Cultural Imperialism and Saving Muslim Women

Growing up, I often joined my parents and watched the evening news on television, through which I became aware of the various injustices faced by vulnerable populations across the world. Coming from a South Asian background, I was conscious of the unjust cultural practices many women from the subcontinent were subject to. As a teenager, I felt compelled to be involved in efforts to serve marginalised populations and joined an organisation which professed a noble goal: raising awareness about the obstacles women in developing nations faced. With time, I became more involved and was eventually selected for a leadership role.

As part of my new role, I was required to attend various meetings, book clubs, and seminars. These events were enriching and I learned a great deal about international development and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Yet many aspects of my studies did not sit well with me; from the literature on ‘women’s rights’ to the assumptions about women in developing countries — especially Muslim women — I found myself conflicted about the basis of the work I was involved in. After graduating from high school, I left the organisation and decided to learn more about women’s empowerment and feminism independently.

It was only after I learned more about contemporary feminist ideas that I realised the extent to which these beliefs influence the fields of international development and humanitarianism. On the surface, it often seems that most of these organisations have a straightforward, neutral goal of uplifting women; however, the underlying assumptions by which they operate, including their perceptions of problems faced by Muslim women, stem entirely from Western, liberal understandings of gender and religion. While such humanitarian work may initially appear to be respectful of local cultures and beliefs, a fundamental difference in value systems, though often obscured, remains. 

Afghanistan and “Saving Muslim Women” 

One of the most archetypal examples of how the West perceives the plight of Muslim women can be seen in the rhetoric espoused by world leaders at the start of the war in Afghanistan. One way the Bush administration justified the 2001 invasion was its emphasis on ‘women’s rights’ and ‘empowerment’.  In a national radio address, First Lady Laura Bush claimed, “the brutal oppression of women was a central goal of the terrorists” (referring to the Taliban) and portrayed the U.S. as a savior:

 “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries, and they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” [1]

During the war in Afghanistan, corporeal “liberation” was emphasised. Unveiling women and giving them the “freedom” to adorn themselves publicly was stressed by many Western initiatives launched in Afghanistan under the guise of providing humanitarian assistance. Ellen McLarney notes how Afghanistan was viewed as “fertile ground for the capitalist imagination” and how 

“proliferating discourses of repression imagined a female body, freed for the aesthetic, cosmetic, and sartorial accoutrements of the new capitalist economy.”[2]

Media depictions of the burqa, worn by many Afghan women, as a restricting and repressive article of clothing gained popularity. One such documentary, called Beneath the Veil, became CNN’s most viewed documentary ever and was aired at least ten times, soaring in popularity after 9/11. Even before 9/11, V-Day — a global activist movement which describes its mission as “ending violence against all women (cisgender, transgender, and those who hold fluid identities that are subject to gender-based violence), girls and the planet”—  held a benefit gala at Madison Square Garden with over 18,000 people, during which an unveiling was a prime feature of the event. An Afghan woman named Zoya, who was a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan (RAWA), one of the oldest feminist organisations in Afghanistan, stood on stage wearing a burqa as Oprah Winfrey narrated a monologue titled “Under the Burqa” and written by the founder of V-Day, Eve Ensler,. The crowd stared in awe as Oprah recited lines including 

“imagine a huge dark piece of cloth / hung over your entire body / like you were a shameful statue” and helped Zoya cast aside the burqa.[3]

This spectacle was eerily similar to a public unveiling event that had taken place in Algeria under French colonial rule. To demonstrate that Algerians were in support of French rule, French army generals rounded up native men and women from nearby villages and brought them to Algiers for the demonstration. As part of the event, “a few native women were solemnly unveiled by French women.” [4]

Additionally, the opening of the Beauty Academy of Kabul in 2002 received significant media coverage. Articles about the beauty school linked Western conceptions of beauty and the use of beauty products with freedom. Some of these pieces were titled: ‘Lipstick Power’, ‘Extreme Makeover’, ‘The Power of Beauty’, and ‘Life, Liberty and a Touch up.’ In a documentary about the Academy, also titled The Beauty Academy of Kabul, the voices of the American women behind the project were centered, rather than the Afghan women who were supposedly being liberated through their participation. An American hair stylist involved with the project depicted the academy’s work as a necessity: 

“I have traveled a lot, probably over 40 different countries. This is the first country that ever really needed me as far as my skills. I never saw a country that wanted it so bad, that wanted normal. They just wanted normal.”

Another American woman who organised the project proclaimed, 

“How long have I been here? Five weeks, it feels like five years. I think I have aged twenty years since I have been here […] It is 140 degrees […] you are often in a dust storm where you can’t breathe or see […] I mean [the beauty school] is an oasis in the middle of chaos. It is paradise in the middle of hell.” [5]

Such sentiments are reminiscent of moral claims made by colonising European powers not too long ago. The British imperial project was carried out under the pretense of assisting civilisational progress; since Britain had evolved to a higher stage than its colonies, it was its moral responsibility to civilise and uplift them. [6] Similarly, Afghanistan is portrayed as a desolate, dangerous, and uncivilised land in need of Western saviors. 

Once again, in August 2021, these sentiments were echoed when the Taliban took control of the government following the departure of American troops. During the transfer of power, the main concern of many Westerners seemed to be whether Afghan girls and women could continue studying and working, not whether their basic needs, such as access to sustenance, shelter, and healthcare, were being met. In fact, following the Taliban takeover, U.S.-led sanctions were implemented, preventing Afghanistan — which was heavily dependent on humanitarian assistance — from receiving international aid. These sanctions, along with the Biden Administration’s freezing of billions of dollars in Afghan reserves, have contributed to an on-going humanitarian crisis.[7] Afghanistan’s healthcare system is now on the brink of collapse due to a scarcity of essential medical supplies and lack of funding to pay salaries of healthcare workers. The country is facing mass starvation, with almost 23 million Afghans requiring urgent food assistance.[8] In an attempt to punish the Taliban and in the name of concern for women’s rights, the U.S. government has exacerbated the suffering of millions of Afghan women and girls. 

The focus on external appearances by these campaigns and initiatives reflects the myopic (and often privileged) vantage point of Western liberals. The vast majority of Afghan women live in rural areas, and the priorities and needs of these women differ drastically. Many Afghan women living in remote parts of Afghanistan are more concerned about being able to survive rather than attending beauty schools. In the Sangin Valley in southern Afghanistan, Afghan women lived in constant fear during the American occupation due to frequent airstrikes, arrests, and killings by coalition forces, which claimed the lives of many close family members. For these women, the departure of coalition forces actually brought about the hope that they could now at least live and enjoy simple pleasures like sleeping on the rooftop under the stars.[9] 

Presumptions and Assumptions

“Women’s empowerment” is a loaded term that can take on a variety of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Western governments and NGOs typically operate from a secular-liberal framework, and their definition of “women’s empowerment” is often rooted in individualism, emphasising autonomy and individual interests. These are sometimes at odds with Islamic values, which stress submission to God’s commandments and the importance of our duties to those around us. 

In his book Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen discusses how women’s organisations in the international development sphere have shifted from mainly focusing on women’s “well-being” (what he calls a “welfarist” perspective) to also emphasising the importance of women’s “agency”. He welcomes this change, but does not provide much detail on what constitutes women’s “agency” besides brief mentions of women’s earning power, literacy, and working outside of the home.[10] 

However, “agency” is a prime example of an aspect of women’s empowerment that can be defined in myriad ways. Agency is literally defined as “the ability to to take action or to choose what action to take”.[11]  For international development organisations operating from a secular paradigm, the concept of “agency” is drawn directly from liberal conceptions of freedom of choice. The importance of God’s commandments, such as veiling, can be downplayed as a matter of “personal choice”, and there are many examples of hijab being targeted through “humanitarian” efforts. 

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod points out how, for centuries, Muslim women in the East were seen as lacking “agency” and forced to wear hijab by Muslim men from whom they needed to be rescued. In 1906, Christian missionary women held a conference in Cairo where they discussed the plight of Muslim women, and how it was their duty to make Muslim women’s voices heard. In the introduction of a book discussing proceedings from this conference, it states, “They will never cry from themselves, for they are down under the yoke of centuries of oppression.” 

Such language and imagery have found their way to the international development sphere as well. Abu-Lughod describes receiving an invitation to an event in honor of ​​Médecins du Monde/Doctors of the World (MdM), an international humanitarian organization providing medical care to vulnerable populations all over the globe. The event, which was sponsored by the French Ambassador to the United States, included a photography exhibition component titled “Afghan Women: Behind the Veil”. On the invitation, the work MdM was doing in Afghanistan was described as follows:

“For 20 years MdM has been ceaselessly struggling to help those who are most vulnerable. But increasingly, thick veils cover the victims of the war. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, Afghan women became faceless. To unveil one’s face while receiving medical care was to achieve a sort of intimacy, find a brief space for secret freedom and recover a little of one’s dignity. In a country where women had no access to basic medical care because they did not have the right to appear in public, where women had no right to practice medicine, MdM’s program stood as a stubborn reminder of human rights […] Please join us in helping to lift the veil.” [12]

The phrases about “veiling” equate it with a usurpation of identity, making it seem that all Afghan women were forced to wear the burqa against their will and had been deprived of all individual personality. These types of statements completely ignore the fact that while the Taliban did enforce the wearing of the burqa when they were in power, the vast majority of women in Afghanistan already wore some sort of veil previously. Additionally, for many Afghan women from more conservative backgrounds, the burqa actually afforded them the ability to move around comfortably while still maintaining a preferred level of separation from men. 

In pursuit of freedom

Another issue that is often linked with “agency” is reproductive rights, including the right to abortion. In its General Comment on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Committee on Human Rights characterises abortion as a human right and affirms that the right to life of a fetus begins at birth.[13, 14] UN organisations and other NGOs which abide by such conceptions of human rights can legitimise abortion as a matter of bodily autonomy in which the preservation of a woman’s “agency” takes precedence.

This kind of framing disregards the Islamic views about this issue. Scholars from the four major Sunni legal schools have varying opinions on the permissibility of abortion, with the most “lenient” contemporary view deeming abortion conditionally permissible before a certain time period. However, most discourse surrounding abortion today centers “protecting” women’s bodily autonomy: “my body, my choice” is a popular slogan commonly used by abortion rights activists, and often no distinction is made about the reasons behind an abortion. Instead, abortion is promoted as the ultimate solution for “unintended” pregnancies. Such framing is diametrically opposed to Islamic beliefs: our bodies belong to Allah ﷻ and are an amanah, and no event is actually random or unintended. The permissive Islamic legal opinions on abortion did not stem from individualistic concerns of protecting one’s personal liberties, and only certain conditions, such as rape, incest, and endangerment to the mother’s life, allow for abortion. [15]

The existence of gender roles in Muslim communities is also seen as an issue that needs to be addressed. Gender roles are presumed to be inherently oppressive, and Western experiences in heavily capitalist societies are projected onto other communities around the world. These projections were clearly shown in a recent report published by Oxfam on toxic masculinity in the Iraqi regions of Diyala and Kirkuk. Customary gender roles that resulted in “men holding positions of authority and leadership and women focusing on being dedicated mothers and wives” were depicted as a problematic set-up that needed to be addressed through intervention, and a strategy was devised to change the beliefs and practices of the local men.[16] Without even attempting to understand why gender roles and norms exist in these rural communities, it was determined that these gender roles were harmful to women’s empowerment in public and private spheres. 

While cultural practices do often disregard women’s well-being and allow men to abuse their authority, men being in positions of leadership in the household and in the community and women focusing on tending to certain domestic affairs is not inherently problematic. Allah ﷻ has created each gender with certain strengths and weaknesses, and in different contexts with varied histories, demographics and socioeconomic opportunities this can naturally translate into certain gender norms. Thus, taking liberal frameworks on gender and applying them to communities who have different notions of gender is detrimental.

Additionally, in an effort to challenge gender roles and promote the economic empowerment of women, international development initiatives often promote women’s employment as a solution. This is not unexpected, as a major goal of many international development projects is to promote economic growth in developing nations, and the increased participation of women in the workforce is linked with increases in GDP. [17] However, women’s employment is often encouraged and portrayed as a way to gain agency without enough acknowledgement of the risks associated with the jobs the majority of women in developing countries end up taking on. 

For example, in Bangladesh, women now make up 85% of workers in garment factories. Some have viewed this as a positive step towards economic empowerment for impoverished women, but in reality, the working conditions in many of these garment factories are extremely exploitative. Workers usually only receive their wages if assigned production targets are met, and most women workers have reported that they have to work past their 8-hour shifts to achieve these targets, often leaving the factories late at night. Despite their hard work, these women are only paid around $43 dollars a month, are not paid for overtime hours, are seen as more “docile”, “less ready to protest’” and thus more vulnerable to mistreatment, and are often denied leave during pregnancy and the postpartum period. [18]

Almost 8 million women work in palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce 85% of the world’s palm oil supply. These women are given the most dangerous jobs, “spending hours waist-deep in water tainted by chemical runoff and carrying loads so heavy that, over time, their wombs can collapse and protrude”, leading to infertility and reproductive health issues. They are often subject to sexual harassment and rape by their supervisors, who are mainly male.[19] Due to threats of retaliation from their bosses, these women usually do not report these abuses. They also cannot leave their jobs because they will otherwise be unable to make ends meet. Thus, it is disingenuous for international development initiatives to depict women’s employment as universally empowering and as a solution to the mistreatment and abuse of women without considering social and cultural realities. 

Empowering Muslim Women

While humanitarian NGOs and international development initiatives implemented by Western countries operate within frameworks that are antithetical to Islamic values, the fact remains that many Muslim women in these countries are being deprived of rights granted to them by Allah ﷻ and abused in despicable ways. It is undeniable that many girls and women are barred from pursuing education, forced to pay exorbitant dowries, and endure domestic violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws due to being financially dependent. Rather than simply critiquing the West, we must look at the state of the ummah and the root problem that allows for these interventions to be justified. Whilst many of the issues Muslim women face are structural, and require more systemic change, in the short term, it is imperative for Muslim humanitarian and development organisations to step up and take the lead in putting together initiatives to assist and empower these women based on an Islamic framework. 

For example, many Muslim charity organisations have built schools for impoverished and orphaned children and funded their studies. These charities should take steps to ensure that both boys and girls at these schools are able to learn not only “secular” studies, but also Quran and Islamic studies. Girls and boys should be taught what rights are granted to women by Allah ﷻ, so that they are able to recognise when they are being mistreated and distinguish what practices are rooted in culture versus Islam. 

Many Muslim charities have also established healthcare facilities in deprived areas. It would be beneficial if they made a conscious effort to recruit female healthcare providers and community health workers at these facilities who could educate women about reproductive health and family planning according to what is Islamically permissible and support victims of sexual abuse. 

Additionally, Muslim humanitarian organisations should explore options that could see them work with with scholars to raise awareness in the areas where they operate about problematic cultural practices and beliefs that have no religious basis. Islam should not be quoted solely by those who seek to oppress women; rather it should be used as a tool to resist injustice and condemn practices like dowry and the stigma against menstruation.

In his Farewell Sermon, Rasulullah ﷺ reminded the ummah to ensure the welfare of women. We owe it to the members of our ummah to do our best to safeguard their well-being. [20] If we do not take serious steps to combat the injustices they are facing, governments and organisations who have their own agendas will take our place, which can have unfavorable consequences. 

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Sources 

[1] From Humanitarian Intervention to the Beautifying Mission: Afghan Women and Beauty without Borders | Genders 1998-2013 | University of Colorado Boulder

[2] Ellen McLarney, “The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies Volume 5, Number 1, (2009): 3. 

[3] What Do Afghan Women Want? – The American Prospect

[4] Marina Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[5] Jennifer L. Fluri, “The Beautiful ‘Other’: A Critical Examination of ‘Western’ Representations of Afghan Feminine Corporeal Modernity,” Gender, Place & Culture Volume 16, Number 3, (2009): 248.

[6] Misremembering the British Empire | The New Yorker

[7] Are US-led sanctions worsening Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis? | News | Al Jazeera

[8] Afghan health system ‘close to collapse due to sanctions on Taliban’ | Global development | The Guardian

[9] The Other Afghan Women | The New Yorker

[10] Amartya Sen, “Women’s Agency and Social Change,” in Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 189.

[11] AGENCY | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary

[12] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist Volume 104, Number 3, (2002): 789

[13] UN Human Rights Committee Asserts that Access to Abortion and Prevention of Maternal Mortality are Human Rights | Center for Reproductive Rights 

[14] The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 36 on the Right to Life and the Right to Abortion – Opinio Juris

[15] Reflections on Muslim Approaches to the Abortion Debate: The Problem of Narrow Conceptualization – MuslimMatters.org

[16] Dr. Luisa Dietrich, Zorica Skakun, Rohlat Khaleel, and Tim Peute, “Social Norms Structuring Masculinities, Gender Roles, and Stereotypes: Iraqi Men And Boys’ Common Misconceptions About Women And Girls’ Participation And Empowerment,” Oxfam Research Reports, (2021)

[17] Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment | UN Women

[18] Women workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector

[19] Rape, abuses in palm oil fields linked to top beauty brands | AP News
[20] The Last Sermon Of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

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