Author: Leila Ahmed
Ever since the attacks of 9/11, feminists in the West have increasingly used the theme of the oppression of women in Islam as justification for war and domination. This strategy of using this rhetoric of “saving the women” in the name of “civilization” is an old ploy used many times in the past by Western imperialists, writes Leila Ahmed
For those of us who have worked in the field of women in Islam for years the changes which overtook our field after 9/11 were dramatic and profound. Just on the most facile level for example, the topic went from being one that a few of us feminists and academics were interested in, to being one about which heads of state and world leaders – most recently for example France’s president Sarkozy, were apt to have strong opinions about. From being something we studied in libraries it became a topic we now followed in the media – where, under one guise or another, it often now figured on the front pages or in the headlines.
In particular of course the hijab – in any of its forms – burqah, hijab, niqab – would now periodically erupt as an issue of state in western nations. Previously hijabs had, of course, been matters of state in some Muslim majority countries – Saudi Arabia and Iran for example, where hijab was required by law, and Turkey and Egypt both of which had recently banned it from schools and other venues. But here it was now, in the post-9/11 era, beginning with France’s ban on the headscarf in schools in 2004, becoming a matter of national import to the West too.
It was shortly after 9/11 and as we went to war in Afghanistan that the subject of women and Islam first erupted into public political discourse in America and the West. It would be articulated at the highest level of the Administration on November 17, 2001 when First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address in which she spoke of women’s oppression in Afghanistan as a matter of national import.
“Civilized people throughout the world,” she said, “are speaking out in horror – not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
The burka as shorthand moral justification for war…