Islam, Feminism and the Left

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

Christy Brown

VAL MOGHADAM and R.F. Kampfer’s analyses of Afghanistan are representative of minority and majority left positions typified by the recent exchange between Alexander Cockburn and Tariq Ali in The Nation (Dec. 19, 1988). But while Moghadam, a committed feminist, makes a balanced, detailed, and well-documented case for not supporting the Mujahedeen, Kampfer’s position vis-a-vis the Mujahedeen is less clear.

He does, however, make some disturbing statements regarding the position of women. They sound like a justification for ignoring the reactionary nature of the Mujahedeen and the potential for setbacks in the area of women’s rights were they to take power, not to mention the relegation of feminism to the back burner of the left agenda.

In particular he implies that: 1) because village women do not wear veils and work alongside men their position is better than that of urban women; 2) formal equality has meaning only for urban women who have access to education and jobs and who are not totally dependent on men (contradicts point 1?); 3) formal equality is a ‘facade” not supported and even feared by the majority of women who are “poor and ignorant”; 4) improvement in women’s status can take place only in the context of a mass women’s movement, which will never occur without industrialization; 5) the fundamentalist attack on women’s rights may have passed its peak because Iran suffered military defeat and because Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister in Pakistan.

Before responding, let me consider Kampfer’s statement that despite its reactionary ideology, “Islam fills a real need in Afghan society.”

While Christianity served a real need for many people in the West, and has certain functions such as the dispensation of charity, we do not support Jerry Falwell or the Pope. The issue is not “lslam,” but how it is used by the opposition to support the class/gender status quo, just as Christianity can be used to support a traditionalist view of women in the West.

Why Equality Is Important

Now to address Kampfer’s points:

1) The subordination of women in Afghanistan cuts across class lines. While rural women may work harder than men, their participation in agricultural labor does not necessarily improve their status, and where women engage in carpet-weaving, often from as young as nine years, they do not share in the profits.

2) Supposing it is true that “formal equality” is irrelevant to rural women, would Kampfer wish to ignore the hardships placed on even the minority of women who would be affected should gains in women’s rights be rolled back, women who could serve a role in development as teachers, doctors, etc.? Patricia Higgins argues similarly in Signs (Spring1985) that the majority of Iranian women’s lives would not be affected by the Islamic government’s nullification of reforms.

Yet it is clear that although Iranian society was far more developed than Afghan society, with women’s rights movements dating back over a hundred years, and while the government has not been able to totally reverse gains made by women (see Moghadam, International Journal of Middle East Studies, May 1988), and resistance at an informal level continues, “‘Islamic” laws regarding marriage and divorce, restrictions at work and in education, have imposed grave hardships on women, and a pervasive “Islamic” ideology has influenced a whole generation of young people.

3) The implication that Afghan women are satisfied with their subordination because they are not out demonstrating in the streets or feel threatened by change because “poor and ignorant people cling to tradition” sounds like the elitism Kampfer charges the PDPA with. It is not just so-called “poor and ignorant” people who fear change; we all do. Yet we cannot assume women are unaware of their oppression and do not struggle against it despite ideological forces, legal sanctions, and even fear of injury or death — all constraints committed to convincing them they should “stay in their place” and even like it. For a discussion of alternative forms of struggle of subaltern women often unnoticed by Western Marxists see Hammami and Rieker’s “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism” in New Left Review 170.

4) It is not only ahistorical, but also cruel to suggest that we have to wait for industrialization and a mass women’s movement for improvements in women’s status or that any effort to implement reforms by governments is automatically elitist.

Moghadam cites Kumari Jayawardena’s excellent Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, which provides a detailed overview of women’s movements in several Middle East countries, including Afghanistan, dating from the late nineteenth century.

While many (but not all — see Hammami and Rieker) of these women’s rights organizations were tiny and composed of educated upper-or middle-class women, the dismissal of feminism as “bourgeois movement” by vulgar Marxists is no longer tenable. Mai Ghoussoub points out in her reply to Hammami and Reiker the need for “certain elementary achievements,” what Kampfer dismisses as the “facade” of “formal equality,” before more militant struggles can arise.

Radical feminism in the West has insisted on the purity of an autonomous women’s movement, and some Middle Eastern feminists have recently adopted this position (see Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Global for some examples), yet problematic as it might seem in a region of authoritarian regimes, the state is the only institution that has enough control over the patriarchal tribe and family to implement women’s rights.

5) The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been matched by the destruction of secularist movements by anti-left governments as in Sudan and Iran. Fundamentalism has filled the vacuum left by the anti-imperialist left, yet ironically has also been used by the United States and its right-wing allies as an anti-communist tool. Unlike Kampfer, I see no signs that it is passing its peak.

What Response to Fundamentalism?

Bhutto’s election is commendable (note the U.S. media condescension — she is called the first elected Muslim woman leader, which disguises the fact that the United States has never elected a woman leader), but it has more to do with Bhutto’s father than her gender.

More frightening is the extent to which fundamentalist movements have co-opted women’s energies since they provide one of the only acceptable alternatives to staying in the home. Thus ironically while fundamentalist ideology stresses traditional roles and values for women, the organized participation of women provides evidence that they can be mobilized and do wish a more active role in society.

Middle Eastern feminists are divided on the issue of how to respond to fundamentalism, some advocating a feminist program within Islam (see Mai Ghoussoub, NLR 161), others, such as Iranian Marxist Azar Tabari, a militant secularism. Ghoussoub points out that in South Yemen, one of the most undeveloped Middle Eastern countries, great progress in women’s rights has been made by the revolutionary government under a carefully thought out program justified as being within the context of Islam.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only place where women’s rights have been discredited. Feminism has been cleverly discredited by traditionalists — and even in some cases by the left — throughout the Middle East by its supposed association with “decadent Western bourgeois culture,” with elites within Middle East countries and with corrupt governments.

The situation has not been helped by some Western feminists’ attitudes of superiority to their Middle East counterparts whom they view as passive victims of unimaginably barbaric conditions rather than as capable of engaging in their own struggle and developing their own tactics and demands appropriate to their own situations. To insist that Middle Eastern feminisms follow the same course as Western feminism would be just as arrogant as to deny that they exist or that they are irrelevant, or to take an apologist stance regarding the condition of women.

Perhaps if the PDPA had operated in similar fashion to the government of South Yemen it would have been more successful in implementing reforms. But reformist and popular Shah Amanullah also was deposed by traditionalist factions allied with imperialism, suggesting that the traditional power structure in Afghanistan will not readily tolerate change whatever approach is taken to implement it, and that the struggle between traditionalism and modernization will be protracted.

If, as Moghadam and Cockburn maintain, the reforms, rather than repressions, created the opposition, which predated and precipitated the invasion, Kampfer’s suggestion that women’s rights will be associated with napalm is a post hoc argument.

Moreover, as Cockburn notes, PDPA’s mistakes were Afghan mistakes, so Kampfer’s analogy of PDPA with imperialism’s “white man’s burden” is misleading, as it refers to developed societies exploiting undeveloped societies in the name of “humanitarianism,” rather than to a society attempting its own development.

If we follow Kampfer’s logic, we should label all attempts at reforms by left parties as elitist and thus effectively tie their hands.

Cockburn aptly notes that the United States has replaced the “white man’s burden” with anti-communism as its justification for imperialism. While the U.S. government shamelessly supports any group, no matter how reactionary, in its attempt to wipe out the left in the Third World, we should expect the left to at least first consider the leadership and program of a movement, including its position on women’s rights, before lending its support.

March-April 1989, ATC 19

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