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The Inconsistency of American Feminism in the Muslim World

Saturday 9 October 2021, by siawi3

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The Inconsistency of American Feminism in the Muslim World

For women in the Middle East and beyond, the U.S. has been an unconvincing liberator.

By Megan K. Stack

October 7, 2021

Photo: Hosna Jalil sits in a large room with rows of men seated behind her.
Hosna Jalil, the first woman appointed to a high rank in the Afghan Interior Ministry, is pained by the reversals of women’s rights under the new Taliban rule.Photograph by Massoud Hossaini / AP / Shutterstock

Late in the summer of 2001, a fourteen-year-old named Gigi Ibrahim left her home in Cairo with her father and sister to start a new life in the United States. They moved in with family members in Anaheim, California, and Ibrahim enrolled as a freshman at a nearby Catholic school. She was in her second week of classes when a group of mostly Saudi hijackers committed the 9/11 attacks, provoking a national spasm of grief and vengeance that would mark Ibrahim’s introduction to life as an American adolescent.

The day after the towers fell, stern F.B.I. agents upended the Ibrahims’ house while the family watched in dread. Terrorist tip lines were flooded with calls that week from jittery Americans. Among the anxious callers were the family’s neighbors, who, the agents explained, were concerned that a U-Haul had recently been parked outside their house, and that Ibrahim’s uncle sometimes walked up and down the block late at night (morning in Cairo), carrying on animated phone conversations in Arabic.

At school, where she was the only Muslim in her class, Ibrahim was asked to stage a schoolwide presentation to explain Islam. “Before that I was just Egyptian, but then I became the Muslim-Egyptian girl. And my family is not even very religious,” she said. “That’s when I realized: my life is going to be different just because of who I am.”

Tensions only increased, she said, as politicians began to discuss the coming war in Afghanistan as a righteous campaign to stop medieval-minded Muslims from oppressing millions of women. The war against the Taliban would not be pure retribution—the invasion was also extolled as a liberation. “The rhetoric was, like, ‘These Muslims beat women and kill them. We’re going to go liberate them, take off their burqas, take off their hijabs,’ ” Ibrahim said. “This is where this anti-hijab sentiment started.”

The irony, for Ibrahim, was that the speeches and headlines about rescuing Muslim women in Afghanistan fed the suspicion and slights that she, a Muslim-American teen-ager, had to bear at home.

I confess that I have always chafed at American talk about women’s rights in Afghanistan, finding it, even when well-intentioned, self-congratulatory, especially in the context of a military invasion. But all the effort and money spent after 9/11 did create a generational widening of possibilities for Afghan girls and women. Girls’ schools opened to eager pupils. A sweeping law criminalized violence against women. A network of shelters allowed women to escape domestic tormentors, despite the objections of religious conservatives, who derided the shelters as brothels and tried to bring them under government control.

“The gains made were serious and significant,” Heather Barr, of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, who has worked on Afghanistan since 2007 and lived in the country for six years, said. “It may all be swept away now, but a couple months ago I could’ve said to you that Afghan women have achieved genuine progress.”

Barr was critical of U.S. shortcomings but said the picture was complicated. The U.S. government spent liberally on women’s rights, she said, but diplomats were reluctant to devote political capital to the difficult task of pressuring men in the Afghan government to support women’s advancement. And too often, she said, the deeds of newfound allies were swept under the rug. “With one hand you’re writing a large, generous check, and with the other you’re shaking hands with war criminals whose crimes include violence against women,” she said.

And yet, as a generation of girls made their way through school, as women found jobs in offices that had once been male-only, there spread—tenuously and unevenly, but undeniably—a sense of possibility. The question now is whether, given how abruptly those opportunities were yanked away, they constituted another form of cruelty.

“Did we believe in it? Yes, we did,” Hosna Jalil, the first woman appointed to a high rank in the Afghan Interior Ministry, said. “I believed my presence in the Afghan government was hugely because of the presence of the international community. Otherwise, I would’ve been kicked out the next day.”

“It’s an embarrassment to say the international community is forcing my government to accept me,” she added. “But, yes, it mattered.”

Jalil was nine when the United States invaded Afghanistan. Her mother, a doctor, quickly realized that the Taliban’s ouster might mean that her daughter could go to school. Until then, Jalil had been enrolled in furtive tutoring under the supervision of an educated neighbor; she was coached to hide her notebook on the streets and to lie if confronted by the Taliban. Another tutor, who taught her English, was eventually arrested for ties to the Taliban; the basement of the house where the course was held was revealed to be a warehouse for weapons. Jalil still finds those revelations hard to grasp; he was her teacher, and he was kind to her.

Having been a rising star in a government that looks, in light of its speedy collapse, like a stage set, Jalil now lives in Washington, D.C., and watches Afghanistan from a distance, bitterly reassessing the behavior of everyone involved. She’s watched as the Taliban has settled into power—beating female protesters, abolishing the women’s-affairs ministry, and summoning boys, but not girls, back to secondary school. Jalil said she’s pained not only for Afghan women but for the Afghan men who backed their struggle. “I could’ve grown up with burqa, with the life style under the Taliban regime, and I wouldn’t have had any expectations,” she said. “To give someone a sweet and then take it back, it’s very painful. For all these little girls, millions of people, to take it back—it’s very painful.”

“The central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women,” President George W. Bush said in 2001. First Lady Laura Bush used the same words that year in an impassioned radio address, and described the Taliban threatening to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish.

But Bush could never credibly claim to be waging war on behalf of oppressed women, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a human-rights group, told me. The United States had already shown itself willing to “fight for women’s rights where we have enemy status and be silent about women’s rights where we are friendly,” Whitson said.

Despite all the talk of Afghan women, Bush had far less to say against Saudi Arabia, a country that arguably rivalled Afghanistan both in responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and in the repression of women. The kingdom had been home to Osama bin Laden, as well as fifteen of the nineteen hijackers. Saudi-funded mosques in countries around the world have long been accused of spreading extremist ideologies. Saudi officials have strenuously denied any involvement in 9/11 and have repudiated bin Laden, who was forced into exile, but leaked and declassified U.S. documents have fuelled speculation about financial and logistical links between Al Qaeda, the hijackers, and people in or around the Saudi government.

Meanwhile, Saudi women lacked custody and equal inheritance rights, and couldn’t vote or drive a car. Male guardians dictated whether they could study abroad, get a job, travel, or even leave the house. Men had the de-facto right to beat or rape their wives and a legal entitlement to file complaints of “disobedience” against female family members.

Loujain al-Hathloul was among the activists who fought tirelessly for women’s freedom. In 2018, Hathloul—who’d already been detained in the United Arab Emirates, forced back to Saudi Arabia, and banned from travel—was among roughly a dozen of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s-rights advocates who were imprisoned.

Photo: Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s-rights advocate, was imprisoned and, according to her family, sexually harassed, tortured, and held in solitary confinement.Photograph by Fayez Nureldine / AFP / Getty

The following month, Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince, granted women the right to drive. The announcement was a public-relations coup for bin Salman, garnering glowing writeups around the world. But the arrests made it look like a cynical double action: make a show of letting women drive, but imprison the women who asked for this reform.

American Presidents have long shielded and supported Saudi Arabia, eager to foster Saudi military coöperation and maintain access to oil, but Donald Trump was unusually effusive and undemanding. Bin Salman is “a friend of mine, a man who has really done things,” Trump said in 2019. “Especially what you’ve done for women . . . it’s like a revolution in a very positive way.”

That same year, according to Hathloul’s family, the Saudi government offered her a choice. She could walk free, but only if she appeared in a video denying that she’d been tortured. Hathloul refused. Her family members say she has been sexually harassed, tortured, and held in solitary confinement. (The Saudi government has denied the allegations of torture and disputed the family’s account of the offer to release Hathloul.)

Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister, believes that the Trump Administration bears responsibility for her sister’s detention. Pressure from the United States could have curbed bin Salman’s crackdowns, she said; instead, he was coddled. “They gave him a carte blanche,” she said. “He could do anything. Among those things was the imprisonment of Loujain.”

Just after Joe Biden’s election, Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, under a counterterrorism law. Then, after Biden’s Inauguration, she was released, with restrictions including a travel ban and a prohibition against talking to journalists. The family now hopes that the United States will pressure Saudi Arabia into abandoning the charges. Lina al-Hathloul feels that the Biden Administration has a moral obligation to intervene.

“There’s a difference between staying silent and being the reason it’s possible,” she said. “It’s really because the United States gave them a green light that everything was so horrible, that everyone is silenced, nobody dares say anything, everybody is living in fear.”

I wrote a newspaper feature once about the hijab. I’m sorry, now, that I did. The year was 2005, and I was based in Cairo. I wandered around the city asking women why they’d started wearing the veil or removed it. I spoke with posh hijab-boutique customers and secular feminists, and visited the living room of a judge who lived under an Islamist death threat for arguing that Islam does not require women to wear the hijab. Then I wrote a long story that explained the roots of the hijab in religion and culture, and how it had become a political symbol, and why people did or did not wish to wear it.

I’ve thought uneasily about that article in the years since, and yet I’ve struggled to name the cause of my discomfort. There’s nothing in the text itself that I would change. But, when I recall the mood of the reading public, I sense that there was something unseemly about the undertaking.

Many Americans believed fervently at that time that they were at war with Islam. One of the world’s great religions, with its complex texts, generations of scholars, and varying interpretations, had been boiled down in the American imagination to two basic notions: jihad and the repression of women. The assignment strikes me as emblematic of a moment when Western journalists felt free to opine on the innards of Islam, and tried to spice up their features by using “Allah” instead of just “God” while writing about Muslims. It was a story conceived at a time when people in the United States sat around and discussed the extent to which Muslims were bad.

Now I wonder whether my poking and prodding at the hijab is best understood as an unwitting continuation of the tradition of Western colonizers who condemned the veiling of women while they invaded and plundered foreign lands. The French did this in Algeria, the British in Egypt. And then the United States continued the tradition in Afghanistan. TV news was full of manipulations and dire prognostications, people who preached doomsday scenarios about jihad and Sharia, concepts they only dimly understood. And the women—suddenly they were all so worried about the women, but only certain women.

I think we all know this, even if subliminally: advertising the confinement of women in Afghanistan wasn’t useful only because we wanted to have a war; it also allowed us, the Americans, to feel enlightened and superior. It was a way to throw something shameful outside ourselves. In the United States, fathers dress up their daughters in white and slip purity rings on their fingers, staking a claim on their hymens. A big brother is expected to frighten his sister’s date, to establish himself as a kind of psychological guard dog in the middle of her sexual awakening. We admit no connection, none at all, between these practices and the guardianship laws and honor killings we fetishize overseas, even though they are various fruit of the same tree: the internationally ubiquitous notion that a woman’s body belongs to the men of her family, that she herself is a valuable that must be protected.

The painful lessons of the post-9/11 years were not lost on Gigi Ibrahim, who grew increasingly interested in politics and, in 2008, returned to Egypt, where she enrolled at the American University in Cairo. She became a leader in the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, and one of the most recognizable faces in Tahrir Square, promoting principles of revolutionary socialism and using her Twitter account to help drive the ouster of the U.S.-backed autocrat. She became a regular guest on CNN, and PBS’s Judy Woodruff described her as a “symbol of the uprising.” She appeared on the cover of Time, together with other young activists, beneath the words “The Generation Changing the World.”

Today, Ibrahim’s revolution is dead. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former commander-in-chief of the military, rules as an autocrat. The first time that many Americans heard his name was likely in 2011, when he conceded that female activists had suffered forced “virginity tests” while in military detention. The tests—described by human-rights groups as sexual assault and torture—were necessary, Sisi said, because the army had to defend itself against accusations of raping women in custody. Sexual assault had long been a tool of political control in Egypt: under Mubarak, I saw gangs of men, sent by the government, sexually assault and intimidate women who dared to join protests against his rule.

Like Mubarak, Sisi benefits from money and military hardware from the United States. Meanwhile, his government has imprisoned tens of thousands of people for political reasons, and human-rights monitors say there is an emerging trend of arresting more women. At least a dozen women—many of them young social-media influencers—have been imprisoned on charges of “violating family values” or “indecency” after posting playful videos.

Ibrahim, who holds a U.S. passport, could fly away. And yet she stays; she has opened a shoe-manufacturing workshop. “I know the life in the U.S.,” she said. “Maybe here I’m a second-class citizen as an Egyptian woman, but there I’m a second-class terrorist.”