Imperial feminism – 14 Apr 2023

As the world celebrated International Women’s Day in March, it was also time to reflect on key wins and lessons. Just across the border since the fall of Kabul in summer 2021, not much has changed. But what does it mean for girls in Afghanistan and how has imperialist Western feminism weakened their case?

To contextualize, girls were barred from returning to secondary schools, after the Taliban ordered schools to shut just hours after they were due to reopen following months-long closures. This was followed by the Taliban regime suspending university education for all girl students. With one of the longest wars in modern history that lasted 20 years and the collapse of the Afghan government in a night, Western powers and allies failed to resurrect any semblance of a governance system in over two decades. The problem is much more deep rooted than it may seem.

In retrospect, the wave of Islamization throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Pakistan, Iran, and Muslim countries of Southeast Asia, and Talibanization in Afghanistan resulted in a rise in intolerant societies. Ironically, the stringent legislations in these countries were targeted at women and girls – their rights, socio-economic and cultural status, and predominantly their bodies.

Simultaneously on the global front, the exclusionary nature of white feminism of the late 1960s and 70s was oblivious to global and regional context, realities of class struggle and at times racial discrimination. While most Western feminists were advocating for women’s rights in their own countries, they were simultaneously supporting imperial discourse that denied those same rights to women in occupied territories, arguing that they would bring modernity and civilization to the world.

Disconnected from a true understanding of the geo-political feminist context, imperial feminism also played a role in imposition of Western cultural norms on non-Western societies — for instance, promotion of the idea that women who wear the hijab are all subjugated and required white Western saving. Western feminists promoted (and continue to promote) the idea of the ‘veil’ as a symbol of oppression and advocated for its removal, without understanding the cultural and religious significance of the veil in many societies. This also translated into an imported concept of liberation, through the aid economy, into Afghanistan.

Conflation of feminist goals with imperialist agendas advocated for policies that were detrimental to the lives and well-being of women in colonized nations. For example, they supported laws that restricted the autonomy and agency of women in these countries and failed to consider their unique cultural and historical contexts that informed women’s experiences.

This legacy of imperial feminism is still felt in contemporary feminist movements. A number of feminists of colour have argued that mainstream feminism in the West continues to prioritize the needs and concerns of white, middle-class women over those of women from marginalized communities. They argue that this is a form of imperial feminism that perpetuates the same kind of power imbalances that characterized the colonial era. This approach has not only perpetuated racism but also failed to recognize different ways in which gender and race intersect in the lives of women of colour.

Moving forward, the 1990s was a decade of multilaterals that impacted the gender discourse globally. The Cairo conference in 1994 was not only about family planning and reproductive rights, but also generated discourse on who owns women’s bodies. A clear consensus from across the spectrum of thought leaders was that women own their bodies and the majority of women who said that were Muslims.

The following year, the Beijing Conference on women saw two stark viewpoints from the Muslim world. One was the religious right that advocated women’s rights as secondary to men and challenged Western and secular feminism. The other perspective from Muslim countries at the conference was that such religion-based policymaking was a source of conflict.

For a generation to grow up in this socio-cultural reality, political actors in post-9/11 Afghanistan have associated feminism with the occupying Western powers. The misuse of feminism by Western powers that needed to tailor Afghan society in their own image has resulted in unspeakable damage to the cause. While today Afghan women and girls are left to their own devices to fight and reclaim space from the Taliban regime, it was the imported top-down concept of (imperial) Western feminism that brought down this sandcastle.

The problem with the intervention was the assumption that a trickledown effect of Western feminism delivered to Afghanistan would take place – as compared to an indigenous feminist movement with deep political roots. It failed to acknowledge the different ways in which gender, race, class, and other factors intersect in the lives of women; it also failed to recognize the struggles of marginalized local groups. Lack of meaningful and home-grown alternate discourse backed by political representation to safeguard their rights led to an overnight collapse. Empowerment derived from political struggle to create space and guarantee safeguards has remained largely missing in this discourse.

Adding fuel to fire was NGO-ized economic aid that led to ostensible indicators on Afghan women in education and the labour workforce in the last 20 years. For instance, Pakistan’s women’s rights movement (that pre-dates partition in 1947) has been at the centerstage of political resistance against dictatorships and authoritarian regimes; carving space and agency over decades in social, economic and cultural lives of women to follow.

Moving forward, in order to move beyond imperial feminism, it is necessary to centre the voices and experiences of women from marginalized communities. This means prioritizing intersectional approaches to feminism that recognize the ways in which gender, race, class, and other factors intersect to shape women’s experiences. It also means taking a critical stance towards imperialist Western feminist movements and acknowledging the ways in which they have historically perpetuated colonialist agendas.

Out of 1.9 billion Muslims globally, Muslim women stand as the most disadvantaged minority today. To reclaim agency and space for women, it is essential to find solutions from within the faith perspective that embodies ethics as moral principles of behavior for society. The lived experiences of women in Afghanistan serve as a reminder that feminism cannot be divorced from the broader social, political, and economic contexts.

It is important to recognize the ways in which feminist movements have been shaped by historical and cultural factors and to work towards a more inclusive and equitable approach to feminism that acknowledges the diversity of women’s experiences.

The writer works on gender and governance and tweets @Hassanhakeem87

The views expressed here do not reflect those of any organization.

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