Treacherous Sympathy with Muslim Women

Ever since the attacks of 9/11, feminists in the West have increasingly used the theme of the oppression of women in Islam as justification for war and domination. This strategy of using this rhetoric of "saving the women" in the name of "civilization" is an old ploy used many times in the past by Western imperialists, writes Leila Ahmed

By Leila Ahmed

For those of us who have worked in the field of women in Islam for years the changes which overtook our field after 9/11 were dramatic and profound. Just on the most facile level for example, the topic went from being one that a few of us feminists and academics were interested in, to being one about which heads of state and world leaders – most recently for example France's president Sarkozy, were apt to have strong opinions about. From being something we studied in libraries it became a topic we now followed in the media – where, under one guise or another, it often now figured on the front pages or in the headlines.

In particular of course the hijab – in any of its forms – burqah, hijab, niqab – would now periodically erupt as an issue of state in western nations. Previously hijabs had, of course, been matters of state in some Muslim majority countries – Saudi Arabia and Iran for example, where hijab was required by law, and Turkey and Egypt both of which had recently banned it from schools and other venues. But here it was now, in the post-9/11 era, beginning with France's ban on the headscarf in schools in 2004, becoming a matter of national import to the West too.

It was shortly after 9/11 and as we went to war in Afghanistan that the subject of women and Islam first erupted into public political discourse in America and the West. It would be articulated at the highest level of the Administration on November 17, 2001 when First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address in which she spoke of women's oppression in Afghanistan as a matter of national import.

"Civilized people throughout the world," she said, "are speaking out in horror – not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

The burka as shorthand moral justification for war

Two days later Cherie Blair, wife of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, issued a similar statement. Taking their cue from the first ladies, the media now portrayed the war in Afghanistan as a righteous war by virtue of our concern to save the women.

"The subject of 'the oppression of women in Islam' is no more than a rhetorical device inherited from imperial times," says Leila Ahmed, the first women's studies professor at Harvard Divinity School

​​ As a British journalist wrote at the time, the burka became the "battle flag" and "shorthand moral justification" for the war in Afghanistan. In the ensuing months the media filled with images of burka, images embedded in narratives that were about women's oppression in Afghanistan, but narratives too that often also carried an implicit message as to Islam's purportedly ageless oppression of women.

Of course, invoking the theme of the oppression of women in Islam as justification for war and domination is nothing new to the history of western imperialism. In fact this rhetoric of "saving the women" in the name of "civilization" is an old ploy used many times in the past in particular by British and French imperialists.

This was rhetoric they used with regard to women in whatever regions their empires took them to – in relation to Muslims or Hindus or others – to justify imperial domination. It was about precisely this rhetoric that Gayatri Spivak, back in the 1980s, coined the now famous phrase, of "white men saving brown women from brown men."

Astoundingly, to those of us familiar with this history, here it was again this old ploy, resuscitated, dusted off, and being replayed all over again – and, even more astonishingly it was actually working. It was entirely commonplace now to hear that we were in Afghanistan to save the women from the atrocities of the Taliban – which as I said, was implicitly understood too to be those innately of Islam.

For, as of 9/11, the subject of women in Islam typically figured in our political discourse almost always to evoke the meaning of "the oppression of women in Islam".

And in turn, the theme of the oppression of women in Islam itself is almost always a code for fear, suspicion, dislike of Islam: and consequently it is code therefore also for justifying policies targeting Muslims and/or mobilizing consent in support of wars in Muslim majority countries.

Mobilizing feelings of hostility

It is of course extremely important to bear in mind that it is in this particular decade that the subject of women in Islam has suddenly soared to prominence in the political discourses of western nations. This obviously has been an eventful and turbulent decade in the history of Islam and the West.

Inaugurated by an act of violence committed in the name of Islam against America – and followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two Muslim majority countries, to the accompaniment throughout of new tensions constantly arising in western societies around issues of Muslim immigrants and their descendants, these surely have been unprecedented times in modern history as regards relations between Islam and the West – and certainly in any case as regards American relations with Muslims and the Muslim-majority world.

A multitude of veilings: The veil can be a symbol of female oppression, but it can also be a way of affirming pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice and a way of rejecting negative stereotypes, Leila Ahmed argues

​​Such is the political and social context and environment in which this subject has now gained prominence and come to be evoked to serve what are often essentially political goals. I examine this terrain and the ways in which this context is shaping and defining the very terms in which the subject of women in Islam is discussed today in the West, in a book I've just completed, called "A Quiet Revolution", in a chapter I call "After 9/11: the Veil, the Burkah and the Clamor of War."

I interweave, here, an account of some Muslim American women's experiences in the context of the Islamophobia unleashed by 9/11, alongside an exploration of the new or renewed rhetoric on women in Islam and in particular "the oppression of women in Islam" and its political implications. Thus I give some account here of the spate of books published in recent years by women of Muslim background, books which typically confirm the rhetoric of our times about Islam's purportedly unique and terrible oppression of women – and books which indeed quickly became best-sellers.

I also give some account of the fierce criticism that such books have drawn from academics: on the grounds that, under the guise of eliciting sympathy for Muslim women, such works in fact mobilize feelings of hostility towards Islam and Muslim men, feelings which then serve to manufacture consent in support of wars in Muslim majority countries or support for policies targeting Muslim on the home front.

New dynamic, feminist activism: Religiously committed Western women are reinterpreting old texts, including the Koran and coming up with interpretations that radically challenge old, male-centred interpretations, Ahmed writes

​​As such scholars and critics point out, it's an arresting fact that books by Muslim women recounting their personal oppressions under Islam soared in popularity in the very years that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in fact costing many mostly Muslim women their very lives.

Remarkably, they point out, in the period in which the general public was apparently – judging by these best-selling books – deeply empathizing with Muslim women oppressed by Islam, they were simultaneously apparently not much disturbed, let alone outraged, at the unnumbered lives of Muslim women and children destroyed in these wars.

So reviewing this history and the troubling political uses which the subject of the oppression of women in Islam is serving today, my overall conclusion then is that it is time now really that we deleted this entire subject of "the oppression of women in Islam" from our repertoire. It's a subject that is, in reality, no more than a rhetorical device without meaning or content, a device that we've inherited from imperial times. It's time to cast it aside.

It would be obviously absurd if anyone were to write or speak today about the oppression of women in Christianity – by which they sweepingly meant whatever injustices and oppressions Christian women were suffering in, say, Nigeria, India, Argentina, Russia and Italy.

Yet this is routinely how the oppression of women in Islam is typically evoked today in popular discourse. Whereas in fact the injustices and oppressions Muslim women suffer vary enormously depending on where they live: those suffered by women living in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey, France, and the U.S.A. vary enormously and it would be nearly meaningless to lump them all together.

Direct confrontation of unjust and cruel laws

In saying that it's time to set aside the old imperial rhetoric of the oppression of women in Islam, I am certainly not arguing, I should make clear, that I believe that particular interpretations of Islam do not include attitudes and laws that are indeed appallingly unjust to women. On the contrary I believe that there are all too many such examples.

But the way forward is not through the wholesale denigration of everything Islamic or through grand assaults on "the oppression of women in Islam", but rather through directly confronting and challenging unjust and cruel laws, customs and behaviours one by one and specifically, wherever they occur.

Panicky parliaments? Since 9/11, a number of European countries have legislated hijab and burka bans, but historically bans on the hijab have typically backfired, writes Ahmed

​​There's a whole other side to the subject of the effects of the post-9/11 era on women in Islam in western societies that I haven't even touched on: such as the dynamic, feminist activism which is emerging today among some religiously committed Western – and specifically American – Muslim women.

Many such women, most of whom wear hijab, are very active today in seeking positions of leadership in Muslim organizations, including positions of religious leadership. And they are reinterpreting old texts, including the Koran and coming up with interpretations that radically challenge old, male-centred interpretations.

Some too are rereading old texts on the hijab and, while they remain committed Muslims, they are concluding that the hijab is not after all required. Certainly in any case it is clear that for those who do wear hijab, the meanings that hijab has in a Western democratic context where women are free to dress as they wish, are no longer the patriarchal meanings that this dress still has in most Muslim majority societies.

When I interviewed women in this subject, one woman for example explained that she didn't believe the hijab was religiously required, explaining that she wore it as a way of raising people's consciousness about the sexist messages in our society about women's bodies and dress – such as the pressures to unhealthy thinness for example.

Another said she wore it for the same reason that one of her Jewish friends wore a yarmulke: this was religiously required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority who were entitled, like all citizens, to justice and equality.

For others wearing hijab was a way of affirming pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice and a way of rejecting negative stereotypes – like the Afros that flourished in the 1960s among African Americans. These are all obviously meanings that the hijab can have only in democratic societies which respect freedom of dress and the rights of women and minorities.

It is worth noting in conclusion, in these times when a number of European countries are considering banning the hijab from various venues, that historically bans on the hijab have typically backfired. On the other hand we have now in America – where there are no such bans – a cohort of religious committed Muslim who are voluntarily, and often after much thought and study, themselves now casting off the hijab as irrelevant to their faith.

Leila Ahmed

© Leila Ahmed 2011 editor: Lewis Gropp