The Double Standards of Colonial Feminism

Megan Baker is a second year undergraduate History student at King’s. She is particularly interested in women’s unpaid care responsibilities, maternity leave provision, reproductive rights and violence against women.

In 2002, President George W. Bush used the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban to justify the US invasion of Iraq. Bush stated that ‘respect for women… can triumph in the Middle East and beyond! The repression of women [is] everywhere and always wrong!’ However, at home in the US, Bush was hardly a feminist. He slashed funding to any international family-planning organisations that offered abortion services or counselling, and renamed 22nd January as National Sanctity of Human Life Day, comparing abortion to terrorism. ‘On September 11, we saw clearly that evil exists in this world, and that it does not value life… Now we are engaged in a fight against evil and tyranny to preserve and protect life.’

Laura Bush played an important role in defending the US invasion of Afghanistan on the grounds that it would benefit the oppressed Afghan women. In her radio address to the nation on 16 November 2001, she declared that ‘the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’. Through her contribution to the George W. Bush Institute’s book, We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, Laura Bush has continued to defend the US intervention in Afghanistan. Mother Jones wrote in 2007 that Laura Bush had taken the lead in pushing ‘a tidy moral justification for [the US] invasion of Afghanistan’. It appears that Laura Bush is attempting to win the hearts and minds of the American public to justify the American intervention. Evidently, she was less concerned with the American women at home whose reproductive rights were being taken away.

Critics argue that this is an example of colonial (or imperial) feminism, which is where feminist rhetoric is utilised to justify the building of empire or imperialism. These double standards massively undermine the argument that governments care about the rights of women abroad, when they evidently do not care about the rights of women at home. Furthermore, these actions are very paternalistic in nature, and suggest a ‘saviour complex’ as it assumes that the West is intervening in the best interests of women in the Global South, even without being fully informed of what those interests might be, resulting in a potentially restricting of their agency.

The concept of colonial feminism dates back hundreds of years, although it would be anachronistic to refer to it as such. To support their idea of a ‘civilising mission’, Europeans claimed that women in colonised nations were being oppressed by the male population due to outdated sexist ideologies. An example of this is the coloniser Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, who strongly condemned how the religion of Islam treated women. He argued that Islam’s treatment of women was the ‘fatal obstacle’ to the Egyptian’s ‘attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation’. It was his opinion that western Christianity elevated the status of women while Islam degraded them. However, it is difficult to believe that Cromer actually cared about women when he failed to ensure that women’s status was improved: he raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors. Furthermore, at home Cromer was also a leading member of the anti-suffragette movement in Britain. Especially in the nineteenth century, women were hardly being treated equally to male citizens in the colonial metropole. In Britain, women were still essentially men’s property and were entirely disenfranchised until 1918. It is difficult to claim that Islam degraded women when women were being degraded under Christian rule at home. Looking beyond the insincere ideologies that were proposed by Cromer, the intervention in Egypt can be interpreted as being motivated by Islamophobia, disguised as concern about women’s rights.

Political theorist Zillah Eisenstein has argued that colonial feminism ‘imposes rather than negotiates’, imposing a homogenous view of feminism on non-western nations. She focuses on how colonial feminism lacks intersectionality, not taking into account factors such as race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc. With colonial feminism, there is generally very little knowledge of local feminism, including attempts to understand and resolve the local issues that are being fought. Furthermore, colonial feminism can be viewed within the wider context of the ‘white saviour complex’- the idea of white people liberating non-white people, thus denying them agency.

It is not enough just to care about the rights of women abroad; world leaders also need to protect the rights of women at home. This includes protecting reproductive healthcare rights, ensuring equal access to education and protecting women from violence. We also need to take a more intersectional approach, rather than impose our western-centric version of feminism on other nations; such an approach will allow a for a more comprehensive understanding and a more nuanced set of ideas to aid them can subsequently follow suit.  Although it is undoubtedly important to protect Afghan women, we must also not impose notions of western feminism on women in the Global South, and ensure that any actions taken to help them are well-informed and in their best interests.

Sources:

Katharine Viner, ‘Feminism as imperialism’, The Guardian, 21 September 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/sep/21/gender.usa 

Zillah Eisenstein, ‘Hillary Clinton’s Imperial Feminism’, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Autumn 2016. https://www.thecairoreview.com/essays/hillary-clintons-imperial-feminism/ 

Elizabeth Gettelman, ‘Hidden Half: Women in Afghanistan’, Mother Jones, July/August 2007. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2007/07/hidden-half-women-afghanistan-lana-slezic/ 

Akbar Shahid Ahmed, ‘Dear Laura Bush, This Is Not The Way To Help Oppressed Women’, Huffington Post, 18 March 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/laura-bush-afghanistan-women_n_56e88180e4b0860f99dad871?ri18n=true&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9jb25zZW50LnlhaG9vLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAM3iSqXYmBWxR4m66ZqhXmX1tbOOTbJG_UQ11XKlmJ67ih4QtbACRYnRuy_Cj9GOIH6hqQVd45y3FfYFGXHd0G5ewI1AlpTq42rcJ_t3cg44Xx5N6kpD2aoBxHzTvcEGl3yfqYhotJWnlnjVvFDzBaNfLR7YlX1bDU2B-PfeAiAS 

Ruhi Khan, ‘Afghanistan and the colonial project of feminism: dismantling the binary lens’, LSE Blogs, 2 September 2021. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/medialse/2021/09/02/afghanistan-and-the-colonial-project-of-feminism-dismantling-the-binary-lens/ 

Rafia Zakaria, ‘White Feminists Wanted to Invade’, The Nation, 17 August 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/white-feminists-wanted-to-invade/ 

Berry, Kim, ‘The Symbolic Use of Afghan Women in the War on Terror’, Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 27, (2003), 137-60.

[Image sourced from Nickeled and Dimed.]

Leave a Reply