(Note: This is an excerpt of an unfinished page I am working on about life in contemporary Afghanistan. This is not an essay about the Taliban, it is about cultural elitism and the media.)
Cultural Imperialism and Values
Part of the disdain that Western organizations and groups such as the Feminist Majority Fund (FMF) have for the culture and society of Afghanistan and the Taliban (and by extension, Islam) stems from the fact that Western society tends to place a great deal of emphasis on "individual freedom," with the individual making the life choices that will please him the most, giving little or no consideration as to how this choice will effect the family or the larger society. On the contrary, the Islamic value system places more value on the good of the society as a whole, and on the need for the individual to have the utmost consciousness of how his or her behavior affects not only the family, but the society as a whole. Thus, what Westerners view as a restriction on personal freedom, Muslims view as the assurance that the society as a whole, as well as the individuals themselves, are benefiting from restrictions on behavior and dress. The view of the cultural imperialist is that her way, her views, and her values are somehow superior and "more right" than those belonging to the people whom she wishes to convert to her way of thinking.
In the last century, the outright colonization of Eastern countries by Western powers has fallen out of vogue. Protests erupt on the streets of the U.S. and Europe when soldiers from Western megapowers march into a tiny South American or Eastern country with the aim of fixing that country's political situation to be more in line with the "New World Order." Since military colonization is no longer an option, the West has discovered the much more effective colonization of cultural imperialism. No need to put the lives of soldiers at risk, just send over some satellite dishes, and we've got them. Instead of transmitting Western values through the bureaucratic institutions that were de rigeur in the colonial period, we can now transmit them through television, radio, movies, and music, and turn a profit at the same time. Whenever one culture or group resists even these addictive means of cultural imperialism, then are then labeled as "backwards" and "uncivilized." Such is the case with Afghanistan, a country which time may have forgotten, but in which civility is known and practiced.
Protesting Value Imperialism
Many Afghanis hold the view that the Feminist Majority Fund (FMF) and similar groups are attempting to impose the same sorts of Western secular values that they spent a ten year war fighting to rid their country of. After all, the Soviets and their Afghani lackeys didn't so much propose outright rejection of Islam (though to be sure, they persecuted religious leaders and shut down many mosques) as they did attempt to do away with traditional values and religion through a series of programs designed to "re-educate" the Afghani people. Afghanis, from childhood to old age, were forced to attend gender integrated schools. For adults, especially women, this experience was twice humiliating. First, it highlighted their illiteracy and implied that they were "inferior" to the well educated Afghani communists who ran the schools. Second, it was the first time that many of them had been in a gender integrated setting. On a religious level, men were forced to shave their beards, and the burq'a was forcibly removed from women. When the Soviets came to town, they brought with them an alcohol distillery and drunk driving.
Drunkeness soon became common not
only among Soviet soldiers, but among Kabuli citizens as well. It got so
bad that there were billboards in the capital of this Muslim country warning
people of the hazards of drunk driving.
Although it might not occur to them (and they would probably vehemently deny the charge if it did), the FMF et al hold some of the same views that the Soviets and their Afghani counterparts held. Both view the Afghani people as backward and uncivilized, as a culture mired in the "Dark Ages," mainly due to the people's adherence to traditional Islamic values. (Unlike the FMF, however, the Soviets / Afghani Communists unleashed a campaign of brutal oppression upon these "backwards" people.) The Afghani people fought a ten year war to keep secular values from their land when the Soviets invaded, so it should come as no surprise that they reject them in other forms more than a decade later.
Last year, at a Hollywood event held by the FMF to "shine a light" on Afghani women, Afghanis from all over the United States, some of them Taliban supporters, and many of them not, stood outside the facility and protested what they viewed as another attempt to impose on the Afghani people the same values that they had already rejected. The FMF and their supporters, convinced of the truth and outright superiority of their values, react with confusion and incredulity when the Afghani people protest and reject their attempts to tell them how to run their country and society. Sarai, an Afghani refugee in Pakistan who lives in complete purdah, told journalist Jan Goodwin, "No, I don't want what you foreign women call 'freedom.' Our way is better, kinder, I think." (Goodwin, 91) In a "culture of disbelief," (as Stephen Carter termed our modern society) there is disbelief that not everyone thinks the Western secular way is the best way. Those who disagree have then become the barbaric and uncivilised enemy.
To be sure, the FMF et al have used every Afghani or Muslim voice that nominally (or wholeheartedly) supports their views as though they represent the vast majority of (apparently voiceless) Afghani and Muslim people. This has led to groups like the Revolutionary Women's Association of Afghanistan (RAWA) being given the same sort of credibility as a more established group like Amnesty International, despite the fact that a brief glimpse at RAWA materials shows that they have their roots in Maoist Communism, and that many of their claims about the Taliban actually have nothing to do with the Taliban themselves, just the horridness of all Afghani men and Muslims in general. RAWA goes so far to make fun of a Muslima convert wearing hijab (RAWA has declared that there is no Islamic justification for hijab, and claim that the RAWA members who wear do it as a badge of Afghani nationalism), who publicly bemoaned the fact that young teenage Muslims would rather play video games instead of pray when the adhan is called (RAWA thought her statement was hysterically funny). So who does RAWA represent but the remnants of the Afghani Communists and secularists?
A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article issued in August 1998 (JAMA 280) was widely circulated and quoted in the media as evidence of the brutality of the Taliban. The article reports on the status of women's mental health in Afghanistan, and in the refugee camps. The dire statistics of depression and suicide attempts were held up as validation that the average Afghani woman would rather kill herself than continue to live in an Afghanistan where the Taliban, with their traditional Islamic values and code of Pushtunwali (Pushtun honor), were dominant. The authors of the report themselves touted it as the "experiences and concerns" of Afghani women. However, a more careful reading of the report beyond the sensationalistic introduction and media reports shows that there is more than meets the eye.
What was not mentioned in the media and by anti-Taliban grooups was the fact that 82% of the women had lived in Kabul for at least 18 years and that 62% worked in Kabul before the Taliban takeover. What this means is that it is highly possible that they came from families who supported the Communist regime (directly or indirectly), and that they may have worked for the Communist regime (directly or indirectly). (There is no mention in the study of the political affiliations or views of the women or their families, although there is specific mention that women who supported the Taliban were excluded). Of course, those who benefited the most from the old regime were the most likely to resent the new one.
Among the respondants, the median amount of education was 12 years, far more than the average Afghani woman in a country with a female literacy rate of 4%. Only 14% of the respondants were of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, a fact worth noting because of the resentment that many non-Pashtuns feel towards the Taliban for no other reason than that they are predominantly a Pashtun group.
What this means is that although these women can speak for the experiences of non Pashtun Kabuli women during this time, they would have no connection to the experiences of either rural women or women in cities like Kandahar, which is a Taliban stronghold. The survey can hardly claim to speak authoritatively for all Afghani women. Although Kabul is a relatively conservative city compared to places like New York or Tokyo, the fact is that the majority of Afghani people, men and women alike, viewed Kabulis as having little or no concern for their traditional religious and cultural values. Kabul is the city from which the Communism that plunged them into a ten year war emerged, and that the majority of these people resented the policies which were imposed on them by Kabul during the period in in which the respondants lived and worked in Kabul.
Completely excluded from the project were women who voiced support for the Taliban, or who had family members working for the Taliban. I suppose their experiences, and their mental health after 20 years of war didn't count. It is also worth noting that Taliban morality decrees have been enforced in Kabul with much more rigor than they have in the rural areas, where people are generally left to live and dress as they always have. (For his part, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, has repeatedly issued decrees and pleas for the Taliban enforcers to treat the people of Kabul with kindness).
If It Ain't Broke... Make It Up!
In their desperate campaign to discredit the entire Taliban government (and to a lesser extent, Islam as a whole), feminist organizations and the media have gone so far to make up the most bizarre claims, none of which I personally could substantiate in my research. For example, in the March issue of 'Glamour' magazine, there appears an article on the Taliban by one Ms. Jan Goodwin. Anyone familiar with Ms. Goodwin's 1994 book, Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World, is well aware of the condescending attitude she apparently holds for religious Muslims (especially Muslim men), and her disdain for Islam (and religion) in general. Hardly an "objective journalistic voice." (Reading her section on Afghanistan in this book is particularly illuminating, given the claims she now makes about the Taliban.)
In her article, she claims unequivocably that the Taliban castrated Communist ex-President Najibullah and his brother, a claim I could not find seconded anywhere else in the media or in human rights reports. (Apparently, the only thing everyone agrees on is that the man is dead. This was the first time I have ever read anything claiming that he had been castrated.) Instead, what I found from Peter Marsden, a veteran observer of Middle Eastern affairs, was that not only could it not be confirmed that the Taliban were responsible for Najibullah's death, but that there were numerous groups that had a far larger interest in seeing the longtime head of the secret police dead. The Taliban, who would gain enormous support among the people for claiming this death, have never taken credit for the two assassinations.
'Glamour' et al also claim that children's toys are banned, that picnics and wedding parties are banned, and that magazines, newspapers, and books are all banned. In press reports, the Taliban have refuted these claims as "completely ridiculous," and one Taliban supporter pointed out to me that cassettes of Iranian and Indian love music are very popular and widely available in Afghani markets. The difference between then and now is that the music is not permitted to be played in public.
When it comes to women, the claims become every more exotic and bizarre, and again, can not be confirmed through any other media source or human rights reports. Other claims of brutality and atrocity against women are attributed to the Taliban when I found that these incidents were actually carried out by pre-Taliban mujahideen forces (the ones that fight against the Taliban) or by the pro-Soviet puppet regime of the '80's. They claim that white socks and shoes are banned (the reasons why vary from feminist to feminist. Some say they are banned because that is the color of the Taliban flag, others say they are banned because the Taliban say that they are sexually alluring), that eyebrow plucking is illegal (though they don't say how the Taliban enforcers will know if a woman's eyebrows are plucked, since she allegedly has to wear an all-covering burq'a in public), that jewelry is forbidden and so on.
One of the more ridiculous claims is that in the "Taliban's Afghanistan," a woman can not breastfeed in public. I find this amusing for several reasons. One is that the Afghani people, and indeed, the Muslims as a whole, have not attached a sexual stigma to nursing as Westerners have, and so, it has never fallen out of practice among Muslims as in the West (where it is expeirencing a sort of radical "earth mother" revival). Because of this lack of a sexual stigma on nursing, Muslims often do not give nursing a second thought, and unlike many Westerners, they do not view it as a shocking and backwards practice. The second reason this claim is so amusing is that if any group of people have perfected the art of discreet nursing, it is the Muslimas, with our codes of modesty and our long khimars. The final reason I find this claim so amusing is that in the United States women can be and are arrested for breastfeeding in public ("indecent exposure"), or kicked out of shopping malls and other public facilities. The claim is hypocritical, to say the least.
Whose Values Are These Anyway?
For those unfamiliar with American magazines, 'Glamour' is a women's fashion magazine which claims a "feminist stance" on women's issues. The cover stories of the same issue that had the story on Afghanistan included tips on how to have "outstanding orgasms," tips on "NC-17 (x-rated) seduction moves," "applause worthy foreplay," masturbation, how to tell if your man really loves you, and how to have the "prettiest" face this spring. And that was just the cover.
One fashion feature, "Be A Gem," includes pictures of emaciated women in shirts with V-necks that plunge to waist level, and backless dresses that plunge to the small of the back. The models are posed in what is obviously meant to be a sexually alluring position. (Alluring to who? It is, after all, a "women's magazine.") Another fashion feature, entitled "Foxy" featured a very thin young woman dressed in the same skimpy clothes we would have seen on a hooker in the late 1970's. In the feature on Afghanistan, photographs of women in hijab (with no face covering, the way the majority of hijab observing Muslimas dress, even in Afghanistan) and burq'a are captioned with statements of oppression and misery, while color photographs of Afghani women without hijab (and quite a lot of makeup) are captioned with statements about freedom.
So who exactly is it that objectifies women? Who places a value on them comparable to an inanimate object or worse, a mere sex toy? What kind of a "gem" is a woman who wears a shirt that is open to the waist? How foxy is an anorexic-looking young girl in a skimpy bikini top? (And what sort of sick fetish does that image play into?) Why does 'Glamour' (as well as other groups and publications) extoll and celebrate this woman, while demeaning and pitying the woman who has covered herself out of modesty? Where does 'Glamour' get off harping about the women of Afghanistan while they pimp their own sisters (in gender)? Who is 'Glamour' to complain about hijab and burq'a when they themselves are sending very oppressive messages about body image and sexuality to the insecure and impressionable young women who read their publication?
If these are the values of 'Glamour,' are they really values that we would want to be practiced in our own homes, by our daughters or wives? If these are the values of the editorial staff at 'Glamour,' then why would any Muslim accept them as a credible voice for Afghani women? After all, the majority of non Muslim Americans do not dress like this, or permit their daughters to dress like this, nor do they discuss the topics listed on the cover of the magazine at the dinner table. If part of the values of the editorial staff at 'Glamour' say that it is okay to put emaciated young girls in extremely revealing clothing, and then have them pose in sexually suggestive positions, a "value" which most Americans would disagree with, then why should their value judgments on Afghanistan (and Islam... or anything else for that matter) be taken as serious and authoritative?
I said it last year, and I say it again. Make no mistake about the objectives of such publications and organizations. Their goal is not to see you, the Muslim woman, liberated within the boundaries of your religious beliefs. Their cries for "life choices" are not meant for you to choose the hijab, to choose purdah, to choose Islam. The goal of such people is to see you "liberated" from your hijab in the same way their models have been liberated of their human dignity. They want Muslim women, or more specifically in this case, Afghani women, to have choices, as long as Afghani women make the choices that they have deemed as appropriate, modern, and civilized. The worst part of this arrogant philosophy of cultural imperialism is the assumption that the Muslim / Afghani woman wants nothing else than what they have deemed as "civilized." In this way, they have oppressed her as surely as anyone else ever has, by removing from her the idea that she has intelligence, free will, and rational thought.
Goodwin, Jan "Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World,' Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 1994.
Rasekh, Zora, MPH, et al., "Women's Health and Human Rights in Afghanistan," Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 280, August 1998, pp. 449-455
Saraji is also the author of "The
Women of Afghanistan: Whose Concern Is It, Anyway?"