Muslim Women As Symbols and Pawns

Linked with Rina Amiri – Afghanistan & USA, with The Women Waging Peace Network, with Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan RAWA, and with Women Likely to Suffer Most in Central Asia’s Turmoil.

By Rina Amiri, November 27, 2001, from the New York Times, and reprinted on Op-eds:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – On the morning of Nov. 20, the world awoke to the promise of a new era in Afghanistan, reflected in the hasty retreat of the Taliban from Kabul and the timid smiles of Afghan women emerging from beneath their burkas.

Women shrouded in billowing clouds of blue had become hallmarks of the Taliban’s extremism and repression. But envisioning a real peace, with women as key stakeholders in the country, requires looking beyond symbols and unfolding the layers of complexity beneath the politics of religion and gender in Afghanistan.

It has come to be assumed in much of the Muslim world that to be a proponent of women’s rights is to be pro-Western. This enmeshing of gender and geopolitics has robbed Muslim women of their ability to develop a discourse on their rights independent of a cultural debate between the Western and Muslim worlds.

If we cast a glance backward through the annals of Afghan history, we see that women have long been the pawns in a struggle between the elite modernists, usually defined as pro-Western, and the religious and tribal-based traditionalists.

This tension recurs throughout Afghan history and has led to extreme oscillations in the roles of women — from modernist-led periods where women have represented more than 60 percent of the educated and professional population to traditionalist- based rule in which women have been rendered powerless and invisible.

The ideological war over modernism has focused on the emancipated Muslim woman as the symbol of Westernization and as a threat to the integrity of the authentic and Islamic way of life. In the Muslim world, versions of this story have been played out repeatedly, and differing views of women have come to signify nothing less than a battle between East and West. The Western world has contributed to this perception by centering on the place of women in its depiction of Islam as repressive and backward.

To help Afghan and Muslim women create new spaces in which to negotiate their positions, we must move beyond the premise that Islam is anti-woman. Distinctions should be made between countries that pursue a more moderate form of Islam, allowing for women’s civic and professional participation, as in present-day Iran, and those like Afghanistan under the Taliban that practice a distorted and politicized Islam.

Despite the fact that women in Iran still face many challenges, Iranian feminists have been able to make changes from within by re- interpreting the Koran and dismantling narrow patriarchal constructions of Islam. A generation after its Islamic revolution, Iran today has some of the most politically active women in the Islamic world. Women in Iran have run for the presidency and been appointed to the vice presidency under President Mohammad Khatami, and they make up more than 40 percent of the university students.

In postwar Afghanistan, where Islam remains the only source of political and social legitimacy, Western organizations can be more effective in helping women if they ground their support in the positions of Muslim feminists.

Some international women’s organizations have been concerned that a religious framework for the discussion of women’s roles would sanction abuses against women, but this need not be so. The international community should never tolerate abuses against women in any part of the world. In order to oppose injustices that have been imposed on women in the name of a repressive and politicized Islam, Westerners must gain a better understanding of Islam as a whole.

To ensure that the Afghan women’s agenda is not perceived as a Western agenda, advocacy on behalf of Afghan women must be tied to support for all ethnic and religious groups that have lacked representation in Afghanistan.

The United Nations, the United States and the international community must continue their unequivocal support for the participation of women in the political and developmental reconstruction of Afghanistan. But we must tread a careful path as we struggle to restore Afghan women’s roles.

Afghanistan is at the crossroads, and there is much at stake. But Afghan women have already shown their determination to create change from within; last week some in Kabul even made defiant attempts to march for their rights. Let Afghan women guide us in moving toward an inclusive peace in Afghanistan, beyond the confines of rhetoric and symbols.

Rina Amiri is a senior associate for research with the Women Waging Peace Initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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