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Charles Hirschkind & Saba Mahmood - Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency

Charles Hirschkind & Saba Mahmood - Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency

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Published by M. L. Landers

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Published by: M. L. Landers on Apr 03, 2012
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Feminism, the Taliban, andPolitics ofCounter-Insurgency
Charles Hirschkind
University ofWisconsin-Madison
Saba Mahmood
The University ofChicago
n a cool breezy evening in March 1999, Hollywood celebrities turned outin large numbers to show their support for the Feminist Majority’s cam-paign against the Taliban’s brutal treatment ofAfghan women. Jay and MavisLeno hosted the event, and the audience included celebrities like Kathy Bates,Geena Davis, Sidney Potier, and Lily Tomlin. Jay Leno had tears in his eyes as hespoke to an audience that filled the cavernous Directors Guild ofAmericanTheater to capacity. It is doubtful that most people in this crowd had heard ofthe suffering ofAfghan women before. But by the time Mellissa Etheridge,Wynonna Judd, and Sarah McLachlan took to the stage, following the Afghanchant meaning “We are with you,” tears were streaming down many cheeks.2The person spearheading this campaign was Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife, whohad been catapulted into political activism upon hearing about the plight ofAfghan women living under the brutal regime ofthe Taliban. This form ofThird World solidarity was new for Mavis Leno. Prior to embarking on this proj-ect, reports
magazine, “Leno restricted her activism to the Freddy the PigClub, the not-so radical group devoted to a rare series ofout-of-print children’sbooks.”
She was recruited by her Beverly Hills neighbor to join the FeministMajority, an organization formed by Eleanor Smeal, a former president ofNOW.
Little did members ofthe Feminist Majority know that Leno would make theplight ofAfghan women living under the Taliban rule a cause celebre: not on-ly did the Hollywood celebrities join the ranks ofwhat came to be called the“Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” campaign, but a large number ofpop-ular women’s magazines (like
, etc.), in addition to feminist journals like
Offour Backs
., carried articles on the plight ofAfghan women living under the Taliban. The Lenos personally gave a contri-bution of$100,000 to help kick offa public awareness campaign. Mavis Lenotestified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to Unocal share-holders to dissuade them from investing in Afghanistan, and met with PresidentBill Clinton to convince him to change his wavering policy toward the Taliban.In addition, the Feminist Majority carried out a broad letter writing campaigntargeted at the White House. The Feminist Majority claims that it was theirwork that eventually dissuaded Unocal officials to abandon their plans to de-velop a natural gas pipeline in Afghanistan, and convinced the Hollywood-friendly Bill Clinton to condemn the Taliban regime.Even skeptics who are normally leery ofWestern feminists’ paternalistic de-sire to “save Third World women” were sympathetic to the Feminist Majority’scampaign. This was in part because the restrictions that the Taliban had im-posed on women in Afghanistan seemed atrocious by any standard: They for-bade women from all positions ofemployment, eliminated schools for girls anduniversity education for women in cities, outlawed women from leaving theirhomes unless accompanied by a close male relative, and forced women towear the
(a head to toe covering with a mesh opening to see through).Women were reportedly beaten and flogged for violating Taliban edicts. Thereseemed to be little doubt in the minds ofmany that the United States, with itsimpressive political and economic leverage in the region, could help alleviatethis sad state ofaffairs. As one friend put it, “Finally our government can dosomething good for women’s rights out there, rather than working for corporateprofits.” Rallying against the Taliban to protest their policies against Afghanwomen provided a point ofunity for groups from a range ofpolitical perspec-tives: from conservatives to liberals and radicals, from Republicans toDemocrats, and from Hollywood glitterati to grass roots activists. By the time thewar started, feminists like Smeal could be found cozily chatting with the gen-erals about their shared enthusiasm for Operation Enduring Freedom and thepossibility ofwomen pilots commandeering F-16s.
Among the key factors that facilitated this remarkable consensus, there aretwo in particular that we wish to explore here: the studied silence about the cru-
cial role the United States had played in creating the miserable conditions un-der which Afghan women were living; and secondly, a whole set ofquestionableassumptions, anxieties, and prejudices embedded in the notion ofIslamic fun-damentalism. It was striking how a number ofcommentators, in discussionsthat preceded the war, regularly failed to connect the predicament ofwomenin Afghanistan with the massive military and economic support that the US pro-vided, as part ofits Cold War strategy, to the most extreme ofAfghan religiousmilitant groups. This silence, a concomitant ofthe recharged enthusiasm for theUS military both within academia and among the American public more gen-erally, also characterized much ofthe response both to reports ofmountingcivilian casualties resulting from the bombing campaign, and to the wide-spread famine that the campaign threatened to aggravate. For example, aslate as early December, the Feminist Majority website remained stubbornly fo-cused on the ills ofTaliban rule, with no mention ofthe 2.2 million victims ofthree years ofdrought who were put at greater risk ofstarvation because USbombing severely restricted the delivery offood aid. Indeed, the FeministMajority made no attempts to join the calls issued by a number ofhumanitar-ian organizations—including the Afghan Women’s Mission—to halt the bomb-ing so that food might have been transported to the Afghans before winter setin.
In the crusade to liberate Afghan women from the tyranny ofTaliban rule,there seemed to be no limit ofthe violence to which Americans were willing tosubject the Afghans, women and men alike. Afghanistan, so it appeared, had tobear another devastating war so that, as the
New York Times
triumphantly not-ed at the exodus ofthe Taliban from Kabul, women can now wear
“outofchoice” rather than compulsion.The twin figures ofthe Islamic fundamentalist and his female victim helpedconsolidate and popularize the view that such hardship and sacrifice werefor Afghanistan’s own good. Following the September 11th attacks, the
-clad body ofthe Afghan woman became the visible sign ofan invisible enemythat threatens not only “us,” citizens ofthe West, but our entire civilization. Thisimage, one foregrounded initially by the Feminist Majority campaign thoughlater seized on by the Bush administration and the mainstream media, servedas a key element in the construction ofthe Taliban as an enemy particularlydeserving ofour wrath because oftheir harsh treatment ofwomen. As LauraBush put it in her November 17
radio address to the nation: “Civilized peo-ple throughout the world are speaking out in horror—not only because ourhearts break for the women and children ofAfghanistan, but also because inAfghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest

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