Out of Iraq and Other Colonial Metaphors

[Published in « Re-Public », Ed. Nelli Kambouri, 2008]

In Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, contains one of the greatest moments of cinema Kitsch in which Meryl Streep’s character, Karen Blixen, ships her personal effects across Kenya to her coffee plantation.  After having her “servants” carry these effects “casually” about (large wooden crates which look as if they weigh at least 150 kilos), Blixen worries about them breaking the French porcelain inside these crates and thus cautioning them to be careful, admonishing them with the famous words:  “My limoge!”   Later in the film Robert Redford’s character, Denys Finch, criticizes Blixen’s materialism as she announces:  “I want my Kiku to learn to read.”  Redford’s response:  “My Kiku. My Limoge. My farm. It’s an awful lot to own, isn’t it?”  In its descriptions of colonialism, one can see how the film’s narrative inevitably interrogates a quite colonial attitude regarding the invisibility, ownership and reform of other bodies.  Likewise, such narratives of possession are commonplace and visible today in the current transgressions of the geographical borders of Iraq and Afghanistan, “War on Terror”, which gained its legitimacy through the location and disruption of gendered borders — those of the uniquely and ostensibly oppressed women in Afghanistan.

While living in Italy during the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, I was shocked by the overwhelming support for the military action amongst Americans I met.  One was offended because I forwarded an article to her regarding the legislation in the United States which was tearing the U.S. Constitution to shreds.  Another told me that she do not wish to discuss or even question the war and  another, then suddenly turned to me and asked, “But, what do you think about how the Taliban treat their women?”  Stunned by the discursive break that this person demonstrated between refusing to discuss the “war” in Afghanistan, to instigating what was not a political, but rather a feminist issue:  the Taliban’s women, I realized that my interlocutor’s ideological model of “freedom” was none other than that of a Western archetype where women freely roam the streets and show any part of their body as evidence to this freedom, versus a mediated spectacle of Afghan society in which women have no voice, no autonomy, no rights.

Looking back on the  “War on Terror”, one can easily see how women’s rights were used as pretext in legitimizing these military actions. For many conservative and liberal Americans, the moral questions of American aggression could ostensibly be forgiven  if only the West could harness the “savagery” of the Taliban and divert such “human rights abuses” into something tamer, radically different, and more “democratic”.  The transcendental model for such changes in women’s freedoms is, of course, the Western one where democracy flourishes, where women have equal rights, and where this is evidenced by women who have the choice to work, to drive, to educate themselves, and even to go unveiled in American society.  Well, given such choices how can anyone possibly say “no” to such liberties?  How can one even question Western ideals given such a fanfare of opportunity and democracy accompanied by so little interrogation about the very ideals most Americans uphold as “freer” and “better”?  The “War on Terror” became the discourse whereby the geographical border was likened to the border of the woman’s body, where the nation-state is rendered penetrable  and colonizable simply because “their women need saving”.  For the US and UK, the perceived boundaries to “women’s freedoms” have become the thinly veiled pretexts for invading geographical limits.

Yet cogent discussions about the delineation of women’s rights is  missing in most every single critique on this subject.  “Women’s rights” are simply not ideals that are transmutable and intractable, nor are they monuments which are interchangeable from one culture to the next. Women’s rights are the very substance of specific and current social debates taking place within the nexus of cultures both locally and globally in: classrooms, meeting halls, kitchens, cafés, Internet chatrooms, newspapers, television, and cinemas.  Such rights are not homogeneous, but are polysemous and they are most certainly different from culture to culture because the very locus, history, and participants of such dialogues are never the same.  More importantly, women’s rights are inextricably intertwined with the rights of their male compatriots, many of whom also suffer other or similar oppressions.  The reality is that such arguments are elided in the current allure of war and Western feminist propaganda.  So, when someone from the United States turns to me and asks,  “What do you think of how the Taliban treat their women?”  I am left with few responses that are not already presupposed by the very colonial pretenses of such a question. How can we maintain a true debate when the questions being asked are formulated and executed by Western subjects against non-Western objects, based entirely upon Western ideals of cultural, political and economic freedoms?

Western feminism when cut and pasted onto a Muslim context, becomes the most colonial of practices where, for instance, writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich write about the “Taliban’s Hatred of Women” (Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2001) without so much as looking at the plethora of information which establishes that the treatment of women was no better under the Northern Alliance or mujahadeen.  Ehrenreich also views the burqa in terms of “misogyny”, completely missing any specific socio-cultural motives for which this garb might have been implemented, spending much of the article “risking speculation” as she states.   She he makes no effort to understand the specifics of the Afghan situation for the past two decades  as her article is a compilation of generalizations about the Muslim and “Third world”, as well as about men on a global scale.  It is interesting to note that Ehrenreich’s critique would have been quite astute had she even strayed into Afghanistan, historically or culturally, instead of limiting her argument to other “Third World” paradigms.  Moreover, had she come to study her subject a bit more carefully, Ehrenreich might have noticed that many women such as those most closely aligned to Western feminist agendas such as RAWA  (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) have as much disdain for the Taliban as they do for the even more horrendous groups preceding them, such as the Northern Alliance or the Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan, due to the atrocities they forced upon women between 1992 and 1996.   Hence, the very question of the  burqa has become quite a tokenized symbol for Western feminist polemics while the foundation for its implementation goes all but unexamined.  We must ask ourselves if we are even predisposed to consider that a woman might possibly be “free” while choosing to wear any sort of head/body covering, be it hijab, burqa or chadoor?

Immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks bookstores around Italy created these “mini-terrorist” sections within the store architecture: a section devoted to Islam, terrorism and women’s rights, separated and highlighted with special signs “Terrorism” “Women and Islam”, as if these books hold the hermetic solutions to the whys of September 11th.  Moreover, the covers of these books containing the words “Islam” or “Muslim” were all so familiarly problematic as they showed a variation of these three popular images:  the World Trade Center burning; the Jesus-like picture of Osama bin Laden either smiling or staring off in an angle with; and finally, women in veils of all sorts, colors and shapes, with titles such as “Sold!”, “I will Save You!” and “Slaves”.   There was this subtle parallel being constructed in publishing as within the media at large:  that somehow the same “backwardness” that would lead a culture to veil its women could likewise lead to terrorism.   There is a clear agenda in the West which aligns “backwardness”  and “servitude” to those who choose to wear the hijab, and a certain “modernity” and “freedom” [sic Westernism] attributed to those who choose not to wear any such garb.  More disturbing however, the parallels being drawn between “democracy” and non-veiled bodies versus the veiled, “kidnapped” body of the women is unilaterally placed on the same discursive terrain as that of violent fundamentalist terrorists.   There is a  familiar message with women’s rights agendas here as well:  “you are either with us or you are against us”.

Equally problematic is the underside to current debates about why “they treat their women the way they do”—or rather, the curious lack of introspective study regarding Western culture’s treatment of its own women.   But then, what are we to expect from a cultural “dialogue” whereby the Western subject remains imperially bound to certain inalienable truths regarding its own concepts of women’s freedom, much less any type of freedom?  For instance, in speaking with Americans, it is painfully clear that most tend to think that American women have more rights than any other women on the planet.  That is, until they get pregnant whereby they risk losing their job and have absolutely no right to take a paid maternity leave.  (“The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993” provides a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for the birth of a child and the care of the newborn applying only to companies with 50 or more workers.)  These issues are quid pro quo paradigms which are ideologically loaded on both sides with evidence and testimonials from many.  When discussing the Talilban, why not ponder  the statistics for rape in the United States which in 1999 alone was 876,000 (US Center for Disease Control and Prevention).   Now imagine that these figures represent only the 30 per cent of rape which is reported.  These are neither a small figures, nor are these incidents negligible as somehow  “lesser” injustices than the burqa or other atrocities committed against women in other parts of the world.  Yet, somehow Western media and feminists alike jump on the “burqa bandwagon” as it were, vituperating women’s rights in Afghanistan and attempting to displace  very Western imperatives upon quite non-Western bodies.

In order for there to be any constructive dialogue regarding women’s rights we must first understand that there are different problems facing women from one society to the next and often those problems are not only plaguing women alone, these issues are often problems beleaguering men and women alike.  Indeed, the Taliban’s torture and even rape of men goes without much discussion.  We must ask why and how it is that women suffer oppression quite diversely than men and what are, exactly, the socio-political mechanisms that treat women differently, if not less equally.  There is a lot of work to do;  however, there are simply no easy answers, no clearly universally democratic solutions.   But there are more constructive methods for looking at the broader and more specific instances of women’s oppression than merely superimposing Western ideals of liberty over very specific, local notions of freedom and culture.   However, as I write this article, I cannot pretend that my government, the United States, is not enacting a certain oppression upon Afghan women (and men) in the name of “enduring freedom”.  Do the pilots in those  C-130s really see (or care) if the women below are wearing burqa?  Or does this type of oppression not figure in this strategy?  On the other hand, if Americans really push our conceptual limits here, we might actually make ourselves believe that all the destruction this war is amassing can bring about our democratic liberation of women in Afghanistan.  After all, our democracy, our freedom, our women.  It is an awful lot to own, isn’t it?