CJ Werleman detects a selective emphasis on women’s rights from Western liberals which echoes the Islamophobia of the ‘War on Terror’

“I stand with Afghan women who are facing violence and uncertainty. Who’s with me?” tweeted iconic Australian actor Hugh Jackman last week.

No doubt Afghan women face injustice under Taliban rule, from being denied access to education and movement to the imposition of clothing restrictions, but it takes little moral courage to cloak yourself in Western superiority while condemning the actions of our “civilizational” enemy. 

The West’s obsession with saving Afghan women from the Taliban started almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks and it has continued weeks after the United States evacuation from Afghanistan. It’s unlikely to ever go away because the “War on Terror” has artificially ordered the world into two separate spheres – Western modernity, and with-it white feminism, versus Islamic fundamentalism, and with-it theocratic patriarchy.

Can you really bomb feminism into a country?

Arundhati Roy

In both essence and substance, Jackman is only reiterating what former First Lady Laura Bush said in 2002 when she boasted that “because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.”

“The fight against terrorism is also the fight for rights and dignity of women,” she said.

But nobody at the time thought to ask Laura Bush why Afghan women weren’t suddenly throwing off the burqa shortly after being “liberated” from the Taliban by Western forces, although the great Indian novelist Arundhati Roy came close several years later when she asked rhetorically, “Can you really bomb feminism into a country?”

Palestinian American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew what she describes as an “imperfect” analogy, when she asked, “Why are we surprised that Afghan women did not throw off their burqas when we know perfectly well that it would not be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera?”

“As anthropologists know perfectly well, people wear the appropriate form of dress for their social communities and are guided by socially shared standards, religious beliefs, and moral ideals, unless they deliberately transgress to make a point or are unable to afford proper cover,” she observes. “If we think that US women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the ‘tyranny of fashion’.”

Strangely, almost paradoxically, white feminism has become obsessed with what Muslim women are “forced” to wear under the rule of hyper-conservative Islamic theocracy abroad, while it turns a blind eye to items of clothing Muslim women are forced to remove under the rule of secular democracy at home.

Show me a Hollywood A-list celebrity who has made a public stand against the banning of women’s Islamic clothing, including the burqa, veil and hijab, in France, Austria or Switzerland. But among those who supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan under the pretext of saving Afghan women from the burqa, were actors Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Eleanor Smeal.

More recently, Charlize Theron, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and others co-signed a letter calling on US President Joe Biden to save women in Afghanistan from “imminent threat”.

But none of the above has bothered to ask why the US failed to rebuild even a single road in Afghanistan during its 20-year occupation. “By refocusing the debate on women’s clothing yet again, broader questions around the problems facing Afghanistan become elided – and the discussion returns to a simplistic dichotomy between Islam and secular modernity,” observes Alex Shams, editor at Ajam Media Collective.


Deeply entrenched within this ‘saving’ project are run-of-the-mill Islamophobic tropes, as observed by Indian columnist Saba Karim Khan, who says, “Sexual terrorism had to have a face,” which “meant reinforcing neat connections between faith and gender violence, reducing the plight of Afghan women to the wrongdoing of controlling Muslim men,” with white feminism becoming the “compulsory antidote to Muslim patriarchy”.

It’s for this reason white feminist voices are mostly muted towards Muslim women who suffer oppression and human rights violations at the hands of regimes identifiably associated with non-Islamic faiths, including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Where is the collective outrage towards the mistreatment of Palestinian Muslim women who are routinely physically and sexually abused at military checkpoints, violently evicted from their homes and denied freedom of movement by the Israeli occupation?

Where is the collective outrage towards the mistreatment of Indian Muslim women who are discriminated against by the Indian Government, and routinely harassed, assaulted and raped by government-backed Hindutva thugs? 

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A new report by the Indian news outlet Clarion revealed that more than 1,000 Muslim women were rejected by the Bengal Police Recruitment Board because they were seen wearing headscarves in the photographs they had attached to their application forms.

These violations of women’s rights are ignored by white feminists and Western news media because neither concerned with what Muslim women are forced to remove from their bodies, only with what they are forced to wear.

Worryingly, the West’s fixation with saving Afghan women from the Taliban will inevitably lead garner public support for policies that will inflict further suffering upon them, including economic sanctions and other measures meant to isolate and cripple the Taliban Government, which will have a devastating effect on Afghan women, remembering US sanctions against the Saddam regime in the 1990s led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi women and children.

“In the United States and elsewhere in the West, we are often presented with a false choice between interventionism and isolationism,” notes Leila Sackur

Lila Abu-Lughod recommends we move beyond the “rhetoric of salvation” by first recognizing Islamic movements, including the Taliban, have “arisen in a world shaped by intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives,” arguing a more productive approach is to disentangle ourselves from a world “organised around strategic military and economic demands”.

The next step is to work hard to make our own communities a better and more just place for women while championing gender equality in all spheres and places, not only where we think women need saving from long-bearded Muslim men.

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