Still perusing the past week’s archives of the Women’s Studies List.
Janelle Hobson, assistant professor of Women’s Studies at SUNY-Albany, posts this inquiry on “teaching [about] Afghan women”:
In keeping with the listserv’s guidelines about focusing our discussion to issues of teaching and research, I would like to tie this issue concerning “feminist rhetoric” and Westernized constructions of the Afghani woman (especially in her burqua) back to strategies for feminist teaching.
In the aftermath of September 11, I made the wise decision to clear my syllabus and place current events at the center of our studies in an undergraduate Feminist Theory class. Teaching in New York state and dealing with the presence of students directly impacted by the tragedy, I had to find a way to encourage students’ development of feminist thinking and, at that point in time, help them create a more nuanced global consciousness.
No sooner did the War in Afghanistan start than images of burqua-covered Afghan women started dominating our TV screens. It was oh-so-easy for my students to fall into a “The West is Liberated” /”The East is Barbaric” and “Western Women are Liberated”/”Eastern (especially in their burquas) Women are Oppressed” view of the world. …
So, I created a Media Watch assignment: I titled it “Where are the Women?” I asked students to pay attention to various media coverage of the 9-11 and War in Afghanistan events and the ways in which gender intersects with race, class, and nationality. As a result, students discovered the heightened objectification of women’s subjugation in the Middle East but also right here in the U.S. They discovered the ways in which American women were silenced in similar ways that Afghani women were and that national/patriotic rhetoric advanced deeply entrenched, white compulsory heterosexuality which encouraged an uneven view of the world that literally told “bikini-clad beauty queens” (yes, I remember this one newspaper clipping from a student project) that baring their flesh for patriotism’s sake was far more “liberating” than covering up in a burqua!
I am grateful that students, during a moment when they were encouraged by everyone to check their brains at the door, did the necessary work in recognizing parallel, cross-cultural objectification efforts occurring in war rhetoric rather than collapse into some sense of “we’re more liberated,” or “they’re more oppressed.”
Had I not assigned this particular project, I imagine I would’ve had a terrible time, descending into arguments over the “appropriateness” of antiracist, anti-imperialist feminist discourse in a time of war (and having spoken with different colleagues who did face these struggles in the post-9/11 aftermath, I have no doubt that I would have had a very different class).
The point in sharing this: we can have a fruitful conversation that recognizes transnational feminist struggles for a just world that does not descend into feelings of personal attacks. It seems to me that we are all being asked (as I had asked my students, or rather, had assigned them the task of doing) to think critically, from a non-ethnocentric feminist perspective, about how to effectively build coalition with Afghan feminists that does not subordinate them or unwittingly join forces with an imperialist agenda that does nothing to improve their lives.
No, of course we wouldn’t want students thinking that American women are more liberated than Afghan women, or that Western involvement can improve the lives of Third World women, or that bikini-clad beauty contestants (whom no one forces to parade around in bikinis) are not quite as oppressed as women who are beaten if they let a bit of their feet or hair show from under the mandatory covering. Perish the thought. “Nuanced global consciousness” requires spouting nonsense about how women’s “subjugation” in the United States is essentially no different than in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Predictably and depressingly, this nonsense gets a few sympathetic replies, followed by a bit of mild heresy from Hannah Miyamoto, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, who writes that the 1986 book The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner examines the history of “veiling” as “a symbol of male control over female sexuality”:
In particular, she relies upon ancient Middle Assyrian law that not only required women and girls considered under the control of patriarchs to be veiled, but expressly required “harlots” and other sexually-available women to be unveiled, and providing dire punishments for either group of women.
I suspect that few non-experts in the Islamic world–particularly the proverbial “man on the Arab street”–knows that the modern practices that he considers a matter of devout faith are but an extension of practices that pre-date present Islamic practice by thousands of years, practices that now do not really achieve the original function of veiling/non-veiling laws in Assyria or elsewhere.
Here is another example of how western viewpoints are actually superior, in certain aspects, to indigenous viewpoints, principally due to the cultural distance of western scholars.
Needless to say, the heretic is promptly slapped down. Tamara Agha-Jaffar, Professor of English Kansas City Kansas Community College, writes:
I find your statements below to be culturally insensitive. First of all, while the majority of Arabs are Muslims, the majority of Muslims are not Arab. Furthermore, are you suggesting that this “man on the Arab street” is incapable of knowing that while the practice of veiling pre-dates Islam, it was also adopted by the wives of the Prophet and later Muslim women as a means of distinguishing them from non-Muslim women? If so, this “man on the Arab street” must indeed be in desperate need of Western enlightenment and its “superior” viewpoint.
In her next post, Miyamoto defends herself, explaining that veiling is about male control of women of female sexuality. Somewhat amusingly, however, she feels compelled to preface this with a discussion of an Ellen Goodman column which equates the American religious right’s opposition to a new vaccine that prevents cervical cancer caused by a sexually transmitted virus to the Taliban’s stoning of women who have extramarital sex. And she adds this qualifier:
I’m not picking on Islam; although it provides a very dramatic example, most world religions–especially Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant sects) and Judaism–expressly reinforce sexism. If you want proof, just try to argue that sexism is contrary to God and Jesus; when was the last female Pope? Right! Furthermore, due to monogamy and marriage, heterosexism is a key element in the maintenance of male control over female sexuality.
In other words: we can’t criticize the Taliban without giving equal time to criticism of the all-male Catholic priesthood and of monogamy and marriage.
As a sane feminist friend of mine quipped upon reading this: “Groupthink is restored. All’s right with the world.”
Am I focusing too much on a marginal phenomenon? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. The resistance to acknowledging that compared to the rest of the world, the West holds the moral high ground when it comes to women’s rights is deeply entrenched in academic feminism — which means that a lot of students get pushed in this direction, not just in women’s studies but in English and other disciplines. As a result, some are alienated from feminism, and others are successfully brainwashed into knee-jerk anti-Westernism. What’s more, as I have previously discussed, this attitude spills over into more mainstream feminism as well.
Update: Can’t recall if I’ve shared this anecdote before, but I’ll never forget a comment made by Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University and one of the leading lights of feminist jurisprudence, at a feminist conference I attended at Radcliffe College in 1992. I don’t remember the exact context, but Rhode said (to appreciative laughter from the audience), “Only 8% of the world’s population are white males. I find that to be a very encouraging fact.” Because, of course, all those non-white males around the world are such great friends of feminism and women’s rights, dont’cha know.