September 4, 2021
From Spectre Journal

As Hall and others explain, “the primary definition sets the limit for all subsequent discussion by framing what the problem is.” They suggest that the relationship between “primary definers” and the media is such that

it permits the institutional definers to establish the initial definition or primary interpretation of the topic in question. This interpretation then “commands the field” in all subsequent treatment and sets the terms of reference within which all further coverage or debate takes place [emphasis in original].

During and after the invasion of Afghanistan, a series of political figures including Laura Bush, Cherie Blair, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell argued that the United States had an obligation to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan and to root out the Taliban regime. Subtle references to “our” culture and values served to ground the rescue narrative within a “clash of civilizations” framework, which pits the “West” and “Islam” in a transhistoric battle. To be sure, conditions for women in Afghanistan were harsh. However, until they proved to be useful for empire, Afghan women warranted little coverage in the media. As Carol Stabile and I wrote, in broadcast media only thirty-seven programs focused on Afghan women in 1999. From January 2000 to September 11, 2001, there were thirty-three programs. From September 12, 2001 to January 1, 2002, the number of broadcast programs spiked to 628. This sustained attention was due in no small part to the role that “primary definers” such as those quoted at the start of this section play in determining what is newsworthy and when. When the suffering of Afghan women proved useful to the war on terror and to US imperial aims in South and Central Asia, they became the subject of sustained media attention. In reality, Afghan women are no better off than they were before the war, particularly in the rural areas where things deteriorated after the US/NATO invasion. This point was made quite strongly by women’s rights advocate Malalai Joya, the youngest woman ever elected to the Afghan parliament. The United States responded by barring her entrance into the country for a speaking tour in 2011 until public protest erupted.

In Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argues that the Afghan war gave rise to a new ubiquitous common sense that views militarism as the means to advance women’s rights. She further analyzes the multiple venues, from scholarly work to memoirs and pulp nonfiction, through which the West portrays Muslim women as victims. We might argue that if Kipling coined the term “half devil, half child” to describe the colonized as a subject in need of discipline (as devil) and education/uplift (as child), then today we have the logic “half victim, half terrorist.” While the terrorist, still largely gendered male, must be vanquished through wars and drone strikes, the (female) victim must be rescued and “liberated.” In this process, a flattened monolithic female Muslim subject is created. Abu-Lughod highlights the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences, pointing to class, region, nationality, the history and nature of political movements including national liberation struggles, and other factors that inform the status of women. Sociologist Valentine Moghadam has demonstrated with ample data that the conditions for women in the MENA region vary widely.Outlining the role of women as agents of change working within constraining conditions, she shows how it is not “Islam” that impacts women’s rights but socioeconomic and political conditions. Yet a particular image of the Muslim woman animates imperial feminism, which among other things erases MENA region and South Asian women’s activism and advocacy.

When France passed a ban on the hijab (couched as a ban on all religious symbols in schools), the argument was that this would “liberate” Muslim women. The reality, however, is that French Muslim women have not been liberated by these actions. The ban has only led to greater discrimination against, and ostracism of, Muslim women. This is not new. The French have a long history of unveiling Muslim women as part of their projects of colonialism. In Algeria, sociologist Marnia Lazreg points out that poor and working class Algerian Muslim women were coerced to be part of a well-choreographed event in 1958 where their veils were publicly removed by French women in a purported demonstration of their liberation. In response, many women who did not previously veil adopted the veil as a symbol of protest. From that point on, the veil was no longer an article of religious clothing but became a “strategic devise, under which and out of which women and men alike carried out paramilitary action.” Sociologist Christine Delphy, following Lazreg, argues that the

French did nothing to help North African women. But they carried out a few “un-veiling” campaigns during the Algerian War . . . under the pretext of “liberating women.” In reality, the purpose of these campaigns—like the rapes committed by soldiers or the use of “lascivious” native women in brothels—was to demoralize the Algerian men by “stealing” their last bit of property: women.

Additionally, the attack on the veil and the attack on Islam were means by which to defang the national liberation movement that had used Islam as an ideological glue to bring people together to stand up to French imperialism.

Leila Ahmed traces the emergence of the “discourse of the veil” in the late nineteenth century and how it became the most visible marker of difference as well as the inferiority of Muslim societies. In recent decades, the veil has been banned, scorned, or otherwise used to advance a taken-for-granted argument about the need for “enlightened” governments to rescue Muslim women. Largely absent from this discourse are the voices of Muslim women who could speak to the complex reasons why they don the veil. Anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi outlines these reasons, stating that they range from an affirmation of cultural and religious identity, to taking a feminist stance against the male gaze, to being an expression of liberation from colonial legacies.