Earlier in September, two significant events occurred that would shape women’s rights. First, the U.S. finally withdrew from Afghanistan, ending its 20-year war and occupation. Second, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 not to block a Texas law that prohibits most abortions in that state. The media were awash in stories of the Talibanization of Afghan society and the loss of women’s rights in that country. We also saw stories on the attack on women’s rights right here in the U.S.
However, rather than see these incidents halfway around the world as a product of right-wing forces wanting to control women and their lives, some have revived an older narrative that tries to explain white supremacy, neo-Nazism and right-wing ascendancy as the product of the encounter with the colonized “other.”
Thus, Thomas Friedman in a recent op-ed in The New York Times posed the question of whether U.S. intervention in the Middle East has achieved its publicly stated goal of getting the region to embrace “pluralism and the rule of law,” or instead has wound up “mimicking” its “tribalism.”
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Meanwhile, a photoshopped image of Supreme Court justices in which the three female judges are shown wearing burqas with their faces covered appeared on social media.
This is gendered islamophobia.
Retire using Muslim women in niqabs & burqas as punch lines. Name white supremacist hetropatriarcy as the root cause of the violence. Name that placing rapists and harassers on the bench is the issue. Leave Muslim women out of this. pic.twitter.com/4G60az6Tba
— #CancelRent #FreePalestine
(@DarakshanRaja) September 8, 2021
The logic of the image, presumably posted by someone who supports the right to abortion, is that of a Talibanized Supreme Court, one that has “mimicked” the Middle East or Central Asia and brought “alien values” into the heart of the United States.
This image was part of a media landscape in which the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban was once again dominant. Just like in 2001, the media suddenly discovered Afghan women. (My study with a colleague showed a dramatic increase in stories about Afghan women in the media in lead up to the U.S. invasion which served to justify it.) In a repeat of themes articulated in 2001, media pundits and political elites alike promoted the idea that decades of “progress” under U.S. occupation would be undone by the Taliban’s return to power. Once again, feminism and women’s rights were weaponized to serve imperial aims. This time, however, it was deployed to justify a 20-year occupation and to paper over the U.S.’s defeat at the hands of the Taliban.
In reality, the situation for women in Afghanistan, by and large, did not improve under U.S. occupation. An April 2021 National Intelligence Council report states that while “some policies” that negatively impacted Afghan women may have ended after the fall of the Taliban in the early 2000s, “many continue[d] in practice even in government-controlled [i.e., U.S.-backed] areas, and years of war have left millions of women maimed, widowed, impoverished, and displaced.” The explanation for the ongoing plight of Afghan women, the report suggests, is Afghan “cultural norms.”
The common logic underlying Friedman’s op-ed, the photoshopped Supreme Court image, as well as the National Intelligence Council report is that of a “clash of civilizations.” We have on the one hand an enlightened “West” that champions women’s rights, and on the other, a backward and misogynistic “Muslim world.” While the Taliban are indeed a retrograde force, it is important to look more deeply at the role the U.S. played in Afghanistan. Indeed, the U.S.’s failure to “liberate” women is not so much the product of the backward “culture” of Afghan people, but rather its choice of allies: the very same misogynistic warlords who began the attacks on women’s rights in the early 1990s.
Journalist Anand Gopal has documented the complex picture for Afghan women through his extensive interviews with women in the countryside where the vast majority of Afghans live. Far from the hapless victim, the picture that emerges from his account is not only one that shows how the U.S. threw these women from the frying pan into the fire through its support for the warlords, but also one that highlights the determination of women to survive and fight both U.S. occupation and Talibanization.
Yet, such stories that grant agency to Afghan women are in a minority. The narrative of Muslim women as oppressed victims has animated U.S. culture to such an extent that portrayals of the rescue of Brown women from Brown men is ubiquitous. This narrative, which scholars have referred to as colonial or imperial feminism, has a long history that goes back to the height of European colonization of much of the world in the 19th century when women’s rights were weaponized in service to empire. But imperial feminism benefits neither women in colonized spaces nor the vast majority of women right here in the imperial center.
At its core, imperial feminism erases not only the agency of women in the Global South but also that of women in the U.S. Indeed, the two are historically and inextricably connected.
It took women suffragists no less than a century of struggle to secure the right to vote in the U.S. against a fierce and demeaning opposition, as seen in this anti-suffrage postcard from the early 20th century. However, racist gerrymandering practices have sought to undo the voting power of women of color.
This was not a product of the Taliban or the colonial encounter with “backward people” but very much a product of deep-rooted sexism and racism indigenous to U.S. culture.
Similarly, it took a women’s movement to win not only the right to terminate a pregnancy, but also, thanks largely to feminists of color, the right to carry a pregnancy to term and not be forced to undergo sterilization. The Christian right has since been trying to undo women’s reproductive rights, as evident in the recent Texas law, not because of some external factors but due to homegrown misogyny.
To be sure, the colonizer and colonized, the imperial center and the periphery, have always been marked by a symbiotic relationship, as many scholars have argued. Ironically, the forces of the right in the U.S. have more in common with the Taliban than they do with women’s rights advocates in either context.
Moreover, as noted above, imperial feminism also erases the agency of women in the Global South, and its own role in undermining the struggle for women’s rights globally. Thus, against the wishes of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), founded in 1977 and perhaps the country’s most significant women’s rights organization, the U.S. decided to invade the country.
RAWA’s founder, Meena, was killed in 1987 by Afghan agents of the KGB in connivance with U.S. agents, particularly the misogynist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. As is now well documented, in order to defeat the Soviet Union, the U.S. supported groups with reactionary social goals with full knowledge of their violent and repressive tendencies. Hekmatyar of the Islamist group Hezb-e-Islami, for instance, received large sums of U.S. aid in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in 1979, even though, as journalist Tim Wiener notes, Hekmatyar’s “followers first gained attention by throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil.” Wiener’s CIA and State Department sources described Hekmatyar as “scary,” “vicious,” “a fascist” and “definite dictatorship material.” Yet, they supported him in order to advance U.S. geopolitical interests.
RAWA opposed U.S. intervention right from the start and demanded that U.S./NATO forces withdraw. In a recent interview that the Afghan Women’s Mission conducted with RAWA, the organization states quite clearly that over the “past 20 years, one of our demands was an end to the US/NATO occupation.” They go on to add:
[E]ven better if they take their Islamic fundamentalists and technocrats with them and let our people decide their own fate. This occupation only resulted in bloodshed, destruction and chaos. They turned our country into the most corrupt, insecure, drug-mafia and dangerous place especially for women.
However, with the exception of a rare op-ed here and there, mainstream discourse in the U.S. has largely failed to give voice to RAWA. If anything, to the extent that we have seen images of Afghan women protesting Taliban rule in the mainstream media, it is framed in ways that suggest that it was the U.S. occupation that made that possible. Again, the agency of Afghan feminists and women’s rights organizations are erased and rendered invisible.
What is relatively new is the repackaging of an older narrative that seeks to cast blame on the “other” for problems in the domestic context. This thread runs through the op-ed by Friedman and the doctored image of the Supreme Court.
Today, you can buy a t-shirt of Joe Biden wearing a turban and scarf with the slogan “Make the Taliban Great Again.”
The t-shirt, undoubtedly produced by Donald Trump’s supporters playing on Trump’s signature slogan, is designed to equate Biden with the Taliban. Recently, a series of billboards with the same image appeared in Pennsylvania, the work of a former senator from the state, Scott Wagner.
By depicting Biden in this way, the image seeks to convey the message that the U.S. has been Talibanized by Biden. Even though it was Trump who promised to end the “forever wars” and withdraw from Afghanistan, the right has chosen to direct its ire at Biden. This anger is a product of various factors, including support for the U.S. war on Afghanistan. However, what is noteworthy here is that Biden is presented as part of the Taliban because he is dressed, in this photoshopped image, in a turban and scarf. Cultural racism works by depicting aspects of a religion or culture as backward as a means to create “others.” Thus, Muslim women who wear hijabs bear the brunt of xenophobic violence.
This is not just a tactic of the right. The Clinton campaign in 2008 was criticized for circulating a picture of Barack Obama in a turban as a way to garner white support for Hillary Clinton by creating Obama as a racialized “other.”
However, this has been taken to a whole new level with Biden being depicted as an agent of the Taliban. While there is a long history of the right claiming that Obama is a “secret Muslim” and an agent of Muslim-majority countries, to represent a white person, i.e. Biden, as a Taliban fighter, speaks to how “race” and the construction of enemies is an ever-shifting process. Significantly, the “America” of white supremacy, rather than be restored to its “greatness,” has been defiled by people like Biden per this billboard. Biden’s ejection from whiteness marks a new phase in the evolution of the rhetoric of anti-Muslim racism.
Unfortunately, this form of Islamophobia is not just the province of the right. The doctored image of the Supreme Court accepts this logic, as does Friedman’s op-ed, albeit in different and more subtle ways.
This sort of argument has a long lineage, harking back, for example, to analyses of Nazism. Even such an astute critic of Nazism as Hannah Arendt, in volume three of The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote that the Nazi Holocaust was due not to factors internal to European history, but rather to Europeans’ encounter with those whom they colonized. According to Arun Kundnani, Arendt’s “model for this process of alien corruption was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. European colonizers, confronted by the ‘savagery’ of the colonized population, degenerated into ‘savages’ themselves, setting the precedent for the would-be totalitarian rulers of the European ‘mob.’ Thus, the origin of ‘our’ savagery lies in ‘their’ culture; Western civilization can be corrupted by the barbarism of others but does not give rise to any distinctive barbarism of its own.”
In fact, the causality has often proceeded in the opposite direction: the subjugation and dehumanization that imperial powers have inflicted on colonized peoples has been brought back home to reinforce dominant class interests in the metropole. As Aimé Césaire argued forcefully in his book, Discourse on Colonialism, the genocide of Jews in Europe was nothing but the application internally of what European colonial powers had been practicing externally. The two were intimately tied. European fascism, even beyond Germany, applied practices to white people that were “until then … reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘n….s’ of Africa.” In short, Césaire argued that fascism in its various manifestations was very much a product of factors internal to Europe.
W. E. B. Du Bois, in The World and Africa, made a similar argument, asserting that: “There was no atrocity — concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women or ghastly blasphemy of childhood — which Christian civilization or Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Superior Race born to rule the world.”
It therefore behooves progressives to eschew arguments that blame the Taliban or the Middle East for the attack on women’s rights in the U.S. Let us not displace the source of threat to women’s rights to external forces through a contorted racist logic. At the end of the day, women all over the world face oppression, even if their oppression looks different in parts of the world and is inflected by various factors, including their class position within a neoliberal order. Only an anti-imperialist politics can build the kind of internationalism needed to liberate women around the globe and dismantle neoliberal imperialism.