Unveiling Afghanistan
The Bush Administration cares about women's rights (as long as there aren't any pesky women around)
By Sara Pursley, Working For Change, 14 December 2001
Remember that time our First Lady became a revolutionary feminist, advocating armed struggle to end "the oppression of women"? Wasn't that strange?
Not strange enough, it seems. The Bush Administration's recent bid to confuse liberals, with Laura Bush as the good cop, has come off with hardly a hitch. Jane Smiley speaks for many when, in a recent editorial in the New York Times, she expresses relief at the prospect of liberating Afghan women: it's like a cure for helplessness. Here's something we can all get behind; that ever-elusive unity may be on the horizon at last (just as the Bushes hoped). Smiley writes that even though she is "very ambivalent" about the bombing of Afghanistan, she believes that "promoting the liberation of Afghan women is a political stance without risk and without a downside."

Not so fast, Smiley. The risks to women could be very real when a foreign power engages in simultaneous projects of violence against a country's inhabitants and the "liberation" of its women. And the Western obsession with unveiling Muslim women with one hand, while dropping bombs with the other, has a particularly long and unfortunate history.

Carla Freccero recently reminded me what Algerian psychologist and liberation theorist Frantz Fanon wrote more than forty years ago in his essay "Algeria Unveiled":

"The deliberately aggressive intentions of the colonist with respect to the haïk [the Algerian veil] gave a new life to this dead element of the Algerian cultural stock ... To the colonialist offensive against the veil, the colonized opposes the cult of the veil ... [It] acquires a taboo character, and the attitude of a given Algerian woman with respect to the veil will be constantly related to her overall attitude with respect to the foreign occupation."
Smiley's no-risk analysis only works if Afghan women exist outside of history. In reality, the few women who have removed their burkas are brave not only because doing so could signify resistance to their countrymen, but also because it could signify allegiance to the foreign invaders who claim to be rescuing them -- at a cost that is not only enormous, but also non-consensual and non-negotiable. The vast majority of Afghan women have declined the invite.
Fanon writes: "The dominant administration solemnly undertook to defend this woman, pictured as sequestered, humiliated, cloistered . . . transformed by the Algerian man into an inert, demonetized, indeed dehumanized object." The fantasy that women are inert and passive just because they're wearing a veil says a good deal more about Western ideas of women than it does about anyone else's. It was precisely this fantasy that, during the Algerian war for liberation, allowed Muslim women to walk through French military checkpoints armed to the teeth with grenades and other explosives. The New York Times recently informed us that "[s]hrouded women move through the bazaars [of Kabul] like downtrodden ghosts." But ghosts to whom?

If a woman disappears under the veil, is hardly alive, then the so-called lifting of the veil is the equivalent of being "born yesterday." And this is exactly how the Western media has portrayed Afghan women. Reuters titled an article on an attempted November 20 women's march in Kabul, "Afghan Women Gather for Faltering First March," scarcely bothering to mention that it "faltered" because it was forcibly disbanded by the Northern Alliance, not because its organizers were inexperienced.

Many of the organizers were, in fact, seasoned activists with years of political experience under their belts. There was Soraya Parlika, for example, who was imprisoned and tortured for organizing women's demonstrations against President Hafizullah Amin in 1979 and is currently chairwoman of the General Coalition of Women, which has successfully operated underground since 1996. (Parlika also emphasized to Time Magazine recently that "[t]he burka is not the main problem of women" -- to little avail, since Time still couldn't resist calling its cover story "Lifting the Veil.")

There was Najiluh, who taught secret classes to women in her home throughout the Taliban rule. (Her students carried their books to and from her house under their burkas.) And there were young activists like 17-year old Nafeesa, who said, "[The Northern Alliance] announced that women are free, but it is not freedom to throw off our veils: that is not the liberty we want."

Bombing Afghanistan is not a sensible way to express solidarity with its women, any more than it is a sensible way to catch Osama bin Laden (who, for all we know, is strolling around downtown Peshawar in a burka of his own). And it is not the veil itself, but the Western idea of the veil, that allows us to see Afghan women as having no voice, no agency, no history. This makes it easy to claim to do anything on their behalf like tear their country to shreds, for example. There's nobody there to object, nobody we can see.

Of course, the Bush Administration can quickly adopt a stance of cultural relativism when that suits its purposes better than women's liberation does.

Ari Fleischer, when asked about the Northern Alliance's forcible disbanding of a women's march in Kabul for the second time in two weeks, said: "We're talking about different regions of the world where people have their own cultures and histories." Never mind that, this time, it was women from the very region, culture and history in question who were fighting for their own liberation. Apparently, "we" only like to fight for women's rights when the women aren't involved.

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