Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

Feminisms in the Aftermath of September 11


Feminisms in the Aftermath of September 11

Zillah Eisenstein

This essay is about how women’s rights as a complicated discourse, and the burkha, as a complex symbolic, are the sites from which to understand the complexity of global power

struggles at this moment. But first a note of context is necessary to clear some space for

thinking–openly, critically, historically–in terms of a before and after of September 11.

September 11 has not changed everything. It has just made clear how much context and

perspective and location matter. Ask the people of Chile about September 11–when

their beloved president, Salvador Allende, was gunned down in a coup d’état

supported by the United States. Ask them the meaning of trauma and grief. Think back

to the Gulf War and U.S. militarist terrorism of its smart bombs. Think across and

beyond to the children of Iraq, today, this minute, who need cancer drugs or textbooks

for their schools and cannot have them because of the economic sanctions imposed on

their country. Do what women always do–multitask, so that you are not simply

concentrated on yourself, or the United States, or this moment.

Please remember: The U.S. economy was in trouble before September 11; Boeing

was angling for its defense contract before September 11; the airlines were in trouble

before September 11. Also please think about the three thousand wonderful people who

were murdered on September 11, who came from over sixty different countries; the

horrible tragedies in Nigeria and Sudan; the high school students like my daughter who

are expected to wear flag pins and will not; the hundreds of thousands of workers who

have lost their jobs since September 11; the incredible profits being made by the

military-industrial complex on the present war; that Planned Parenthood has faced

anthrax threats for years; that college campuses are being targeted as sites of


Try to see what is not easily visible. Rethink invisibility; rethink as overt the

covert realms of power that are not being named. Do not give into the falseness of the

moment. This is a time of insecurity and trouble. Do not pretend that having to use a

plastic spoon to spread cream cheese on your bagel in the airport–instead of a plastic

knife–makes you safe. None of us will be safe until the world embraces democracy for

us all.

<A>On Global Misogyny

A masculinist-militarist mentality dominates on both sides of the ill-named East/West

divide. The opposition implied by this divide is not simple or complete. Flows between

these locations have always existed and this is the case today more than ever. Further,

the two sides of the divide share foundational relations, even if differently expressed,

especially in terms of male privilege. Neither side embraces women’s full economic and

political equality or sexual freedom. In this sense fluidity has always existed in the

arena of women’s rights and obligations between the two. The Taliban’s insistence on

the burkha and the U.S. military’s deployment of women fighter pilots are used to

overdraw and misrepresent the oppositional stance.

At present, economic flows of the global economy simply lessen the divide

further. The bin Laden family itself represents this form of globalism. The family’s

money is tied to multiple Western investments such as General Electric, Goldman-

Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, and Boeing.1 One can easily assume that bin Laden’s

fury is directed as much at his family as at the West, which is a deadly combination. The

quick and easy East/West divide is also not helpful politically, as the United States

champions democracy while banding together with military dictators and kings.

As I try to think through these post­September 11 moments, I feel compelled to

locate and name the privileging of masculinist power with all its destructiveness. The

silencing of women’s unique voices at this moment, but most especially the voices of

Afghan women and feminists–who criticized the early U. S. support of the

Taliban–needs to be exposed. Women have been fighting and resisting the Taliban as

well as other forms of Muslim fundamentalist misogyny for decades. Fundamentalist

misogyny has no one singular site or home. Women across the globe continue to resist

gender apartheid and sexual terrorism in the diverse war sites where they continually

reappear: Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Algeria, Nigeria, and Palestine. Activist groups

like Women against Fundamentalism, Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML),

and Women in Black give transnational voice to women struggling against the

oppressiveness of misogynist law. They also indict the United States for supporting

regimes that practice atrocities toward women.2 Yet instead of seeing and hearing from

these women activists, CNN presented Afghan women as burkha-covered creatures

in need of saviors. After the Taliban retreat from Kabul, we were shown women’s faces

smiling as the air hit their skin. In all this, we need to be reminded that it has been

women, since the Algerian revolution in that country, who have fought tirelessly for

democratic rule. In Iran it was the women’s vote that allowed the more moderate

Mohammed Khatami to be elected twice.

If we saw and heard more about these kinds of involvements by women, many

more people would be wondering about how gender apartheid and sexual terrorism are.

crucial parts of these political times: how the patriarchal aspects of the global economy

today feed the fires of hatred toward women everywhere, and how ending this

hatred/fear of women is central to creating a democratic globe. Different forms of

sexual terrorism affect women across the globe in similar and different ways. All the

women I know have learned to live productive lives alongside the terror/fear of rape:

we do not walk alone at night if we can help it, we do not put ourselves at risk if we can

figure out what this means, we fear for our daughters’ safety when they are among men

we do not know.

I do not agree with the columnists who attribute September 11 solely to the anger

of bin Laden and his troops toward the excessive greed and irresponsibility of global

capitalism and its white supremacist ways. Nor did September 11 happen simply

because the global economy is displacing men from their earlier livelihoods. These

explanations are valid, but September 11 must also be viewed in relation to the way that

male patriarchal privilege orchestrates its hierarchical system of domination. The age-old

fear and hatred of women’s sexuality and their forced domestication into womanly

and wifely roles informs all economies. Global capitalism unsettles the preexisting

sexual hierarchical order and tries to mold women’s lives to its newest needs across the

East/West divide. Differing factions within the Taliban are fully aware of the stakes

involved here, which is, in part, why they root their war strategy in the active

subordination of women.

When women in Afghanistan or Algeria are driven out of school and not allowed

to hold jobs, we should remember that they continue to work as mothers and caretakers

in desperate situations of famine and displacement and grotesque killing. Many of these

women, who are sick of the war, are not obedient slaves. You do not bother oppressing

those who are already docile and powerless. You only veil and stone and murder

people you fear for the power they have. Women in countries throughout the Muslim

world have been sorting out their own democratic conception of Islam for decades.

Their effect has not gone unnoticed by radical fundamentalist misogynists of all sorts.

So in some sense, the Taliban are not simply traditionalist and patriarchal,

because it is not always clear what this means, especially in terms of Islam. We only

know the Taliban’s readings and vested interests as men. We know that members of Al

Qaeda seek to rescope their understanding of their male privilege in particularly anti-Western

fashion for this very contemporary global capitalist moment. And they use

their religious beliefs, as they selectively interpret them, to do so. And although I am no

friend of misogynist fundamentalism, wherever it thrives, demonization is not helpful. I

rather choose to contextualize their masculinism as possibly as secularist as it is

Islamic.3 Demonization leads us too quickly away from Islam to the “West,” where it is

too easy to think all women should “be free like me,”–whoever the “me” is.

At this moment the stance of protectionism toward women is often mobilized on

behalf of misogynists in Muslim countries. Protection is a strange stance to take toward

the individuals who are best at making life and peace. Supposedly, the Taliban seek to

protect their women from public display and abuse; and yet the Taliban are also

abusive to women. Women of the former Soviet Union decried the protectionist

legislation that demanded they work in the labor force, but at lesser jobs, in order to

protect them for maternity. Women in the United States have fought protectionism as a

violation of equal treatment and equal freedoms. Many women in Muslim countries

have been arguing similarly.

Thinking these issues through is not easy given the polarized war language

being used by all sides. The selective use of terms like terrorism, democracy,

civilization, modernity, traditionalism, and fundamentalism complicates the ability to

think and see plurally and openly. Words carry their own context and closure. When

U.S. officials are asked why they do not work more closely with other countries on the

war effort, they respond that they feel more comfortable with “our boys and our toys.”

Our president speaks of the war as “enduring freedom” and “infinite justice”; and the

antiterrorist bill is renamed the Patriot Bill. We are told to be alert, but not intimidated.

Along with this elusive language, the political discourses of the moment do not theorize

sexuality or its engendered meanings. As a result I find myself stretching words beyond

their usual limits in order to create visibility for the incredible stakes at issue for women across the globe, and democracy alike.

Silences about women at present make it harder to think through and open up

the very constructs of traditionalism and modernism. This is especially true if we want

to think about women’s relationship to building democracies that are earnestly

humanist. Earnest democracy will be polyversal if written with women’s bodies in their

different cultural contexts: poly means multiple and diverse; versal means through and

beyond. I wonder why the rape camps of Bosnia or the sexual slavery of women by the

Japanese military during World War II were never called traditionalist and “backward.”

Yet the woman who is forced to veil and/or be covered by a burkha represents the

“backwardness” of Islam–and the naked porn model the modernity of the market. The

choices here for women are not acceptable, and I do an injustice by using the term

choice here at all. The choice between sexual exploitation (commodification) and sexual

repression (denial) is no democratic choice at all.4

Women’s freedom is crucial here, as is women’s equality. But neither notion is

best understood as simply of the West, because the West does not hold as an originary

site for these ideas, even if Western imposition says it does. Women’s struggle for their

independence takes hold in its own way everywhere and elsewhere. No one system of.7

thought can claim it. These blendings are what are feared the most. Further, although I

am not equating all forms of male privilege, neither do I want to allow the so-called

Western forms of patriarchy to stand in for democracy itself. Instead, I wish to bring the

similarities between these different formulations of patriarchal privilege into fuller

view. Neither form of masculinism–bin Laden’s terror tactics or Bush’s bombs–is

good enough for women and girls across this globe. And Bush’s bombs should not now

be cloaked and legitimized by a defense of women’s rights.

On Seeing Women’s Rights: For and by Whom?

Given the flux and tensions that reside within the sexual and gendered relations of

global capitalism, women are a key part of the messy political imagery of the times. On

any given day women have appeared in the news in an astonishing array of roles: passive

burkha-covered creatures, fighter pilots (although I think there is only one at present),

bereaved widows of the September 11 carnage, pregnant wives of men who died in the

towers, Pakistanis holding signs against the war, and members of the Bush

administration–Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, Victoria Clarke as the

hardline Pentagon spokeswoman, worldwide advertising agent Charlotte Beers, chosen

to overhaul the government’s image abroad, and key Bush aide Karen Hughes as the

coordinator of wartime public relations. Hughes has resigned her post claiming that her family duties must come first. This has instigated much talk-show noise of whether (western) women can `really’ have it all.

These latter women, along with the well-known conservative Mary Matalin, who

is chief political adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, are in charge of shaping the

words and images of the war.5 They were showcased as the movers and shakers of the

moment alongside the grieving mothers and wives of September 11th and contrasted to

the supposedly nonmodern women from abroad. The U.S. showcase masquerades as a

modernized masculinity in drag. The showcase of Rice, Clarke, and Beers distorts the

symbolic of power. They shore up white patriarchy by making it look gender- and race-neutral.

Of course they represent change, but for themselves, not the rest of us. Coreene

Swealty Palm, bomber pilot of an F-14, spoke about her love of flying even while

dropping bombs, which were simply a misfortune of war. Again, the United States

looks egalitarian in terms of its women. In reality, the military simply resexes the

masculinist privilege of the military for a few women.

But the distortion is even more corrupt as these women supposedly speak on

behalf of women in Afghanistan and their “deplorable conditions” under Taliban rule.

Mary Matalin ignores the facts that in 1979 Jimmy Carter played an important role in

the destabilization of the very government that brought significant gains to Afghan

women: literacy, medical services, prohibition of the bride price, and so forth. This

secular government, the Progressive Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) is

credited with promoting the welfare and liberation of women. And it is this socialist

government that the CIA targeted and overthrew through its support of bin Laden.6

Women become easy barter here. First their successes are smashed by U.S. policy, and

then they are used in their smashed existence to justify yet another war on their behalf.

Even Laura Bush finally found her voice in order to mobilize women for war. She delivered the president’s weekly radio address–a first for a first lady–in order to speak on behalf of women’s rights in Afghanistan. She said that the Taliban’s treatment of women “is not a matter of

legitimate religious practice,” that the plight of women and children is a matter of

“deliberate human cruelty.” She further stated that the “brutal oppression of women is

a central goal of the terrorists” and is a clear picture of “the world the terrorists would

like to impose on the rest of us.”7 But I am wondering about the impetus of the

administration’s targeted focus and its real commitments, when women’s rights have

never been a priority of U.S. foreign policy.

And it makes no sense for Laura Bush to have thousands of school uniforms sent to Afghanistan while most children are starving and are too hungry to concentrate on school work. It is easy to fear that this newly emerging focus is more opportunist than truly progressive for women and children alike. Which women do Laura Bush and the rest of the administration have in mind? The war on “terrorism”exacerbates the misery for most Afghan women with new problems of starvation, homelessness, and their own terror. It is unforgivable to use women’s rights as a pawn in war, to rally global forces for war.

It is worth noting that although U.S. foreign policy has never made the

conditions of women’s lives a key concern, our first ladies often speak on behalf of

women in other countries. Hillary Clinton was well known for traveling abroad to

speak for women’s rights in Africa and India. Yet here at home, she never chose to

speak as a feminist or develop a women’s rights agenda. I am reminded how she

always turned the other way when issues of day care arose, or when confirmations of

people like Lani Guinier or Zoë Baird got derailed.

Bush administration women do the same. Many speak negatively of feminism,

and none has spoken on behalf of women prisoners, welfare mothers, day care, or other

issues of concern to women. None has shown outrage at the religious fundamentalists

who bomb and kill women in our abortion clinics. None has spoken out against the

terror of domestic violence. I am uneasy with a women’s rights agenda spoken for

others while it is not used as a critique for our own lives. I am hesitant to believe in this

present campaign, which chooses to ignore the incredible worldwide women’s

organizations speaking on behalf of women in these countries as well as the post-Beijing

global network working toward women’s equality. These Bush administration

women should bring attention to these initiatives that are homegrown and vital instead

of appropriating these struggles for the West and its version of democracy.

We must look elsewhere to find an honest embrace of democratic imaginings for

women. Like the “Proposal for UN Women’s Strategies for Civil Conflict Resolution”

drawn up by the Ugandan women’s delegation. The declaration asks for an end to all

terrorism and a worldwide culture of tolerance, for better conflict resolution and de-escalation

of conflict, for an elimination of rich and poor, that each life be accorded the

same human rights as all others, for the creation of a World Security Council of Women,

and for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The delegation

asks the world to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which presumes

global pluralism and diversity. A twelve-point statement committed to peace was e-mailed

to individual women and women’s organizations all around the globe. Over a

thousand people and organizations responded and endorsed the twelve points for

peace.8 Earlier, on October 30, 2000, the United Nations Security Council unanimously

adopted Resolution 1325, which states that “all actors negotiating peace agreements

need to adopt a gender perspective which recognizes the special needs of women and

girls.”9 It is significant that the Bush administration women do not speak on behalf of

these international women’s groups but rather as women of the West.

Women in the aftermath of September 11 are captured as both actors and passive

receptors of historical moments. And there is little clarity of what a democratic and

freely chosen femaleness and womanhood should mean. U.S. policy speaks against the

Taliban’s mistreatment of women at this juncture, but condoned it earlier. The United

States also supports Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, which all regularly violate

women’s rights.10 So what exactly is U.S. foreign policy toward women’s rights, the very

rights that the United States parlays as central to so-called Western democracy? At least

one senior administration official early on said that the United States could not make women’s

rights a part of the post-Taliban package because we have to be careful not to look like

we are imposing our values on them.11.

The official went on to say that the championing of women’s rights goes well

with a domestic audience, but that we must be careful how it sounds abroad. But who

exactly is this official thinking of here? Hundreds of thousands of women abroad, as

well as men, applaud the rights of women. Thousands of Afghan women were active

participants in everyday life before the Taliban. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had

a female lobbyist in Washington and a position paper on women’s rights, despite

criticism by some Afghan women’s groups that the Alliance has not been a friend to

women in the past.12 The divide between “us and them” is no simple divide and should

not be used to occlude the similar patriarchal roots/routes of global capitalism. Also, if

U.S. policy makers aggressively think they have a right to orchestrate aspects of a new

Afghan regime, why exclude women’s rights for fear of seeming too pushy? Why are

women’s lives made to seem inessential to the core issues of democracy and political


There is no simple position here to analyze because the government’s stance has

continued to shift and change. The State Department released a report, “The

Taliban’s War against Women,” which stated that “Islam is a religion that respects

women and humanity,” while the “Taliban respects neither.” The report now advocates

a role for women in a post-Taliban Afghan government.13

Meanwhile, here at home in the United States, post­September 11 has also

become a very manly moment. The new heroism celebrates the American male worker,

be he firefighter or policeman or welder. As stated in The New York Times: “The operative word is men: brawny, heroic, manly men. The male hero expresses the new selflessness of masculinism. Physical prowess is back in vogue along with patriotism.”14 There is little if any talk of women firefighters, or heroic women in general, for that matter. Women, who are busy trying to rebuild the lives of their families while they scramble to get to their jobs as well, are shunted to the side–seen only through the veil of motherhood and wifely duty. We may have a few women in the government, but it is men who make the system work. They are the heroes and patriots. Ironically, amid all this, it is the Taliban that are viewed as “living in a world without women,” not us.15

Feminisms in Islam(s)

Establishing a context for thinking about the universality of humanity is hard while the

war against terrorism rages. A sense of genuine universal humanity is always the chief

casualty of war.16 When Islam is named as an enemy at the same time that the rights of

women are used to define the war against bin Laden and the Taliban, Islam and

democracy are positioned as oppositions. But I want to create a dialogue between the

democratic essence of Islamic tradition as it is articulated by feminists in Islam and

Western feminisms.

The Koran, which is the text for Islamic practice, has multiple interpretations and

interpreters. Much of the interpretation is done within and through a misogynist

rendering of patriarchal privileges. Women are then read as less than, different from, in

need of protection, to be veiled and hidden away. This patriarchal reading matches

similar readings in fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity. There is no clear divide

between West and non-West when it comes to misogynist fundamentalism and

patriarchal privilege. All religions can be read for the sinfulness of women, the

contamination of their blood, their lust, and the need for their seclusion. The Taliban

took this fear and rage toward women to a horrific extreme but this should not occlude

the recognition of the universalizing practices of masculinist privilege.

A problem with calling the Taliban fundamentalist is that it implies they actually

know the authentic fundamentals of Islam. But there are many feminists in Islam, both

religious and secular, who argue that the Koran is potentially democratic for women.

17 The text itself has democratic capabilities. The Koran is filled with

open meanings for what equivalence can and should mean for women and men.

According to Azizah Y. Al-Hibri, nowhere does the Koran say that Eve was crafted out

of Adam. Instead it states that males and females are created by God from the same soul

or spirit (nafs). The founding myths are not inherently patriarchal when read in this


Leila Ahmed chooses to think of at least two Islams: one of men, another of

women. Men’s Islam–an official textual Islam–is interpreted with several

authenticities that are misogynist. Women’s Islam evolves in practice through oral

traditions that are always changing and developing as women sort through the

meanings of Islam in daily life.19

The struggles between sectors of mainstream Islam, Islamic misogynist

fundamentalists, and the Western culture of global capital with its discourse of freedom

have become more visible. Established practices of patriarchal culture are unsettled as

the universalizing practices of global capital redefine the secure divisions between

public and private life, family and economy, men and women. Women’s lives are at the

center of this flux and change, and they become the touchstones for defining and

establishing cultural autonomy and nationalist identity. Yet many of these women,

some who call themselves feminist, are not obedient and docile. Their democratic

readings of Islam have not gone unnoticed by fundamentalist misogynists of all sorts.

Women in countries throughout the Muslim world have been unsettling the masculinist

divide while global capital appropriates as well as instigates women’s freedom.

Women in Turkey, often as statements of defiance, are twice as likely to kill themselves as men.20

In Tehran, Iran, although the law now requires women to cover their hair and conceal

their bodies in loose clothing, women still have their individual acts of rebellion. Those

wealthy enough have nose jobs and wear their postsurgical bandages as badges of

honor. Others work out aerobically in their women-only gyms and wear long nail

implants. Others wear their long coats and scarves over their black mini skirts imported

from Italy. And these acts should not be seen as simply `western’ .A few teenage girls cut their hair short and dress as boys to rebel against the restrictive dress codes.21 And so far, it is the women’s vote that has kept the more moderate government of Mohammed Khatami in power. In Morocco hundreds of thousands support the government plan to reform women’s status in terms of literacy and divorce law.

A few countries are attempting to articulate an Islamic politics that recognizes

the multiple and plural meanings of Islamic practice. In Tunisia, according to Saba

Mahmood and Talal Asad, Islamic leader Ghannushi, who has been banned from Tunis,

has discussed the need to politically institutionalize the multiple interpretations of the

founding texts. Recognizing the distinction between the Koran and its interpreters and

interpretations, Ghannushi has suggested that the electorate be allowed to vote for or

against policies that flow from any given reading. This uses the doctrine of

nasiha–more than the right, the obligation–to criticize and debate. This formulation of

Islamic tradition accommodates a plurality of scriptural interpretations; difference is

understood as a blessing according to the shari’a. Asad reiterates that ijtihad authorizes.

the “construction of coherent differences,” not the “imposition of homogeneity.” In this

view pluralism is not foreign to Islam, tolerance is not the same as indifference, and

intolerance should not be equated with violence. As such, the richness of Islam lies in its

openness rather than oneness with God.22

This is not the Islam that is easily put in view for the “West.” The Islam of the

West remains static and traditional: nonmodern. But Talal Asad asks us to see that

tradition need not be fixed and unchanging. Authenticity need not be repetitive and

uncreative. He gives as an example the tradition of liberalism, which continues to

change and adapt. Traditional practices allow for the possibility of argument and

reformulation; thus traditions can be central to modernity itself.23 Asad wonders why

“western culture is thought to be pregnant with positive futures in a way no other

cultural condition is,” and why liberalism has acquired such a hegemonic status that all

other cultures are seen and judged in terms of a teleological Westernized path to the


Saba Mahmood also interrogates the way the global West thinks in terms of the

oppositions between religiosity and secularism. Traditionalism is equated with

patriarchy, modernity with women’s freedom. She asks that religious practices in Islam

not be viewed as a priori subordinating women. Instead, women’s agency within these

practices must first be explored. Mahmood studies women in the Mosque Movement in

Egypt as “reconfiguring” gendered practices within Islamic pedagogy. These women

defy the practice of male teaching and instruct women and girls on the meaning of the

Koran. They have their own rendering of self-realization and autonomous will that

cannot simply be read from the West for the West. The women’s Mosque Movement

aims to restore virtue and humility, to embrace “individual and collective practices of

pious living.” These women “subvert the hegemonic meanings of cultural practices”

and defy tradition while doing so.25

Women’s agency for Mahmood is “not simply resistance to domination” but is

also an “action that is created and enabled by relations of subordination.” If I

understand this point correctly, it means that the simple oppositioning of oppression

and freedom is ill placed and that agency develops from within resistances that are

incomplete or less than total. Mahmood rereads the meaning of docility and humility as

the effort to achieve a malleability to be instructed in the ways of Islam, but with

women as teachers of this process. She sees agency instead of passivity. Al-haya,

meaning to be diffident and modest, is seen as a process of learning shyness, not


Cultural and religious practices can be habitually repressive, but rereadings are

nevertheless still possible. Mahmood does not see secular reasoning and morality as

exhaustive of “valuable human flourishings.” She asks that nonliberal traditions be

explored for their possibilities for liberation and not be subsumed into a “universalized

seeing of subordination.”27 When women teach and study Islamic scriptures, this

modernizes religiosity and does not limit it to a traditionalist misogyny. Islam is not

simply custom and tradition; nor is the West simply modern.

For Mahmood, choosing religion can be an act of liberation, as can veiling, if the

woman sees it as part of the process of teaching herself humility. The veil means “both

being and becoming a certain kind of person”28 and contributes to the making of the

self. Thus women can develop their individual selves even if not in a Western

autonomized fashion. Yet the history of veiling is often also one of misogynist

fundamentalism and Western colonialism, meaning different things at different times.

Women have been forced to remove the veil as a sign of modernization and to don it as

a statement of anticolonialism and anti-Westernization. Context matters before

women’s agency can be known.29 Self-realization is not simply a Western construct,

although its equation with autonomous free will is. More than liberal notions of self-fulfillment

exist in these instances.

Little of this complexity comes through in the antiterrorist war rhetoric of

post­September 11 between modernity and the West and religious fundamentalism and

the East.30 Women’s rights becomes the rallying cry as women are once again made the

pawns of war. The civilized world will protect the women of Afghanistan from the

Taliban even though there are religious fanatics in the West and secularists and

mainstream believers in the East. This use of women’s condition is hardly new to the

women of Afghanistan. The Soviets deveiled women and insisted they wear skirts as

part of their modernization program. Then the Taliban passed laws enforcing the

burkha and disallowing women to work or go to school, affecting up to 150,000

working women and about 100,000 girls at school as part of their anti-Soviet policy.31

Clearly, the burkha became the symbol for the Taliban’s atrocities, especially toward

women. It is that, and, less clearly, it is also more complex.

Feminisms’ Dialogues

The Feminist Majority, a Western liberal feminist activist group, was crucial in

first bringing the plight of Afghan women to the attention of the world. The group’s

work was tremendously important and yet problematic in that its exposure of women’s

conditions in Afghanistan did not criticize U.S. policies for past support of Taliban rule.

Little was ever said about women activists in Afghanistan or in exile, nor was there

much recognition of the wide swath of feminisms that exist within Islam. Instead, the

feminist rhetoric used by the Bush administration dominated the airwaves. This has

first place. But it also has to do with the fact that much of the feminism in Islam is also

very much to do with the way that the United States dominates globalized media in the

anticolonial and anti-Western. Most Muslim feminists who speak against the Taliban

also speak against U.S. foreign policy. Fawzia Afzal-Khan states quite clearly that

Muslim feminist voices speak simultaneously against “Islamic extremism” and the

“unjust foreign policies of the United States that have contributed and continue to

contribute to the ‘hijacking’ of Islam for terrorist ends.” Most Muslim feminists argue

that the United States must rethink its foreign policy as a whole, particularly in the

Middle East.32 The feminism that is publicized in and by the West largely silences these


Fifty-seven men and five women–all of whom had been exiled

activists–attended the peace talks in Bonn.33 The Revolutionary Association of the

Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which was at first excluded from the proceedings,

was quite critical that the women chosen as negotiators were compromised by their

husbands’ and/or fathers’ allegiances to the Northern Alliance, which is also

misogynist fundamentalist.34 After the fall of Kabul, the members of RAWA appealed

to the United Nations. They stated that the people of Afghanistan do not accept

domination by the Northern Alliance. They “emphatically” asked the United Nations to

send a “peace-keeping force” before the “Northern Alliance can repeat the

unforgettable crimes committed” from 1992 to 1996. They pleaded for the United

Nations to “withdraw its recognition of the so-called Islamic government of Rabbani

and establish a broad based government based on democratic values.”35 Amnesty

International concurred, making a public statement that the Northern Alliance had

previously oppressed women, and should not be allowed to dictate their lives again.

Naeem Inayatullah argues that the Mujahideen parties are all fundamentalist and

believe in the public and legal devaluation of women. The United States will have its

hands full when the Northern Alliance clamps down on women’s rights. This simply

shows the complexity of the political struggles that lie ahead for Afghan women.

An Afghan Women’s Summit for Democracy was next held in Brussels, and

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a Forum on the Future of Women in

Afghanistan along with the Feminist Majority on the importance of women in the

reconstruction of their country.36 At the hearings, many of the Afghan women spoke

about the importance of support from U.S. women’s groups and yet raised their fear of

a cultural imperialism that does not fully understand Afghan women’s particular


When Dr. Sima Samar, the physician and exile who now heads the Ministry of

Women’s Affairs in the new Afghan government, was asked whether a liberated

Afghanistan is a Western one she answered: “Why should everything be Westernized?

Liberation is not just a Western idea. Everyone wants it.” The liberated Afghan woman

will have access to education, the right to vote, the right to work, the right to choose a

spouse. But these are rights of all human beings, not just Western ones.37 Yohra Yusuf

Daoud, a former Ms. Afghan who is a radio talk show host in Malibu, California, speaks

of her mixed views of women’s liberation. “If a woman has to wear a burqa head to toe

but can go to school, then that is something I approve of.”38

Yet another view expresses one more variety on this theme. The American

journalist Amy Waldman says that she could not get used to speaking to women

through the burkha. You don’t see a person; “it feels like talking to a voice box.” It

distorts the woman; it is “an impenetrable wall of pale blue polyester where a human

being should be.”39 She could not make sense of the contradictions she witnessed: the

Taliban would trade sleazy pictures of Indian women and cover and seclude their own,

while treating her with respect.

These contradictions are part of the context of an international women’s rights

discourse. The United States supports regimes that greatly limit women’s rights when

other more pressing policies are at stake. President Bush called for women’s rights in

Afghanistan while he plans to shrink or eliminate several federal offices charged with

protecting women’s interests here at home. Ten regional offices of the Labor

Department of the Women’s Bureau are to be closed; offices on women’s health in the

Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are to

be consolidated. Moreover, Bush did not continue the White House Women’s Initiative

and Outreach post created by Clinton in 1995. As a result, many programs assisting

working women are now in jeopardy.40 One senator, claiming anonymity, says of

Bush’s Afghan women’s policy: “I think this is a great chance for them to do a gender

gap number without rubbing up against the right wing.”41

This hypocrisy makes the work of women everywhere all the harder. Afghan

women walk the tightrope between being too traditional and too modern while neither

choice is one of their making. They have to try to find a balance that works for them. As

Rina Amiri, a senior associate in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard

who was born in Afghanistan, says: “If we push the gender agenda too blatantly, and

we push it too forcefully, not only will Afghans define their attitudes toward gender in

defiance of the Taliban but also in defiance of the West.”42 Yet one should not see simple

domination here because Afghan women defied the Taliban while wearing the burkha.

Many women taught their daughters to read; others organized secret schools at great

risk to themselves and others.43They will negotiate a new life from their incredible

resilience, which is neither patriarchal nor Western.

Afghan women have suffered greatly from the selective interpretations of Islam.

Many Muslim women believe that the Koran gives rights to women for education,

health care, and paid employment. Yet they also know the practice of honor killings and

acid burnings. Pakistan’s woman’s commissioner, the lawyer Sardar Ali, remarks that

the interpretation of religion is key to this moment and therefore women must “jolly

well have the right to interpret it.”44 Asma Barlas argues that many Muslim practices

wrongly interpret the Koran; that the Koran allows for equivalence between men and

women with no oppositional notion of gendered meanings.45 Nevertheless, struggles

continue and are in place in Nigeria, where the Koran is used to justify the rollback of

women’s civil rights. In many Muslim societies across the globe, women’s rights to

education and public participation are readily accepted, while this terrain has also

become a battlefield described by an East/West divide. The divide exists within the

East itself. This divide is best understood as different notions of masculinisms that flow

both to and from the West.

Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta have made quite clear that women are not

to be actors in history. Atta, in his will, requested that no women attend to his body or

participate in his funeral. This speaks his fear of women, his denial of their shared

humanity, his need to separate and exclude them.46 Bin Laden is quoted in an interview

with al-Jazeera television as stating, “Our brothers who fought in Somalia saw wonders

about the weakness, feebleness, and cowardliness of the U.S. soldier. . . . We believe that

we are men, Muslim men who must have the honour of defending Mecca. We do not

want American women soldiers defending [it]. . . . The rulers in that region have been

deprived of their manhood. By God, Muslim women refuse to be defended by these

American and Jewish prostitutes.”47Ahmed Rashid, writing on the Taliban, says that

most of these young men grew up in refugee camps without the love or camaraderie of

mothers or sisters.48 Meanwhile, bin Laden has five wives and some fifteen children.49

These attitudes toward women are hardly new or unique to Islam. Atta reminds

me of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s wish to keep women from the developing bourgeois

markets of France and relocate them in the earlier patriarchal ways of ancient Greece.50

It is significant that at this particular historical moment when women are arguably more

politically and economically active across the globe than ever, they are denied equality

by Muslim misogynist practices. The terrorists are named for us as Arab, or Muslim, but

there is no accounting for them as men. There is too much silence on this point for it not

to be important.

The policies of the Taliban toward women reflect the centrality of women’s lives

in defining culture. The Taliban declare themselves the sole interpreters of Islam against

women’s changing demands. If Afghan women were not changing and demanding

recognition of their rights as they understand them for themselves, there would be no

need to rearticulate repression. It is the dynamism of women today, not their passivity,

that instigates this struggle.

On Antiracist Feminisms

Women, especially feminists of all kinds, are often eager to find ways to build bridges

across difference, rather than blow up the bridges, deny crossings, and find safety by

securing border crossings. Yes, there is also Madeleine Albright, who was one of the

biggest hawks during the Gulf and Bosnian wars; or Golda Meir, who was an early

architect of Israeli militarism; or feminists of many stripes who are unwilling to let go of

past hurts and repeat them over and over again. Nevertheless, I believe there are more

people than ever, and more antiracist feminists than before, who can make the

difference that we must make. Women all across the globe who move and shake these

times–the haulers of water and firewood, the leaders in protecting the environment,

the activists dealing with AIDS in Africa, the leaders in nongovernmental civic

organizations–must mobilize a peaceful voice against all uses of terror.

We need antiracist feminist voices spoken more loudly here: for peace, for our

cities, for our schools, against prejudice and discrimination, for protecting the

environments across the globe, for the needed freedoms to speak and think and discuss

and find new ways of finding coalitions across the differences that make this hard.

Women are of all colors and classes, just like the people who died on September 11 and

who die daily from terror politics.

If people were listening to women across the globe, there would be much greater

focus on the need to end the present war. Many of us, though not enough, are asking for

negotiation rather than aggression. We are looking to understand the provocation for the

heinous acts of September 11 in order to see what might be done differently to try to

prevent this from happening again. Many feminist activists across the globe ask for an

end to the warrior mentality of all forms of terror.51 Feminists in countries throughout

the world are asking how we can come to recognize a notion of a global public good that

counters the nationalist rancor of hatred and death. Women’s rights activists are asking

that women’s rights be made a central part of the human rights agenda at this time.

Human Rights Watch asks that there be an end to the violations of women’s human

rights, especially in Afghanistan.52

As women in poor countries are dragged into the sweatshop factory, as women

are called away from their families in this country as reservists, as women hold high

office in the Bush administration, as images of women are sold abroad as Western

feminism for export to build new markets for cosmetics and porn, as girls and women

are sold into prostitution in Thailand and elsewhere, as women drop their chadors as

soon as they are in the privacy of their homes, as women protest their subservience in

myriad acts of defiance, as more and more women become refugees and migrants, as

Muslim and secular feminists demand human rights, women remain and become anew

both the terrain and the symbols of political struggle.

On the one hand, the misogynist despotism of the Taliban is represented through

continual imagery of the confined and passive woman; on the other, it is women’s

activism in public arenas that has focused the Taliban against women’s progress right

here. Pre-Taliban, Afghan women were participating in government, schools, and other

civic institutions. Women accounted for 70 percent of all teachers, 50 percent of civil

servants, and 40 percent of medical doctors. Pre-Taliban Afghan women were active in

most parts of life, much like women in Iran and Algeria, before the takeover by

misogynist fundamentalists.53 But now, after years of war, Kabul is home to some 70,000

war widows who live in abject poverty. Pregnant women throughout Afghanistan face

the grave risk of miscarriage and other obstetric problems.

This moment must uncover the similar and yet specifically different patriarchal

politics practiced toward girls and women across the globe. This is about the politics of

patriarchy and masculinist privilege and the way it comes up smack against the

contradictions of global capitalism’s promise of democracy for all–for women in

Muslim countries and women in the West. Neither capitalism nor Islam are truly

democratic regimes for women. Traditional patriarchy, as it is defined by misogynist

fundamentalists of all genres, has less freedom for women than Westernized forms;, but

equality is elusive in both. Global capitalism continues to negotiate the relationship

between Western and Muslim patriarchal forms of freedom when Muslim and West are

overly homogenized categories to begin with. The Taliban are symptoms of the complex

twenty-first-century definition of male privilege. I dream of an end to the hate-filled

politics of the Taliban toward women and the new levels of exploitation of women by

global capitalist patriarchy.

Women’s antiracist feminist activism must become a larger part of this political

moment. Much of the discourse of human rights across the globe has been brought

center stage by women’s groups, very often not of the West, demanding equality as well

as freedom, specifically for women. This has been done in the context of women’s

growing consciousness of themselves in war, as refugees, as laborers in the fields and

sweatshops of the global economy. War rape, acid burnings, honor killings, sex

trafficking and prostitution, should put terrorism toward women on the global map.54

Women’s demands for their rights and their freedom from oppressive religious

fundamentalist regimes is very often blamed on the West and its excessive self-indulgences.

It is important to be critical of the United States for its excesses while

recognizing that women’s rights are not a Western plot. Women from across the globe

demand their rights on their own terms, from their own understandings of what Islam

means. They do not need the West for an assist. The true subversiveness of women’s

rights discourse is that it speaks from the needs of women’s humanity, which is

transnational even if culturally experienced in different forms. Women’s bodies

demand freedom from war and rape and freedom from unwanted pregnancy. One does

not need to learn this from someone other than oneself.

Some young women who wear the hijab also choose to live in the United States.

A student at Wellesley College says: “We have more freedom being American Muslims

because we don’t have the cultural baggage from the countries our parents are coming

from.”55 No one tells them they must wear the hijab–they choose to do so as an

expression of their faith and identity. It is therefore crucial that we formulate ways to

think through the complex politics of global capital with its racist and sexist formations

as well as the promissories of an antiracist feminist democracy that allows us to build a

socially just globe.

September 11 brought Americans into the real globalized world of fear and

misery. We must take this painful perspective and see more of the world from other

locations than our own. We must look at ourselves and come to know others more

deeply as we do so. We are more similar to each other than we are different. We must

look for the inclusivity of what makes us all human with similar needs. The massacre of

September 11 reminded me of how devoted I am to the human body. I wish to foil

each and every attempt of terrorist actions, but not simply by the use of more terror.

This tactic of “more” simply means the mightiest wins–with no judgment of who and

what the mighty demand. My allegiance to the human body–not the nation–defines

my struggle to see the complex negotiations necessary to really thinking our way

through this moment. I want to pluralize our seeing so that it exists without the

opposition between Islam and the West. As an antiracist feminist, I need to slowly bring

into view the biggest picture I can of this humanity. I am reminded of Sa’di’s poem,

“All People Are Limbs of One Body.”56 And that one body is a woman’s. Let this body

speak for peace and justice and freedom for us all.


This essay derives from a talk delivered at part of a Teach-In at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, December 2001.

1. Jane Mayer, “The House of Bin Laden,” New Yorker, November 12, 2001, 54­65.

2. Sunila Abeysekera, “Paying the Price for Ignoring Women’s Calls against

Fundamentalism,” Island, October 31, 2001.

3. I am indebted to conversations with Asma Barlas for much of my thinking here,

although she differs with my use of the term fundamentalist. See her “Believing Women” In Islam;Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran (Austin: University of Texas Press,


4. The same day network news programs broadcasted Afghan women removing their

burkhas, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show was first broadcast on television. See Alex

Kuczynski, “Victoria’s Secret on TV: Another First for Women,” New York Times,

November 18, 2001.

5. Peter Marks, “Adept Politics and Advertising, 4 Women Shape a Campaign,” New

York Times, November 11, 2001.

6. I am indebted to Minnie Bruce Pratt’s statement: “Dear Friends of Women’s

Liberation,” November 12, 2001 (mbpratt@earthlink.com), for this discussion.

7. David Stout, “Mrs. Bush Cites Abuse of Women and Children by the Taliban,” New

York Times, November 18, 2001 .

8. See the “Proposal for UN Women’s Strategies for Civil Conflict Resolution,”


9. Lynette Dumble, “In the Name of Freedom: Terror, Death, Hunger, Misogyny, and

Genocide in Afghanistan,” Znet ,www.ZMag.org.

10. Mona Eltahawy and Kalpana Sharma, “Commentary: U.S. Should Heed How Our

Allies Treat Women,” http://www.womensenews.org/join.cfm.

11. As quoted in Alessandra Stanley, “Walking a Fine Line in Showcasing Women and

Dealing with Muslim Allies,” New York Times, October 27, 2001.

12. Ibid.

13. U.S. State Department, “The Taliban’s War against Women,” http://www.state.gov..28

14. Patricia Leigh Brown, “Heavy Lifting Required: The Return of Manly Men,” New

York Times, October 28, 2001.

15. Barbara Crossette, “Living in a World without Women,” New York Times,

November 4, 2001.

16. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, “Limbs of No Body: The World’s Indifference to the Afghan

Tragedy,” Monthly Review Press 53 (November 2001), 29.

17. See Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, especially chapter 5.

18. Azizah Y. Al-Hibri, “Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good for Third

World/Minority Women?” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, ed. Susan Moller Okin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 42.

19. Leila Ahmed, “The Women of Islam,” Transition 9.3 (2000): 78­96; and her Border

Passages (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, l999). Also see: Margot Badran, “Islamic Feminism: What’s In A Name?”, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 17-23, January 2002, Issue No. 569; http://www.ahram.org

20. Douglas Frantz, “Turkish Women Who See Death As a Way Out,” New York Times,

November 3, 2000.

21. Elaine Sciolino, “Iran’s Well-Covered Women Remodel a Part That Shows,” New

York Times, September 22, 2000.

22. Talal Asad, “Modern Power and he Reconfiguration of Religious Traditions: interview by Saba Mahmood”, Stanford Humanities Review vol. 5, no. 1 (1995), pp. 2-5, 7.

23. Ibid., p. 6.

24. Ibid. pp. 9-10.

25. Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some

Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16.2 (2001): 210,

204, 205..29

26. Ibid., 210, 211.

27. Ibid., 225.

28. Ibid., 215.

29. Camelia Entekhabi-Fard, “Behind the Veil,” Ms. Magazine July­August 2001, 72.

30. Rina Amiri, “Muslim Women As Symbols and Pawns,” New York Times, November

27, 2001.

31. Pankaj Mishra, “The Afghan Tragedy,” New York Review of Books, January 17,

2002, 43.

32. Fawzia Afzal-Khan, “Here Are the Muslim Feminist Voices, Mr. Rushdie,”


33. Fariba Nawa, “5 Women at Table in Afghan Talks,” San Francisco Chronicle,

November 29, 2001.

34. RAWA, “The Northern Alliance: The Most Murderous Violators of Human Rights,”

December 10, 2001, http://www.rawa.org.

35. This statement is available from portsideMod@netscape.net.

36. See http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbyte and http://www.womensedge.org.

37. Sima Samar, “Meet the Boss,” interview by Gayle Forman, New York Times,

December 23, 2001.

38. Quoted in Sara Austin, “Where Are the Women: Debating Afghanistan’s Future?” Nation, December 31, 2001, 12.

39. Amy Waldman, “Reporters in Afghanistan: Fear, Numbness, and Being a Spectacle,”

New York Times, December 29, 2001.

40. Tamar Lewin, “Bush May End Offices Dealing with Women’s Issues, Groups Say,”

New York Times, December 19, 2001.

41. Qtd. in Elisabeth Bumiller, “The Politics of Plight and the Gender Gap,” New York

Times, November 19, 2001..30

42. Qtd. in Barbara Crossette, “Hope for the Future, Blunted by a Hard Past,” New York

Times, December 2, 2001.

43. Amy Waldman,”Behind the Burka: Women Subtly Fought Taliban,” New York

Times, November 19, 2001.

44. As discussed in Frances McMorris, “Lawyers Argue Laws, Not Quran, Repress

Women,” http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid475.

45. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 152­66.

46. I use this hesitantly because the authenticity and translation of the will are


47. Qtd. in Tony Judt, “America and the War,” New York Review of Books, November

15, 2001, 4.

48. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), esp. chap. 8.

49. Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden (New York: Forum, 1999), 1.

50. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre,” in Politics

and the Arts, ed. Allan Bloom (New York: Cornell University Press, 1960).

51. Katha Pollitt, “Where Are the Women?” Nation, October 22, 2001, 10.

52. “Afghanistan: Humanity Denied,” Human Rights Watch 13 (October 2001): 1­25.

53. Kalpana Sharma, “A War . . . by Men,” Hindu, October 21, 2001,

http://www.hinduonet.com/stories/13210618.htm; and Jan Goodwin and Jessica Neuwirth,

“The Rifle and the Veil,” New York Times, October 19, 2001.

54. For important information on discussions for peace among feminists and women’s

human rights activists in New York, Asia, and Latin America, see http://www.whrnet.org..31

55. As quoted in Laurie Goldstein, “Muslims Nurture Sense of Self on Campus,” New

York Times, November 3, 2001.

56. I am indebted to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s discussion of this in his “Limbs of No


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