When Liberation Isn't


For those who like their feminist-bashing mixed with a good shot of Islamophobia, it’s become a popular pastime to accuse unnamed ‘Western feminists’ of abandoning their Muslim sisters to the brutality of Muslim men. Paul Sheehan is only the latest to proclaim that feminists in Australia and overseas have been absent from the struggle against Islamic misogyny.


Author Kay Hymowitz asks ‘as news of the appalling miseries of women in the Islamic world has piled up, where are the feminists?’ And feminist psychologist Dr Phyllis Chesler claims that the failure to confront Islamic ‘gender apartheid’ signals ‘the death of feminism.’

Articles demanding to know why ‘Western feminists are mute on the plight of their Islamic sisters’ are a little confusing for those of us who are simultaneously Western (even if not White), feminist and Muslim. They also clash with the common perception among many Muslim women that Western feminists, far from abandoning their Islamic sisters, are altogether too forthcoming with their unwanted advice and attempts to rescue them from the horrors of the veil.

Many Muslim women, including those committed to gender empowerment, are reluctant to associate themselves with ‘Western feminism, or indeed any feminist label at all. This wariness does not stem from an attachment to patriarchy, but from the knowledge that all too often, campaigns to ‘liberate’ Muslim women have been thinly disguised assaults upon those women’s religion, culture and community. This history presents a challenge for those of us committed to building feminist alliances across religious and cultural divides.

Both rhetorical and military attacks on Muslim communities are carried out under the name of ‘women’s rights.’ Often, those directing such attacks are figures like Paul Sheehan or George W Bush, who are not widely regarded as feminists. The Bush Administration has endangered the lives of women around the world through its policies on reproductive health denying funding to projects that include abortion as an option for unwanted pregnancies, promoting abstinence rather than condoms in communities where HIV infection is prevalent and where women have, at best, limited control over their lives.

Yet that has not prevented Bush from presenting himself as the champion of Afghan and Iraqi women’s rights. This hypocrisy is reminiscent of European imperialists such as Lord Cromer, the British Consul General to Egypt from 1883 to 1907, who decried Islamic oppression of women despite being responsible for the closure of girls’ schools in Egypt and campaigning against women’s suffrage in Britain.

But while Western men have not hesitated to assume the role of liberator, Western women have claimed for themselves a special role in speaking on behalf of Muslim women. In gender-segregated societies of the 19th century, Western women could gain access to harems, bathhouses, and other spaces forbidden to men and they exploited this advantage by developing an entire literary genre on the subject. Unfortunately, few of these women were intent on building feminist solidarity.

Many 19th century Western women had embraced the opportunity to travel precisely in order to escape the gender restrictions of home. It is perhaps not surprising that they responded to the restrictions of harem life with horror, but it is less easy to understand the contempt with which they treated the harems’ inhabitants. Muslim women were denounced as ignorant, lazy, superstitious and dirty, as bad mothers and immoral wives who could not be trusted with ‘freedom’ of any sort. Most imperial women travellers heartily endorsed the ‘civilising’ mission of European colonialism.

Yet despite the barriers imposed by colonialism, feminist alliances between Muslim and Western women began to emerge. In an iconic moment in 1923, the Egyptian feminist Huda Sharaawi publicly removed her face-veil after her return to Cairo from the International Feminist Union’s Congress in Rome.

These days, transcultural feminism such as that embraced by Sharaawi is often overshadowed by the rise of Islamic women’s movements, many of which reject ‘Western feminism’ as a branch of American cultural imperialism. Yet alliances between Western and Muslim feminists are gaining strength.

Both the achievements and the shortcomings of transcultural feminism were apparent in the global campaign in support of Afghan women. Western feminists played a key role in drawing world attention to the Taliban’s extreme misogyny. The US-based Feminist Majority Foundation initiated the ‘Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan’ campaign, which was hugely successful in focusing media attention on the plight of Afghan women and was responsible for the scrapping of the proposed Unocal oil and gas pipeline.

However, as the campaign gathered momentum, Afghan women began to be treated as exhibits rather than participants. In a performance of The Vagina Monologues, a burqua was symbolically lifted to reveal the face of an Afghan woman not by the woman herself, but by talk show host Oprah Winfrey. This type of stunt, in which Afghan women are reduced to cameo roles in their own struggle, became a source of resentment, much of which remained unexpressed until well after the 2001 fall of the Taliban. But even when I interviewed Afghan women in Pakistani refugee camps in 2000, it was apparent that the priorities of most Afghan women differed from those of their would-be Western saviours.

A burqa-clad woman is seen walking through the Pul-E-Khishti market in Kabul, Afghanistan.

For example, the Feminist Majority’s global campaign fetishised the burqua, which featured in countless media montages and was snipped into blue squares which the Foundation sold for $5, to be worn ‘in solidarity’ with Afghan women. But the burqua seldom featured high on Afghan women’s list of concerns. They spoke not of the desire to feel the wind through their hair (most of them wore some kind of veil, regardless of Taliban injunctions), but of the havoc wreaked by two decades of superpower-sponsored war the dead and maimed children, the missing husbands, the loss of homes, farms, and communities.

It could be argued that a bit of burqua-wielding was necessary to gain media attention and puncture Western indifference at a time of acute crisis. At the time, I quietened my own misgivings with the belief that a few misplaced stereotypes hardly mattered in the face of the Taliban’s extreme violence. However, as events unfolded, I was to revise my thinking.

The anti-Taliban campaign’s reductionist portrayal of Afghan gender relationships heightened Western fear and suspicion of Afghan men, which in turn had very concrete repercussions when Afghan refugees attempted to find sanctuary in the West. In Australia, the arrival of ‘mainly Muslim asylum seekers,’ many of them Afghan, was greeted with political and media hysteria. While Afghan women were considered deserving of sympathy, their husbands and sons were not despite the fact that they, too, had suffered extraordinary hardship under the Taliban and other warlords.

After September 11, the Feminist Majority campaign dovetailed with the propaganda campaign for the ‘war on terror.’ As Feminist Majority said: ‘by mid-November, the Bush Administration was giving speeches that could have been lifted directly from [our]literature.’ Many feminists, both Afghan and non-Afghan, were dismayed at this militarist appropriation of a feminist campaign. Certainly, the Bush Administration’s deployment of ‘feminist’ rhetoric has strengthened the belief held by many Muslims that feminism is just another excuse for Western imperialism.

But if the causes of women’s oppression are global, so must be the solutions. The rise of Taliban misogyny cannot only be attributed to Afghan patriarchy. It was the outcome, too, of the US foreign policy decision to arm misogynist warlords in a proxy war against the Soviet Union.

Since those who seek to undermine women’s rights are so willing to collaborate across religious boundaries, we defenders must display a similar spirit of co-operation.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.