Women’s Rights Are Called ‘Cultural Imperialism’

A few weeks ago, I sat in a meeting in Vancouver. During a boring bit, I was fooling around with Google, and I stumbled upon a paper entitled, “The (Re)production of Afghan Women” by one Melanie Butler. I recognized the name as I had been interviewed by Butler for this paper, which was published in 2008. Melanie had not really explained the actual topic of what became her graduate thesis in political science at the University of British Columbia, nor sent me a final copy of her paper, nor used any of my statements from the interview in her final paper, which might have interfered inconveniently with the narrative she was weaving. She knew what she would say before she even began to write.

Here is her paper’s abstract:

Canadian women have been at the forefront of the international movement for women’s rights in Afghanistan since the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s. Focusing on the prominent group Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), this paper looks at the role its advocacy assumes in the context of the “War on Terror”. In Canada as in the United States, government agencies have justified the military invasion of Afghanistan by revitalizing the oppressed Muslim woman as a medium through which narratives of East versus West are performed. While CW4WAfghan attempt to challenge dominant narratives of Afghan women, they ultimately reinforce and naturalize the Orientalist logic on which the War on Terror operates, even helping to disseminate it through the Canadian school system. Drawing on post-colonial feminist theory, this paper highlights the implications of CW4WAfghan’s Orientalist discourse on women’s rights, and tackles the difficult question of how feminists can show solidarity with Afghan women without adhering to the oppressive narratives that permeate today’s political climate. It is only by employing alternative models that contextualize the situation of Afghan women in relation, rather than in opposition, to our own, that feminists can begin to subvert the mutually reinforcing narratives that sustain imperialist violence and women’s subordination.

You get the idea, but if you can stomach more, some of the best bits are highlighted here.

Butler contends that the organization where I work, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, is in fact not a network of women from all walks of life who came together, united only in the insistence that Afghan women and girls deserved the same basic human rights that we enjoy and expect for ourselves here in Canada. What we really are, she claims, are orientalists-in-disguise, who desire the imposition of our own western worldview over unwilling, innately different Muslim women. Butler vilifies the likes of Sally Armstrong, the Canadian writer and journalist who has tirelessly exposed atrocities committed against women and girls in every corner of the planet, even when no one else was paying attention. It was an article by Sally Armstrong in 1997, in Homemaker’s magazine of all places, that incited thousands of Canadian women to action, to speak up against the Taliban’s bizarre governance based on codified misogyny. Many of those women first alerted by Armstrong’s article are today the volunteers, board members, or chapter leaders with CW4WAfghan.

Butler goes on to suggest that I am a mouthpiece for Canada’s ruling conservative government (based on the evidence of a photo taken with the prime minister on International Women’s Day in 2008). She paints CW4WAfghan as a colonialist enterprise. All of her arguments drip with cultural relativism, and with a feminism that is unrecognizable to me.

While much in the paper appears to have been generated by the Random Post-Modernist Essay generator, and is frequently hilarious, the painful part is that this woman asked herself at some point, “I am going to write about Afghan women. What’s the number one most important issue therein I should research?”

Was it the fact that Afghanistan may have the highest levels of domestic violence in the world? That Afghanistan is one of the only countries in the world where the suicide rate is higher among women than among men? That barely 40% of girls are in primary school? That there is a teachers’ shortage of tens of thousands? That women in public life are sometimes murdered? That Afghan women are struggling in the uphill process of building a new legal system that will protect their rights and entrench the rule of law for all Afghans?

No, it was none of these things.

And no one articulated the upside-downness of this more than 13-year-old Alaina Podmorow, the founder of the Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan. Podmorow waded through terms she was confronting for the first time: the idea of labeling intervention in outside tragedies “orientalism”, “colonialism” or “imperialism”. She was flummoxed, and her reaction to Butler is a raw, gut response of rage.

Not long after it was first published at B&W, Podmorow’s article had been picked up by more than 30 blogs, stretching from Canada to India. Nick Cohen wrote about her in Standpoint magazine. She was on philosophy blogs, political blogs, news blogs. One commenter suggested she run for prime minister. Many readers left comments saying that Podmorow was “smarter than a graduate student”. Over and over, readers pointed out the extraordinariness of Podmorow’s response being that such a young person had so clearly grasped the problems, and the danger, in Butler’s line of argument.

I would suggest that Podmorow’s ability to capture the issue isn’t in spite of her age, but precisely because of it.

But as we grow up, and go out into the world and make choices- about how to respond to the pain of others- we face a menu of options. We can pretend we didn’t feel anything and block it out. We can feel anger. We can respond with empathy and action. Or we can dig around for ways of justifying why this pain is acceptable to others, though not to us, and why we are not obliged to respond. Cultural relativism is this kind of response: one that is now out of control- because it has become institutionalized, embedded increasingly in academic disciplines. More and more, we see it as an acceptable response. I have found a culture of cultural relativism in Canada in our universities, public schools, and teachers’ unions. Cultural relativism has gone mainstream. It’s become so pervasive, we don’t even see it anymore. It’s simply surrounding us, and if we’re not careful, we become a part of it.

But Podmorow and other young people haven’t yet found themselves inside the bowels of institutional and political cultures that insist in their subtle whispers, it’s easier to pretend that ethnic communities outside our own are fundamentally different, and that the expectations of respect for human dignity are not equal across societies.

Children have that biological instinct for empathy, intact. It’s a precious thing, and we have much to learn from it.

But we adults sometimes relate too, despite ourselves and the cloud of relativism often fogging our thinking. You may have once seen a video smuggled out of Afghanistan during Taliban rule there, filmed from underneath a burqa, showing a woman shrouded and buried to her waist, accused of adultery or prostitution, slowly pelted with small stones until her lifeless body keels over in its hole on the grounds of Kabul’s sports stadium in front of thousands of spectators. If you saw it, you probably felt a surge of pain jolt you, and found it wasn’t easy to merely block this out or justify somehow that this atrocity had occurred.

You probably felt the pain of that stranger, just as an Afghan woman would also recognize a violation of human dignity if she saw a video of a Canadian woman being stoned to death. The Afghan viewer would likely be unconvinced by excuses of cultural diversity or a legal system based on holy writ. The capacity to feel the pain of others is part of being human and shouldn’t be suppressed. We need choose action and empathy when presented with that menu of options of how to react.

But this can be hard for grown-ups. It’s long been fashionable in the halls of western arts faculties to view all the world through the lens of post-colonialism. In undergraduate classrooms across the country, political science, anthropology, literature and students of other disciplines learn to see the developing world as unflinchingly hostile to foreign interference, as the wounds of conquest by imperial powers continue to heal. Young Canadians, as they evolve into their university lives, are taught to challenge their own western perceptions and to be culturally sensitive. Fingers point at critics of “the other” as buzzwords like “ethnocentrism” echo around the halls. All kinds of activities take on the metaphor of colonialism, from international development projects to scientific research.

There is nothing wrong with seeking intercultural competence, except when our desire to be tolerant erodes our internal instincts that tell us when something is simply wrong.

Another problem arises when a desire to preserve some exoticism in the world makes us ignore the evidence that above all else, we are human first, and most societies hold more in common with each other than they hold apart. In romanticizing societies outside our own, we can pretend that poverty, inequity and a denial of basic human rights are quaint tribal characteristics that make the world a more colourful place. Anthropologists document abusive practices against women as intriguing cultural rituals and western backpackers can frame on their walls photos of snotty-nosed, grimy kids in rags with swollen bellies, from their jaunts through places like Calcutta or Guatemala City. As we delight in the differences between them and us, we often drown out their voices that tell us, inconveniently, I want the very same things as you do.

Afghanistan is a useful example of how disabling an unhindered post-colonial lens can be to our sense of the truth when it obscures all other views.

While women in Afghanistan under the Taliban spent five years surviving (or in many cases, dying) through a hellish reality that stripped them of every basic right and attempted to beat into them the notion that they were fundamentally inferior to men, many in the West shuddered when reading the rare media account of the horror and suffering: women’s fingernails torn out for being caught with nail polish on, 8-year-old girls married to 40 year-old men, and other accounts of gruesome abuse, torture, murder and degradation. Deep down, that little instinct that lies buried within us was going off with resounding alarm when we came across these stories, that biological reaction kicked in, akin to the emotional reaction of empathy upon hearing about the suffering of other humans, because we instinctually imagine the feelings of pain inflicted on ourselves.

Then 9/11 happened, and at the end of 2001 the Taliban fell and Afghanistan was free. The International Security Assistance Force arrived and donor governments committed to stand by a country that had been forced to its knees. An enormous window swung open for women.

At that point, many of those same people who shuddered when reading individual accounts of the Taliban’s treatment of women seized up in an enveloping discomfort, over all the talk of rights for Afghan women. Journalists and academics started publishing stories of the unrealistic expectations, the danger in trying to “recreate” our own society in Afghanistan and going against nature by “imposing” human rights. Another popular criticism was that countries like the US and Canada had no right to make this “a war about women”. For example, in 2002, York University’s Krista Hunt wrote that, “the primary reason for this coverage of women in Afghanistan is that it provides further evidence that vilifies the Taliban and justifies the Bush administration’s goal of ‘hunting down the terrorists and those that harbour them’.” Or there was Katharine Viner, who wrote in The Guardian in September 2002 that feminism was being used as imperialism in Afghanistan.

It continues to this day. Human rights for Afghan women are being called cultural imperialism, and other such nonsense. Many in the far left anti-war movement want nothing more than for Afghanistan to be left to fend for itself, accepting (if not actually visualizing) that this may very well mean a Taliban return to power. Oh well, that’s the culture, the thinking goes. Afghan women probably like being oppressed!

But if you care to look, Afghan women are telling a different story. As Canadians like Jack Layton, the leader of a Canadian opposition party, the New Democrats, advocate negotiating with the Taliban, and donor governments put forward half-baked ideas like the establishment of a fund to pay off Taliban fighters, the 200 women’s organizations who came together to sign a declaration on January 25, 2010 in Kabul opened their declaration with this:

On January 28, 2010 a conference will be held in London, where a plan for negotiating with the Taliban will be discussed. We, women’s rights and Afghan civil society organizations participating in the abovementioned historic meeting, herewith declare the following:

1. Based on the persistent violation of the rights of women and men by the Taliban, whether when in power or after, objections were clearly and strongly expressed by all parties participating in this meeting regarding any negotiation with the Taliban.

2. We desire peace and stability in Afghanistan, but we reaffirm that the Afghan Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are non-negotiable (my emphasis).”

These 200 groups further oppose the program to pay off Taliban fighters, they oppose the removal of Taliban leaders from the U.N.’s blacklist, and remind the international community of their “responsibility and obligation to support and protect freedom of expression, the rights of women and men and other elements of democracy in Afghanistan. Achieving these goals can in no respect be achieved by negotiation with Taliban.”

Perhaps because statements like these do not jibe well with the western image of meek Afghan women, and well, this frankly just isn’t exotic at all, this meeting and declaration received virtually no coverage in the western media. It turns out that Afghan women expect and want, why, what most Canadians want: human rights, democracy and the protection of their basic freedoms.

While canvassing opinion across a broad spectrum of Afghan thinkers, politicians, activists and government officials for the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee’s recently released report on Canada in Afghanistan post-2011, there was a striking consensus among these Afghan respondents that Canada should be interfering in their country more, not less. They pointed out that they need Canada to demand accountability from the Afghan government, to keep extremism at bay, and to insist on and support the growth of democratic institutions like elections. They told us, without mincing words, that we in the West need to get over our distress of being seen as some kind of neo-colonizers. The accusation of colonization or imperialism existed only in the political science faculties of western universities, the conversations of young white people who fancy themselves peace activists, and in the diatribes of armchair commentators safely tucked away in wealthy, democratic countries.

I have found this trend echoed again and again. When I interviewed Afghan MPs, rights activists, civil servants and others about the Shia Personal Status Law (the “rape law” dreamed up by an Iran-backed cleric in Kabul, instructing women how often they should have sex with their husbands and that they needed permission go outside, among 247 some other articles) in 2009 for research by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, I found widespread fury against the UN mission, UNAMA, and the international community for their passivity in the face of human rights issues. Over and over again, Afghans pointed out to me that human rights issues are the prerogative of the international community, as the financers and co-architects of Afghanistan’s democratization effort. They asked, if the international community won’t speak up for our rights, then why are they here?

What an affront to our sensibilities! It is so much easier not to have to speak out in their defense, thinking that Afghan women are perfectly content to be bought and sold like cattle, and kept out of public life altogether; or the Taliban ideology is acceptable to them.

Confronting the idea that others also feel, innately, that they deserve the same privileges and rights we casually enjoy every day in Canada, will take courage. But the blinders must come off, now. We can duly recognize the legacy of colonialism without it disabling any kind of intervention to protect the basic human rights we are all entitled to, regardless of what kind of passport we hold. We can similarly celebrate the multitude of cultures in the world, while acknowledging that they are all united by the genetic coding all humans have to reject pain and suffering, and to mourn the pain and suffering of others (even when we deny that we do). We can also call it for what it is, when we see human beings maltreated, tortured, murdered for “honour” or subjected to other atrocities. It’s fascism, it should be long dead by 2010, and instead it flourishes. To try to soften the edges of fascism by citing cultural tradition or religious practice is a disgrace to the first cultural community to which we belong: humanity.

Crimes against human dignity have no place in any culture – they belong only to the culture of inhumanity.

About the Author

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian human rights activist, gender and education specialist who has been advocating for the rights of Afghan women since 1996. She is currently Projects Director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, and a Senior Advisor to the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.

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