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Depicting the Veil
Transnational Sexism and the War on Terror
By Robin Lee Riley
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2013 Robin Lee Riley
All rights reserved.
Rescuing Afghan women
War makes strange bedfellows. The body of the Muslim woman, a body fixed in the Western imaginary as confined, mutilated, and sometimes murdered in the name of culture, serves to reinforce the threat that the Muslim man is said to pose to the West, and is used to justify the extraordinary measures of violence and surveillance required to discipline him and Muslim communities. Against the hypervisibility of the Muslim woman's body (customs officers, shop clerks, and restaurant workers now all presume to know how Muslim women are oppressed by their terrible men), it is virtually impossible to name and confront the violence that Muslim women (like all groups of women) experience at the hands of their men and families without providing ideological fuel to 'the war on terror.' (Razack 2008: 107)
Things are not good for women in Afghanistan. While much was made in the Western press of women throwing off their burqas in joy at the removal of the Taliban, sources on the ground in Afghanistan in 2001 reported that in fact very few women had given up the Muslim tradition of the veil in favor of Western garb or even a less extreme version of the veil (McCarthy 2001). Indeed, women in Afghanistan bear the brunt of the war more than ten years after Western troops most recently entered Afghanistan, now under the Bush administration's handpicked leader Hamid Karzai.
Five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Kabul has only 3 hours of electricity per day and unsanitary and inadequate drinking water. The healthcare system is nonexistent or run by foreign NGO's and primary schools lack teachers. The government undertakes almost no public works; there is no food safety system ... (Parenti 2006: 13)
The United Nations Human Development Index rated Afghanistan 173rd of 178 nations measured (Gall 2005). Even though the report was paid for by the World Bank and nations like Canada, which have played a role in the NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan and have a direct stake in having Afghanistan depicted as benefitting from, at that point, three years of war, they acknowledge that one in two Afghans live in poverty, the life expectancy of 44.5 years is twenty years lower than that of its neighbors, a woman dies from pregnancy-related causes every thirty minutes, and that Afghanistan has 'the worst educational system in the world' (ibid.).
More recently, according to their own accounting, Afghanistan, in spite of receiving some $36 billion in foreign aid in the form of grants and loans between 2001 and 2009, has been described in the Western media as 'a country in a persistent state of humanitarian crisis' (Turse 2010). The United Nations ranks Afghanistan last of 135 countries in its Human Poverty Index (ibid.). Thirty-six percent of the population live below the poverty level and another 30 percent are one incident away from not having enough food to eat (ibid.). Afghanistan is a place that is prone to incidents. There is no infrastructure to support the population or to protect them from catastrophe.
John Vidal of the Guardian reports that '80% of all Afghans are drinking contaminated water.' He goes on: 'More than 75% of the whole of the urban Afghan population live without water, electricity or secure ownership' (Vidal 2010). In addition, the rapid growth of Kabul in the form of expanding shantytowns presents a potentially huge environment problem. Around 80 percent of persons hospitalized in Kabul have diseases caused by overcrowding, that is, from the pollution of air or water (ibid.). There is woefully inadequate sanitation with no sewage system at all and 'only one in 10 or 20 households have access to clean water via the city water system, with everyone else sharing communal water pumps' (ibid.). This is what ten years of Western imperialism have wrought.
Thank you for the rescue
Nine years after 11 September and the start of the operation 'Enduring Freedom,' which justified its commitment not only with the hunt for terrorists, but also with the fight for women's rights, the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan still is catastrophic. (Medica Mondiale 2010)
While the overall situation in Afghanistan is grim, as the quote above indicates, for women it is 'catastrophic.' Indeed, the war in Afghanistan is hardest on women. Contemporary methods of war-making with no established front lines, where fighting often occurs in urban settings, along with the United States' use of drones – that is, unmanned aircraft operated from within the United States that target certain individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan (drones are advertised as being quite accurate to a target but, it turns out, frequently they are not), but that frequently end up killing and harming civilians – have helped to create an atmosphere that is far more dangerous to women and far more disruptive to their lives than Taliban restrictions.
One consequence of war for women in Afghanistan is loss of loved ones. For example, estimates show that there are 2 million widows in Afghanistan; one out of seven Afghan women is a widow (Partlow 2011; Obaid-Chinoy 2007b). Given the lack of education and limited options for women in Afghanistan, becoming a widow has significant economic implications on women's lives: 'These widows are not supported by the corrupt government and have no option except begging, prostitution and suicide – the most common means of escape. The recent imposed law banning beggary reduces this range of options still further' (Mansour 2009).
Yet there are not a lot of stories told in the West about widows in Afghanistan. It is almost as if to acknowledge their existence would be to implicate the West in their creation. In the few descriptions of the lives of women who are widows in Afghanistan, however, there is no direct correlation drawn between the presence of Western militaries and the creation of widows. That is, the 'problem' of widows, as told in the Western press, is talked about as one of lack of opportunity created by Afghan men and the long decades of war with unnamed amorphous enemies, not the current conflict that creates widows (Partlow 2011; Abawi 2009a). In a Washington Post story entitled 'Afghan widows form community on Kabul hill,' for example, the author, Josh Partlow, interviews four of the estimated one thousand widows in a particular area of Kabul noted for the concentration of widows living there. None of the husbands of the women interviewed was killed by Western forces. One woman's husband died in a car crash, another was killed by a suicide bomber, still another in a rocket attack during a pre-Taliban conflict. Both the decades of war and subsequent lack of opportunity in Afghan society afforded to women living alone, or alone with children, definitely contribute to the problem of widows. Yet, responsibility for at least one of those decades belongs to the West, and the proliferation of widows since occupation lies at the feet of Western governments, including that of the US. Commenting on the problem of widows in Afghanistan, Maria Akrami, a social worker for an NGO based in Kabul, said, 'If America invaded us to liberate our women, this is a clear sign that they are failing miserably' (Obaid-Chinoy 2007b).
The creation of widows and the subsequent erasure of Western responsibility in their creation is not the only way in which the presence of Western men, whose ostensible role was to rescue Afghan women from Afghan men, has impacted the lives of women in Afghanistan. How the world – and, for purposes of this study, the West – comes to know and understand who Afghan women are comes about as a result of the perceptions and ideas of Western men – more specifically Western white men. Indeed, as Doris Graber tells us, what we are exposed to, in the form of news, is racially determined: '... what becomes news depends in part on the demographics, training, personality, and professional socialization of news personnel. In the United States that means, by and large, upwardly mobile, well educated white males ...' (Graber 2010: 82).
The 'upwardly mobile, well-educated white men' paint a particular picture of who the enemy, in this case Muslim men, is and the consequences of the actions of that enemy. In the case of Afghanistan, one of the consequences becomes the depiction of Afghan women as oppressed to the point of voicelessness by Afghan/Muslim men. The accompanying ideas about the potential for evil of Afghan men are reinforced again and again. Sherene Razack (2008: 5) suggests that:
Three allegorical figures have come to dominate the social landscape of the 'war on terror' and its ideological underpinning of a clash of civilizations: the dangerous Muslim man, the imperiled Muslim woman, and the civilized European, the latter a figure who is seldom explicitly named but who nevertheless anchors the first two figures ... The story is not just a story, of course, but is the narrative scaffold for the making of an empire dominated by the United States and the white nations who are its allies.
What we know about Afghan women, then, comes to us through a lens constructed by Western patriarchy colored by imperial desires.
Being widowed is not the only consequence of war on Afghan women's lives. Indeed, women themselves have died in large numbers, lost children and other loved ones, and suffered horrendous injuries. In 2004 Sonali Kolhatkar, director of the Afghan Women's Mission, quoted figures from the BBC in reporting that:
There has been a continuous steady trickle of a few deaths here, a few there, in Afghanistan – not enough to warrant news headlines. In early December, six Afghan children died during a U.S. assault ... The next day, nine more died in a field in Ghazni province after a U.S. air attack. More than two years after 'Operation Enduring Freedom' began in Afghanistan, Afghan women and children are still enduring death by U.S. style freedom.
Sonali Kolhatkar is suggesting that transnational sexism changes the meaning of the word freedom in the Afghan context. Here notions of 'freedom' have very different meanings depending upon whether it is Western women's freedom or that of women of color, specifically Afghan or Muslim women. Apparently, in Afghanistan freedom might mean freedom from one's life, one's loved ones, one's home, one's right to self-determination. In 2010, RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) News claimed that 8,832 Afghan civilians have been killed in a combination of drone strikes, exposure to IEDs (improvised explosive devices), combat deaths and suicide bombings since 2007.
Is this what 'rescue' means? Are Afghan women now liberated? Responsibility for the increasing death toll cannot be solely that of Afghan men. It is the presence and activities of Western militaries that is to blame (Kandiyote, in Khaleeli 2011).
Victims or villains?
The Orientalized body becomes a projection of all that the West finds alien and abhorrent, but simultaneously exotic and alluring. In short, the Orientalized body essentializes otherness. (Jiwani 2006: 181)
Even though conditions for women in Afghanistan were not much improved by Western bombs or the subsequent and ongoing occupation, and some would argue that they have actually worsened, in his 2002 State of the Union address, George Bush declared that: 'The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes. Today women are free' (cited in Lamb 2011b). Currently, under the Obama administration, media coverage of the war continues to make the argument that Afghan women have to some degree been rescued. The media coverage focuses not on the supposed imperialist intentions of the Taliban, as Laura Bush articulated, but rather, as I will demonstrate, on rescuing Afghan women from brown men (Spivak 1988; Fanon 1965; Cooke 2002). We have already seen the machinations involved in creating this idea, but it is also important to recognize the Orientalist underpinnings of these stories as well as Afghan women's visibility/invisibility problem in news coverage (see Chapter 3).
Of course, media coverage of the war in Afghanistan waxes and wanes depending on how involved the US is at the time, how thenews of certain US activities can be spun, and what other distractions may occur. During the most intense parts of the US attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation, but also during less warlike events like Michael Jackson's death or Hurricane Katrina, Afghanistan faded from the view of most Americans in spite of the presence of American troops there and casualties inflicted on both those troops and Afghan civilians. Watching network news in the US during those times might have provoked one to question the newscaster, 'Are we at war?'
Even when stories about the war in Afghanistan are told, women are often totally absent. Though women constitute almost one half of the population, they are almost never mentioned in news stories. In news photos about the war, women are rarely depicted except as victims or as recipients of Western largesse in the form of food or medical assistance, or as veiled, vaguely threatening figures. The depiction of Afghan women from the start of the war on terror has been conflicted. On the one hand, there is the veiled victim of the Taliban and, on the other, the hidden, al-Qaeda perpetrator of terror. In her study of stories on Muslim people that appeared in the Canadian Montreal Gazette post-September 11th 2001, Yasmin Jiwani argues that 'Of all the stories referencing Muslim women, Orientalist themes were especially apparent in those that focused on Muslim women living directly under Islamic rule' (Jiwani 2006: 186).
Those Orientalist themes and the perception of religious education and the religious practice of Islam as dangerous were very apparent in a photo essay that appeared in the New York Times soon after September 11th 2001. On 21 October 2001, the New York Times Magazine ran a National Geographic-like photo spread of Pakistani women who study or work in madrassahs for women. This marks the beginning of the loop of circulation of certain ideas about the Orientalized Muslim woman. The photos are terrific examples of Orientalism and the exoticization of women of color – the women are all veiled, for example, dressed in flowing robes, and looking sideways at the camera. It is not clear whether the lens is obscured or the women are in motion, but one photo of several women in burqas is somewhat blurry, making it seem as though the women are mysterious, secretive. In one photo, a ten-year-old girl named Munaza Kanwam is pictured at 'her Koran ceremony.' She wears a headpiece of brightly colored flowers. The quote underneath her photo reads: 'I am very happy. I feel like a bride ... I think Osama is a great man, and he is fighting America.' Other text that surrounds the pictures works to create the idea that these women are war-thirsty fanatics. One woman named Shafia Salaam was quoted as saying:
I have seen images in the newspapers of what happened in America, and I feel it was not good. But perhaps God punished America for the wrongs she is doing in other countries like Palestine and Kashmir. If America attacks us, we will fight. Non-Muslims are our enemy according to the Koran, so Americans are our enemy. We hate America. I believe in Jihad. I will do whatever I can do. If I am provided the opportunity to get weapons, I will use them. (p. 40)
The last sentence was reproduced in large, italicized text to emphasize and create fear, and yet the reader is expected to differentiate between what this woman said and the words of US women serving in the military, or for that matter, in a time when the thirst for war had reached fever pitch, among US women who support the war. This emphasis supports the Bush administration's claim that these women are militarized, as a result of Islam, taught to hate the West and the US so much that they are willing to do anything to harm Westerners.
Another woman in the New York Times piece named Rehima has named one of her six sons Osama:
I named my son Osama because I want to make him a mujahid. Right now there is war but he is a child. When he is a young man, there might be war again, and I will prepare him for that war. In the name of God, I will sacrifice my son, and I don't care if he is my most beloved thing. For all of my six sons I wanted them to be mujahadeen. If they get killed it is nothing. This world is very short. I myself want to be a mujahid. What will I do in this world? I could be in heaven, have a weekly meeting with God. Jihad is when you are attacked, you attack back. This is God's wish. We are not afraid. I am already asking my husband if I can go to Kashmir and train to fight. I will suicide bomb. If there are 20–30 non-Muslims there I will commit martyrdom. If America attacks, we will put our hands on the throats of the Americans and kill them. (p. 39)
Excerpted from Depicting the Veil by Robin Lee Riley. Copyright © 2013 Robin Lee Riley. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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