of view, presumably as a Muslim man, rather than a presentation of fact that countered the hegemonic narrative.

While race is dynamic, contingent, and contextual—with Muslims being variously cast as “bad” or “good”—the ideology of Islamophobia attempts to fix what it means to be Muslim and to create a reified Muslim whose behavior can be predicted, explained, and controlled.

As Hall and others explain, “the primary definition sets the limit for all subsequent discussion by framing what the problem is.” They suggest that the relationship between “primary definers” and the media is such that

it permits the institutional definers to establish the initial definition or primary interpretation of the topic in question. This interpretation then “commands the field” in all subsequent treatment and sets the terms of reference within which all further coverage or debate takes place [emphasis in original].

During and after the invasion of Afghanistan, a series of political figures including Laura Bush, Cherie Blair, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell argued that the United States had an obligation to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan and to root out the Taliban regime. Subtle references to “our” culture and values served to ground the rescue narrative within a “clash of civilizations” framework, which pits the “West” and “Islam” in a transhistoric battle. To be sure, conditions for women in Afghanistan were harsh. However, until they proved to be useful for empire, Afghan women warranted little coverage in the media. As Carol Stabile and I wrote, in broadcast media only thirty-seven programs focused on Afghan women in 1999. From January 2000 to September 11, 2001, there were thirty-three programs. From September 12, 2001 to January 1, 2002, the number of broadcast programs spiked to 628. This sustained attention was due in no small part to the role that “primary definers” such as those quoted at the start of this section play in determining what is newsworthy and when. When the suffering of Afghan women proved useful to the war on terror and to US imperial aims in South and Central Asia, they became the subject of sustained media attention. In reality, Afghan women are no better off than they were before the war, particularly in the rural areas where things deteriorated after the US/NATO invasion. This point was made quite strongly by women’s rights advocate Malalai Joya, the youngest woman ever elected to the Afghan parliament. The United States responded by barring her entrance into the country for a speaking tour in 2011 until public protest erupted.

In Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argues that the Afghan war gave rise to a new ubiquitous common sense that views militarism as the means to advance women’s rights. She further analyzes the multiple venues, from scholarly work to memoirs and pulp nonfiction, through which the West portrays Muslim women as victims. We might argue that if Kipling coined the term “half devil, half child” to describe the colonized as a subject in need of discipline (as devil) and education/uplift (as child), then today we have the logic “half victim, half terrorist.” While the terrorist, still largely gendered male, must be vanquished through wars and drone strikes, the (female) victim must be rescued and “liberated.” In this process, a flattened monolithic female Muslim subject is created. Abu-Lughod highlights the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences, pointing to class, region, nationality, the history and nature of political movements including national liberation struggles, and other factors that inform the status of women. Sociologist Valentine Moghadam has demonstrated with ample data that the conditions for women in the MENA region vary widely.Outlining the role of women as agents of change working within constraining conditions, she shows how it is not “Islam” that impacts women’s rights but socioeconomic and political conditions. Yet a particular image of the Muslim woman animates imperial feminism, which among other things erases MENA region and South Asian women’s activism and advocacy.

When France passed a ban on the hijab (couched as a ban on all religious symbols in schools), the argument was that this would “liberate” Muslim women. The reality, however, is that French Muslim women have not been liberated by these actions. The ban has only led to greater discrimination against, and ostracism of, Muslim women. This is not new. The French have a long history of unveiling Muslim women as part of their projects of colonialism. In Algeria, sociologist Marnia Lazreg points out that poor and working class Algerian Muslim women were coerced to be part of a well-choreographed event in 1958 where their veils were publicly removed by French women in a purported demonstration of their liberation. In response, many women who did not previously veil adopted the veil as a symbol of protest. From that point on, the veil was no longer an article of religious clothing but became a “strategic devise, under which and out of which women and men alike carried out paramilitary action.” Sociologist Christine Delphy, following Lazreg, argues that the

French did nothing to help North African women. But they carried out a few “un-veiling” campaigns during the Algerian War . . . under the pretext of “liberating women.” In reality, the purpose of these campaigns—like the rapes committed by soldiers or the use of “lascivious” native women in brothels—was to demoralize the Algerian men by “stealing” their last bit of property: women.

Additionally, the attack on the veil and the attack on Islam were means by which to defang the national liberation movement that had used Islam as an ideological glue to bring people together to stand up to French imperialism.

Leila Ahmed traces the emergence of the “discourse of the veil” in the late nineteenth century and how it became the most visible marker of difference as well as the inferiority of Muslim societies. In recent decades, the veil has been banned, scorned, or otherwise used to advance a taken-for-granted argument about the need for “enlightened” governments to rescue Muslim women. Largely absent from this discourse are the voices of Muslim women who could speak to the complex reasons why they don the veil. Anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi outlines these reasons, stating that they range from an affirmation of cultural and religious identity, to taking a feminist stance against the male gaze, to being an expression of liberation from colonial legacies.

A particular image of the Muslim woman animates imperial feminism, which among other things erases MENA region and South Asian women’s activism and advocacy.

The CNN interview with Aslan captures well this ubiquitous ideological framework developed over two centuries in the West. Many scholars have written about what has variously been called “colonial feminism,” “gendered Orientalism,” and “imperial feminism.” With its origins in European colonialism, this ideological framework rests on the construction of a barbaric misogynistic “Muslim world” that must be civilized by a liberal, enlightened West. As postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Spivak famously put it, the narrative was of “White-men-saving-brown-women-from-brown-men.” Commenting on Europe’s nineteenth-century obsession with Muslim women, Lockman states that there “is no subject connected with Islam which Europeans have thought more important than the condition of Muslim women.” The dominant narrative presented Muslim women as either objects of desire in the harem or as severely subjugated, oppressed, and little more than slaves. Just as the Muslim despots tyrannized their subjects, it was argued, they also tyrannized their wives and daughters. Orientalist paintings visualized these arguments vividly. (To be sure, there were national differences in Orientalist paintings of Eastern women. For instance, while French painters depicted nudity, the British clothed the women of the harem.)

Eugène Delacroix, “The Death of Sardanapalus” (1827)

Romantic Orientalist French painter Eugène Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) presents a monarch presiding over the death and torture of women and animals. The woman on the monarch’s bed appears to be dead while the rest are in stages of being killed by the monarch’s slaves, who range from light-skinned to black. The bearded turbaned monarch and his turbaned light- and dark-skinned servants are predatory figures set against the helpless European-looking white women. The painting is based on Lord Byron’s play of the same name in which Sardanapalus, defeated by his enemies, collects his prized possessions (including his concubines) and sets them and himself on fire. Delacroix embellishes that scene and presents the monarch as the epitome of brutality. While his servants are executing his order to possibly rape and torture the women and his horse, he watches on like a spectator, his arm propping up his head. Sardanapalus is the embodiment of the Oriental despot—cruel, powerful, and deviant in his sexuality. This painting is among the first in the harem genre of Oriental paintings and evokes disgust at Saradanapalus’s treatment of women.38 Amidst death, he appears calm in a room where red, evocative of blood, is the dominant color.

Cultural historian Rana Kabbani observes that in this painting the

violence of the narrative is linked to its eroticism; indeed, the female bodies in the throes of death are made to take on positions of languor of sexual abandon. Their dying becomes exotic spectacle, voyeuristically observed by Sardanapalus and the spectator.

The possible response by spectators, other than voyeuristic pleasure at the nudity and possible torture, is also disgust caused through an identification with the white-skinned French-looking women.

When he painted this, Delacroix had not yet visited the East; the characters he paints are of his imagination. In a previous painting, The Massacre at Chios, about the killing of Greeks at the hands of the Ottomans, he had used his mistress as a model. In general, Kabbani notes that the

desirable woman in Orientalist painting was hardly ever “foreign” looking. She conformed closely with conventional standards of European beauty. The more desirable prototypes were Circassian (the fair-skinned descendants of the Circassian subjects of the Ottoman Empire) since they were exotic without being unappetizingly dark.

The same is true of the woman in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Slave Market (1866).

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “The Slave Market” (1866)

Here a petite fair-skinned woman is being inspected by her prospective buyer who is examining her teeth. Her owner/seller has disrobed her and stands with her white veil in one hand and a cane in another. Her complete objectification and humiliation communicates to western audiences the inferiority of Muslim societies. While the painting is on the one hand titillating to a male heterosexual viewer, it also evokes disgust and a sense of western superiority. Not least, it validates the argument that the West needs to rescue Muslim women.

When Muslim men are present in Orientalist paintings, they are violent, predatory, and cruel. The owner/seller is darker skinned and has Moorish features in contrast to the buyer and his retinue. While the buyer wears a grand green robe, the seller wears more modest clothing. In several Orientalist paintings, class is signified by skin color. In Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834) and Gérôme’s Pool in a Harem (1876), black women are presented as servants who attend to the needs of the fair-skinned wives and concubines of the male patriarch. Thus we see race, class, and gender portrayed in particular ways in the context of European debates over Atlantic slavery and various projects of racial formation. The Slave Market is part of a subgenre of Orientalist paintings that focus on slavery, which visualize for Western audiences sympathetic fair-skinned women as slaves.

When Muslim men are present in Orientalist paintings, they are violent, predatory, and cruel. The owner/seller is darker skinned and has Moorish features in contrast to the buyer and his retinue.

Another subgenre is paintings about the harem; since most European males did not have access to that space, these paintings were more a projection of their sexual fantasies than the reality of life in the gender segregated spaces in which women spent their time. As various scholars have shown, European men who wrote about the plight of Muslim women had little access to these women to verify their assumptions. Coterminous accounts by western women of the Muslim women they encountered reveal a more complex reality. Nevertheless, this narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman serviced the colonial enterprise. The Afghan war in 2001 elevated imperialist feminism. Furthermore, it has various other political and commercial uses. For instance, in 2019 the far right-wing Alternative for Germany Party urged Europeans to vote for them using posters of the The Slave Market with the title “so that Europe doesn’t become Eurabia.”

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1866 painting “The Slave Market” as used in a 2018 AfD campaign poster.

But what of Muslim women themselves? Are they oppressed? Some point to the fact that women’s rights have been severely curtailed by right-wing Islamist regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Conservative Alliance in Iran. We might respond to this point in two ways. First, the parties of political Islam adapt religion to serve their political goals in much the same way as American Christian fundamentalists have used Christianity to attack women’s rights. However, these Islamist parties and organizations are not a monolith. Second, all of the world’s major religions are to a greater or lesser extent sexist. Singling out Islam for its sexist practices in the mainstream media and public discourse is not a historical oversight but a systematic attempt to construct “our” values and religion as being enlightened in contrast with “theirs.”

One could, for instance, point to sexism in the history of Christianity and in Christian-majority societies quite easily. The Christian creation myth tells us that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib and that women’s pain in childbirth is a punishment for Eve’s disobedience to God. Women who were thought to be witches were burned at the stake not only in Europe but in colonial America, barely three centuries ago. Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, and Malta, all predominantly Catholic countries, ban abortion without exception, even if the woman’s life is in danger. The United States has yet to elect a female head of state, as Aslan pointed out, and it was only in 2020 that a woman of color was elected to the vice presidency.

Even if we examine Islam on its own terms, there is much debate about the role of women. The Quran, like any religious text, lends itself to multiple interpretations. Scholars like sociologist Fatima Mernissi and political scientist Asma Barlas have argued that Islam is not inherently misogynistic. Mernissi notes that while traditional interpretations of Islam seek to regulate women’s sexuality and social space, she also argues that if “women’s rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Quran nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite.” Barlas further points to the egalitarian passages in the Quran that suggest equality between men and women. She argues that sexist interpretations of the Quran are products of particular societies that need religious authority to justify sexual inequality. Ahmed states that prior to the institutionalization of Islam, women in Arab society participated in warfare and religion and had sexual autonomy. Historian Montgomery Watt even goes so far as to argue that Arab society at the time was predominantly matrilineal. However, Rodinson rejects this analysis, describing Arabia in this period instead as a patrilineal society where polyandrous practices, combined with substantial social roles for women, prevailed in certain regions. Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadija was a wealthy woman who was forty when she proposed to the twenty-five-year-old Mohammad. Khadija had been married twice before and was widowed; it was Mohammad’s first marriage.

As Islam spread, it adopted the cultural practices of various empires, including those of the neighboring Persian and Byzantine empires. The Christians who populated the Middle East and the Mediterranean had more rigid customs associated with women. In the Christian Byzantine empire, the sexes were segregated. Women were not to be seen in public, they were veiled, and they were given only rudimentary education. As the expanding Islamic empire incorporated these regions, it also assimilated these cultural and social practices. In other words, the particular misogynistic practices that Islam came to adopt were inherited from the Christian and Jewish religious customs of the neighboring societies that Muslims conquered. At the same time, however, as Samir Amin argues, the “model proposed by Islam” remained “entirely part of the tradition of patriarchal authority and the submission of women.” The significant point here is that sexist attitudes toward women, far from being unique to Islam, were prevalent among Christians and Jews as well.

Finally, a word on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In the neoliberal era, the withdrawal of state and public resources from the processes of social reproduction created a gap that NGOs have been able to fill. This has given birth to a privatized means by which to address and appropriate gender oppression. A network of well-funded NGOs, in collaboration with the UN and its various agencies, has produced what has been referred to as a neoliberal aid regime. Inderpal Grewal and Victoria Bernal noted that in 2000, NGOs disbursed between twelve and fifteen billion dollars and that by 2012, the NGO sector had become more powerful than the state in some parts of the world. Sociologist Zakia Salime’s analysis of the Moroccan context sheds light on the alliances between the state, feminist organizations, and the UN, highlighting how these alliances and NGO involvement are another means through which imperial feminism is reproduced. NGOs, particularly those that receive large grants from corporate sources, have thus become the new missionaries of empire bolstering neoliberal capitalism. General Colin Powell observed that NGOs were a “force multiplier” and “an important part of our combat team” in the Afghan war.

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