It was a narrative that was also front and center in 2001 when the administration of US president George W Bush launched the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan, with his wife Laura claiming that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
In Britain, this justification was also used by Tony Blair’s government, which joined the international coalition claiming that the campaign was needed, among other things, to “give back a voice” to Afghan women deprived of human rights under the Taliban regime.
But while it is true that Afghan women faced violent injustices under the Taliban rule, it is important to analyze the misrepresentations that have accompanied this “savior” narrative.
Ironically, this message has found common cause on both sides of the political spectrum, and has even been a rare example of the language of feminism and the language of colonialism coming together to say in essence the same thing.
In this way, the Afghan woman has come to represent the opposite of what the West sees as its defining virtues, in that she is represented as backward and powerless.
The ‘white savior’ narrative
The problem with this white-savior narrative is that it is laden with the same orientalist civilizing rationales. It’s an age-old fantasy that was used to justify colonial wars – a classic example is Lord Cromer’s condemnation of the way Islam treated women when Britain colonized Egypt in the 19th century.
This sort of thinking continues to foster the idea that war can both free Muslim women from their oppressive menfolk and liberate the West from Islamic terrorism. Yet when women were assaulted by the US-backed Afghan government and Afghan warlords before the Taliban’s takeover, the international community remained silent.
And while the far right often expresses xenophobic and discriminatory positions against Muslims, some groups have been quick to piggyback on the Taliban takeover to promote their own anti-woman and anti-liberal agenda. Within these debates – and for both the far right and fundamentalists – women are represented in several different and important ways.
For Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim women are always seen as key representatives of their culture, thus the importance of “proper” behavior and “proper” dress. Meanwhile, some far-right groups – despite their xenophobia – have been cheering the Taliban’s victory. Both of these positions are harmful to Afghan women.
At the same time, liberal feminists on the left also express concerns for the abuses of rights of the “voiceless” Muslim woman.
But opposition to the Taliban in particular and elements of Islamic culture and society more generally sets up a problem for sections of the left that are wary of opposing Islamist ideology thanks to residual colonial guilt, the honorable desire to respect other cultures and some perceived common causes with some Islamist groups.
As a result, when I have identified as a secular Muslim feminist and argued that the Taliban are a danger to women, I have been accused by both Islamic fundamentalists and certain leftists of being a “mouthpiece,” and a “sellout” who supports Western imperialism.
Too often the outside world adopts broad generalizations about the deeply complex political, historical and social history and issues that have shaped the cultural milieu of Afghan women. We need to understand that the goals and desires of Afghan women may not precisely match the “freedoms” envisaged by white feminism.
What do Afghan women actually want?
In the end, against all this background noise, the actual voices of Afghan women are often silenced. It may be easier for outsiders, but sticking neat cultural representations of the “victimized Muslim woman” over messier historical and political narratives gets us nowhere.
Obviously it’s not helpful to ignore the dangers faced by Afghan women and the oppression of Muslim women in general. But it’s important to acknowledge the vastly different social, economic and political dynamics that have created the contexts in which these women live.
It’s also important to understand that “Muslim women” are not a fixed, static or homogenous group. And we need to ask ourselves about what we actually mean when we use words like “agency” and “victimization.” The reality is far more complex.
We need to recognize that Afghan women (a varied group) might want different things than what Westerners (also a varied group) might want for them. We need to acknowledge that, with or without the Taliban, Afghan women are the only ones who are able to resist their oppressive conditions. Therefore, we should listen to how they believe we can best help.