Wednesday, 26 August 2009
The question: Can western feminism save Muslim women?
www.guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 25 August 2009 12.00 BST
By Asma Barlas, professor of Politics and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, at Ithaca College, New York
"I don't think it is necessarily imperialistic to want Muslim women to have rights. After all, women's oppression is a global phenomenon and so it should also be a global concern; countenancing it in the name of religious or cultural differences just allows us to evade the responsibility of trying to do something about it.
But we should be clear that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with the feminist sensibilities of George Bush (or Tony Blair). If Bush had been committed to women's welfare, his administration wouldn't have tried to undermine some of their hard-won rights in the US itself. The US "coalition" invaded Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, not to save Afghan women. This is not to deny that Anglo-European men have long harboured the desire to be Muslim women's saviours; it is simply to point out that this desire becomes an alibi for imperialist ventures. Hence the ease with which Bush could package the Afghan war, which is a war for US global supremacy, as a war for Afghan women's freedom.
However, I do think that it is imperialist hubris to believe that the kind of power the US exercises can be benevolent, regardless of the personal charm of its new president, or that it is possible to bestow freedom through force or emancipate women from the men of their own culture. In fact, if after years of US war and occupation, "moderate" Afghans can only come up with an unspeakably ghastly law that would tie sex to food (allow a husband to starve a wife if she doesn't have sex with him), doesn't it testify to the limits of the US project of liberating Afghans? It should also tell us that the inveterate misogyny of tribal culture is not localised in the Taliban or their misogynistic interpretations of Islam.
Although it is not always productive to see the world from within the template of western history or values, I think we can learn some lessons from the history of western colonialism and, indeed, of civil rights movements in the west. One of the lessons is that whenever and wherever there was an expansion in racial or sexual or political rights or liberties, it was because the people themselves fought for them. In other words, rights weren't simply bestowed on people by the state or enforced by foreign occupiers. The old adage really is true, that real change cannot be compelled through force. This may be why the Qur'an (westernised "Koran") also forbids coercion in religion.
There is no reason to assume that change in Muslim societies can only be imposed from the outside; to the contrary, I believe it can and will come from Muslims themselves. However, for that to happen, enough Muslims will need to realise that much of what passes as Islam – whether it is wearing a burqa, sex-segregation in public/private, stoning to death, killing a woman in the name of "honour" or the several other heinous practices associated with Islam – are not mentioned in or sanctioned by the Qur'an. Of course, such a realisation cannot happen in the face of existing social structures in which women have to contend with the reality of male authority and Muslims with the absence of civil and political liberties in Muslim-majority states and anti-Islamic sentiment and racism in western societies. All these things will need to change and, clearly, it is not just up to Muslims to make these changes, especially with respect to the increasingly virulent anti-Islamic racism in Europe or the US.
As a Muslim who lives in the west, I am specially concerned about this last point. Just recently, I read a plaintive but inflammatory headline in the Telegraph, "Why must we bow to the intolerant ways of Islam?". The article is about Muslims but its author assumes that whatever they have taken it into their heads to do is "Islamic". Such arguments then become justifications for wanting to stamp out Islam in the name of assimilation or multiculturalism or combating extremism. Although Muslims are partly to blame for some negative reactions, I think it's important not to forget the long and deep historical roots of western fears of difference. Speaking of the UK, it would be good for people to read TB Macaulay's illuminating "Minute on Education" (1835) in which he declares that the purpose of the British in India should be to "form a class ... of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect". That may have been then but it's not unreasonable to see British multiculturalism or French laïcité as modern variations on the same theme."