In November of 2001, just before Thanksgiving, our former First Lady Laura Bush made a radio address from Afghanistan. In it, she describes “the plight of women and children in Afghanistan,” citing Muslim extremists as the cause for Afghan women’s precarious situation. She continued, “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror—not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us… All of us have an obligation to speak out.”
What this speech so neatly summarizes is the tendency of Western nations, and moreover, Western feminists, to apply an imperialistic approach to extending the reach of women’s liberation to countries and peoples whose histories contain a different set of religious and cultural developments. Describing “civilized people” who are “speaking out in horror” only implies that Americans are standing on the outside, and looking into an uncivilized world. Once Laura Bush established this “Other,” foreign to the West in custom and culture, she then strengthened this Other position by inciting fear of that Other—a sort of, “Look what could happen to us if we were only a little more like them.”
Finally, she makes the call to action: We, the United States, have to speak out, and by “speak out” she means indefinitely occupying Afghanistan. Bush’s speech is another argument for U.S. foreign involvement as a way to make the world safe for democracy (for only in a U.S.-interpreted democracy can women and children be safe). So she attempts to appeal to any feminist inclination to justify our military’s long-term presence in the Middle East.
Another problem that comes out of this speech (and Bush not alone in promoting these ideas) is the liberal feminist idea that all feminism is the same for everyone, everywhere. Before we get there, though, we must answer the question: What is liberal feminism? In short, it is the belief that equality for women can be achieved through the spheres of law and politics, and as such, chooses to seek reform through the formation of special interest groups that lobby to Congress or try to elect certain individuals.
These are broad strokes, but bear with me; this is a short article. The problem with this approach to feminism is that it erases the experiences of women of color, and denies the dual oppressions that come with the intersection of racism and sexism. Bush’s statement comes from a place of white privilege—as a white woman I will never experience racial discrimination. Ever. And having acknowledged that this is something that I will never understand, I am now ready to engage in a conversation with those women of color, gaining insight from them (and from trans* women, and other women whose oppression is not singular but diversified) in a way that is meaningful and productive for all women.
This exclusion of the experiences of women of color is not reserved only to our national discourse, and its implications abroad are much more dire. Laura Bush calls on us to “speak out,” she implies that the women of the Middle East need saving through Western values. She and others like her ignore the rich history of Islamic feminism, of women’s rights activists who are risking their lives by educating other women, and who are finding their liberation not in spite of, but through the Muslim religion. Bush uses her position of authority to speak for Afghani women, a privilege she has not rightly earned.
Bush goes on to explain that Afghani women have more freedom because of U.S. military intervention. This is a consequence of the theoretical implications of Western feminism’s attempts to liberate the Middle Eastern woman with Western notions of freedom. She suggests that the U.S. military, a patriarchal institution steeped in rape culture, will liberate Afghani women. But U.S. imperialistic interactions with the Middle East will do nothing for the oppressed women there but continue a militaristic legacy of oppression.
There is no denying the atrocities faced by Afghani women and more generally, the women of the Middle East. The list of abuses is long and well known: female genital mutilation, child marriage, rampant domestic abuse, and a general constriction of the space women are allowed to occupy without male escorts. While Western white feminists must not make concessions for these abuses due to the discomfort of confronting a foreign (and oft misunderstood) culture, we also cannot deny the experiences of peoples whose multiple and intersecting oppressions stand outside our own comprehension. If we are to end oppression of women who exist outside of our philosophical history, then we must also step outside of that history. We must stand by, and not speak for, our sisters in the Middle East.