By Catherine Z. Sameh
In August of 2021, twenty years after 9/11 and the launch of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. The Taliban quickly ascended to power and calls of concern for women’s rights and safety once again dominated the news. Unlike 20 years before, however, these calls did not simply and primarily reflect the softer side of US imperial power, that blunt yet bludgeoning set of neocolonial discourses that set Muslim women up to be saved from their enduringly irrational and patriarchal “cultures” by the perennially benevolent, “civilized,” and deeply armed West.
This time around, the worry for women and girls was tempered with a critique of occupation and endless war. Biden argued that rights for women and girls was a priority of his administration, but that military force used to ensure such rights was “irrational” (Khaled 2021). In early November, all of the female US senators sent a bipartisan letter to Biden, urging him to develop an “interagency plan” to protect the rights of women and girls and work with international organizations to hold the Taliban accountable (Constantino 2021).
The critical purchase of anti-colonial feminist scholarship remains clear. Interrogations of saving and rescue narratives (Abu-Lughod 2002) and critiques of the discursive colonization of Muslim (or Middle Eastern or Global South) women (Ahmed 1992; Mohanty 1991; Spivak 1988) have penetrated far beyond academic walls and into the analyses and understandings of mainstream and liberal pundits, politicians, and citizens. This is a very good thing. And yet, twenty years later, so much remains the same. Muslim women’s everyday lives—their struggles, acts of agency and resistance, their small and large victories, their complex personhood—continue to be obscured by a normative politics made in their name.
Women’s rights in the MENA and Muslim world cannot be disaggregated from the larger economic and political structures and ideologies that propel US foreign policy. In Iran, for instance, the gains that women made in the decades following the 1979 revolution are now being undermined by the devastating sanctions regimes that have been imposed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Under the Islamic Republic, women’s life chances improved greatly (Halper 2010). Their rates of education and literacy increased dramatically, and their fertility rates dropped from over 7 before the revolution to 2 in the decades following. Over half of university students are women. These facts run counter to the notion that Iranian women lost all of their rights after the revolution.
Indeed, Iranian women have faced a discriminatory legal structure for many decades, but they have long struggled, often working within the discursive tradition of Islam, to align their legal rights with the overall presence and influence they have enjoyed since the revolution (Sameh 2019). They have made inroads into Parliament, overturned or warded off new discriminatory laws, and won over many politicians and fellow citizens to the idea of women’s equality. Sanctions, and the general political isolation and demonization of Iran, have plunged the Iranian economy into recession and, in turn, undermined women’s social and political power by making their lives more precarious and marginal (Moaveni and Tahmasebi 2021). Those who cry out for Iranian women’s rights, from neoconservatives to liberals to leftists, and support sanctions and political isolation are exacerbating the slow death of Iranian women while speaking on their behalf.
The Taliban present a real threat to women. But so do endless wars, occupation, and human rights approaches that obscure or undermine the work of Afghan women on the ground. The Taliban promised to support women’s education and presence in society, although within the parameters of Islam. They promised this because they know women’s desires and expectations cannot be contained once and for all. Without a doubt, women in Afghanistan will continue to struggle with the Taliban over the precise meaning of women’s rights within Islam, pushing beyond the boundaries set by the Taliban. The US and the world must stand and act with Afghan women, not on their behalf or on terms not of their making.
Catherine Z. Sameh is an Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (September): 783–90.
Ahmed, Leila. 1992. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Constantino, Annika Kim. 2021. “All female U.S. senators call on Biden to protect Afghan women and girls following U.S. military withdrawal.” CNBC, November 4. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/04/female-senators-call-on-biden-to-protect-afghan-women-and-girls.html.
Halper, Louise. 2010. “Law and Iranian Women’s Activism.” In Women and Islam, ed. Zayn R. Kassam, 3–18. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers.
Khaled, Fatma. 2021. “Joe Biden: Using Military Force to Handle Women’s Rights in Afghanistan is ‘Not Rational’.” Newsweek, August 19. https://www.newsweek.com/joe-biden-using-military-force-handle-womens-rights-afghanistan-not-rational-1621098.
Moaveni, Azadeh and Sussan Tahmasebi. 2021. “The Middle-Class Women of Iran are Disappearing. The New York Times, March 27. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/27/opinion/sunday/iran-sanctions-women.html?searchResultPosition=3.
Mohanty, Chandra. 1991. “Under Western Eyes.” In ird World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, 51–80. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sameh, Catherine. 2019. Axis of Hope: Iranian Women’s Rights Activism across Borders. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed/ Grossberg and Cary Nelson, 271–316. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.