A Feminist Critique

— Shahrzad Mojab

AS THE TWO warlords, the United States and Britain, and their allies look to create another client state for themselves, aid agencies and other international human rights groups are warning of a serious humanitarian crisis for the Iraqi people (see the Amnesty International Report, 2003).

The two belligerent powers violate the Geneva Conventions by refusing to take responsibility for the security and safety of Iraqis in the areas under their occupation. On this point, Aijaz Ahmad in the recent issue of Frontline (India) states:

“Every single Article of the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Charter was violated, and a whole range of war crimes committed, with impunity. Yet not a single member of the so-called ’international community’ has come forward to say so: not Kofi Annan and his bureaucrats at the U.N., not the leaders of the Franco-German alliance or any other member of the Security Council, not the head of any Arab state. The moral bankruptcy of the whole state system of the world is there for all to see. This global complicity is what made the invasion possible in the first place.”

The left’s opposition to war is in the best traditions of the peace movement. It is not difficult to realize how much more suffering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have entailed. The left predicted the consequences of the first Gulf War, and the ten years of the post-war period have confirmed those fears.

It is important, however, not to ignore the unbridgeable gulf that divides Islamic reactionaries and the peoples of the Middle East. Middle Eastern peoples suffer from their own despotic regimes as well as from Western powers that support these regimes. The United States intends to replace the Taliban and Saddam Hussein with another puppet regime, whether Islamic or not.

I intend to offer here some critical remarks on the gender politics of antiwar and anti-occupation movements which oppose the war, which are against racism, which are anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, and are concerned about the violation of our civil liberties.

Many of us have rejected the simplistic claim that current wars are ones between civilization and barbarism, between freedom and tyranny, or between democracy and despotism. We know that these constructions of reality serve the policy of war, imperialism, and domination.

According to this species of propaganda, there are two sharply polarized, two highly conflictual camps: In one camp, there lies the United States and the “Free World.” In the other camp, there is Islamic fundamentalism, bin Laden, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s regime and their supporters.

I argue that it is important to emphasize that the two sides, the U.S. administration and the Islamic fundamentalists are not on opposite sides of a conflict: Historically and politically, Islamic fundamentalism and Western capitalism form a symbiosis, not a contradiction. The two sides coexist and mutually benefit from this coexistence, much as slavery and capitalism or democracy and racial apartheid coexisted in the United States for about three centuries. Islamic fundamentalism and capitalism coexist, cohere, coincide, collude, and correlate.

The war on Iraq is also boosting Islamism and Islamist groups, which present the conflict as fight between Islam and the West. It promotes political Islam in all its forms – from the most reactionary and terroristic cliques to the most moderate ones.

Thus, a war between a secular imperialist bloc and one of their former clients is promoted as a Crusader war between Islam and Christianity. Saddam Hussein himself, who is a secular national chauvinist, has turned into a pious Muslim. Since Israel is silently involved in this war, Islamists try to add Judaism to the imaginary war between the three great religions.

Based on my extensive research and personal experience, I can claim that there is no convergence of interest between the peoples of the Middle East and reactionary Islamic groups and their despotic states.

We know that all contemporary wars have been patriarchal wars; yet I believe that the anti-war movements have a tendency to ignore the gendered nature of this war. They have a tendency to ignore the role of religion in this brutal exercise of misogynist power. The antiwar movements are not sufficiently interested in learning about the symbiosis of capitalism and fundamentalist misogyny.

The anti-racism movement is justifiably concerned about the current racist attacks against Muslims and the Middle Eastern in the West; however, they fail to reject both racism and religious misogynism. This is a serious weakness; it amounts to silence about patriarchy and misogyny.

A more effective way to oppose war is, I believe, to deal with the ties that bind Islamic fundamentalism with the exercise of capitalist power. This can be easily understood by focusing on women and remembering that fundamentalism and capitalism share the following features: Both are patriarchal, militaristic, despotic, imperialistic, and misogynist. Both, too, cultivate a culture of violence.

There is, at the same time, a real divide on the global level. There is a polarization, a contradiction, a conflict between two sides. On one side we have the extreme right, including racial supremacists who set fire to refugee and immigrant homes in Germany and Britain; Christian fundamentalists who blow up abortion clinics and assassinate doctors in Canada and the United States; the terrorists of Oklahoma City; the KKK and the neo-Nazis who are armed to the teeth.

There are also the Islamic fundamentalists of the Taliban regime now out of power, and those in power in Iran; ultra-orthodox Judaists who advocate the enslavement of women and the uprooting of Palestinians; the rule of global capitalism, which creates poverty, and kills some 35,000 children every day; the military-industrial complex which sold $798 billion of arms in 2000, and creates weapon markets and generates wars.

These are all on one side. On the other side, however, are the majority of the people of the world who are threatened with hunger, unemployment, poverty, prostitution, war, massacre, genocide, gendercide, ecocide and dictatorship. This side includes people from the West and the East.

The new round of imperialist warfare is fought in front of TV cameras, and, no matter where we are, we can see it every minute and every hour, day and night. (1) The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States brought into even sharper focus the web of contradictions that make up our world. This terrorist act, indeed, has highlighted many disparities of the new capitalist world order.

The Bush Administrations, so far, have launched three major wars since the end of the Cold War era. The first major war was on Iraq more than ten years ago. The second and third are currently going on in Afghanistan and in Iraq. While the contradictions in these conflicts are prominent, and as a result must be easier to understand – even the strictly censored and self-censored mainstream media talk about a catastrophe – debates are often obscured in masculinized mythology and myth-making.

I will begin with the war on Afghanistan (for my critique of the first Gulf War see Mojab, 1997). If most people around the world had no knowledge about Afghanistan, now the majority see what they had never seen before: the destruction of its people and resources. If the majority did not know about the Taliban’s terrorizing the women of Afghanistan, now they see the televised images of women brutally obscured in shrouds called burqa.

The rise to power of the Taliban was a catastrophe for the women of Afghanistan. Women resisted this tyranny in solitude; it is only recently that we hear about RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women) and other secular Afghan women’s groups in the mainstream media, while the Iranian women’s press in exile regularly reported on the oppressive situation of women of Afghanistan.

The United States played a leading role in bringing the misogynist Taliban monsters to power (see, among others, Ellis 2000 and Newell and Newell 1981). Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 under the section entitled, “The role of the international community,” states:

“The war in Afghanistan mobilized international attention to women’s human rights in that country, with the U.S. government and its allies giving women’s rights a prominent place in the propaganda war against the Taliban. In 2002, however, there seemed to be a disconnect between the U.S. and the international community’s rhetorical commitment to equality and willingness to adopt and implement policies that fully integrated attention to women’s human rights ... Women’s rights activists found that many of these steps were tentative and inconsistent, and hoped that the international community’s concern for women’s rights in Afghanistan would be long-lasting and would result in stepped-up efforts to recognize women’s human rights violations and curtail them also in other parts of the world.” (547)

For further corroboration of this statement by Human Rights Watch, also see the documentary called Daughters of Afghanistan, which was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, The Passionate Eye, March 3, 2003) and Return to Kandahar (Panl Jay and Nelofer Pazira, directors, CBC Documentary, 2003).

The Committee to Defend Women’s Rights in the Middle East reports on the situation of women in Afghanistan, stating:

“Schools are being destroyed by gunmen, women are being forced to have medical examinations for chastity and girls are being made to wear the burqa. Many of government’s authorities are former Mujahidin leaders, who forcefully resist any changes in women’s situation.”

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 also warns:

“As governments responded to the September 11 attacks in the U.S., there was danger that a pattern of political expediency in governments’ concern for women’s rights would continue ... Our monitoring showed that violence and discrimination remained pervasive components of many women’s lives. Governments both actively violated women’s human rights and failed to prevent abuses by private actors.” (536)

Where do the “Great Powers” stand in this polarized world? The practice of major Western powers is a guide. If there is any doubt about the symbiotic relationship of Islamic fundamentalism and Western powers, the history of U.S. relations with the Islamic states of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan will dispel such uncertainties (Ali, 2002).

The United States, Britain and France have colluded with Islamic groups, whether in their fundamentalist or non-fundamentalist forms, to achieve two major goals. One is using Islam against social movements for democracy, independence, and socialism in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.

For example, the most serious offensive against the struggle for democracy was Western support for Islamic groups during the anti-monarchy revolution in Iran in 1978 and early 1979. The United States, Britain and France were frightened by the possibility of leftists, socialists and democrats achieving state power in Iran. Thus, they directly and indirectly supported Khomeini after having failed to save the Shah.

The coming to power of the left in Iran would have enhanced revolutionary struggles throughout the Middle East, just as the nationalization of the British-owned oil industry in the early 1950s in Iran had destabilized other Western puppet states in the region. This explains why the United States, in 1953, conducted a coup against the democratically elected government of Premier Mossadeq and re-installed the Shah of Iran.

The second major goal was to use Islam against the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. By 1978, an American project was conceived of creating a Green or Islamic Crescent on the southern borders of the former Soviet Union. This crescent would have saved Iran from “communism,” and would have encouraged Islamic dissent in the Soviet Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan.

December 1979 was the beginning of an Islamic “jihad” against the Soviet Union and its client regime in Afghanistan. The U.S. had no problem with this “jihad;” it financed and participated in this “jihad” as a secular capitalist crusader. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, the United States, Britain and individual Muslims all were partners in a war that destroyed the people and the country.

The monsters called the Taliban, the Northern Alliance and Bin Laden were all products of this holy alliance. Although the left understands this history, it is less clear about the fact that the target of most Islamic forces are the peoples of the Middle East, especially women, secular democrats and communists. Islamic reactionaries want to achieve state power, and some of them, like Khomeini and the Taliban, have tried to export their reign of terror to other countries in the region.

There is no convergence of interest between any form of Islamic fundamentalism or political Islam and the peoples of the Middle East, let alone the women of the region. The student movements, women and the youth of Iran have already called for the separation of state and religion. They have revolted not only against the Islamic regime but also against the official religion, which stones women to death, and executes gays and lesbians.

Two other important issues that we should consider are the racist attacks on Arabs and those who were perceived to be Arab or Muslims, and the rise of nationalism in the West and the East.

What are the effective means to deal with racism? The official remedy has been media talk shows, official pronouncements, conferences, and letters to the editor, which distinguish between good Islam and bad Islam; the “Islam of the terrorists” is bad and the “rest of Islam” is good. This has led even to the invitation of imams and mullas to secular schools, to teach others that most Muslims are good Muslims.

We should indeed oppose all forms of discrimination against Muslims. It is important, however, not to underestimate the effects of unleashing of Islamic fundamentalism against the peoples of the Middle East, and especially women. It is, I believe, useless to propagate the pacifism of Islam or the contributions of Islam to Christianity or to world civilization. While such lessons are not harmful in themselves, they cannot address the problem of racism.

Some activists on the left have been persuaded by theories of cultural relativism and many varieties of postmodernism, which ignore or justify the oppression of women under the guise of “respect for difference.” These positions are, I believe, misogynist. How can one have any respect for a culture that enslaves women?

There is a century of feminist and women’s movements in the Middle East. (2) In 1909, a member of the Iranian parliament introduced a bill in support of women’s suffrage rights. The British press covered the event and together with an American resident of Tehran claimed that Iran was ahead of the West in advocacy of women’s rights.

The women’s movements of the Middle East were predominantly secular. Instead of presenting Islam as a woman-friendly or feminist religion, the left should avoid such misrepresentations and look at the international women’s movements as a real convergence of the interests and destinies of the East and the West.

Patriarchy is universal, and resistance against it is universal too. The struggle against racism and neo-fascism can succeed only if it is conducted on the solid bases of social movements such as the struggle of women against both religious and secular fundamentalism.

What I propose is not illusion; it is not an impossibility. Several years ago, a group of women in Uruguay in South America showed us how to struggle for building a new world. Although they did not know much about Afghanistan, they had heard about what the Taliban regime had been doing to women. They decided to protest in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan.

They went to the downtown Plaza Cagancha and discarded their dress, and demonstrated completely naked. They said that it was against their culture to go naked in the public, but they did so in order to express their anger and solidarity with Afghan women. Here is what they wrote in their leaflet (La Republica, Montevideo, Vol. XI, 9 February 1999, No. 3768):

“The Latin American women can’t ignore what the Afghan sisters are going through, since in 1996 the forces of the fundamentalists of Taliban took power. The victims of this crazy act of the fundamentalist are once again women. Converted in hostages, they have lost all their rights. The ones that are not killed prefer to let themselves die, because it’s the only form of freedom ... How many women should die before the world reacts? Where are the organizations of the human rights? What do the governments do that say they are democratic? We are confronted with a crime of humanity. The victims are women but the rights to life make us all (women and men) responsible. No more to the genocide of the women of Afghanistan. We are tired of death. We are the ones that bring life to this world and we want life.”

I think the left needs the courage, determination and the depth of understanding of these women of Uruguay. This is how the lines can be drawn between oppressors and the oppressed, and how the oppressed of the world can unite against both fundamentalism and capitalism.

Many people throughout the world express their anger against the war on Iraq which brings more loss of life, more destruction, poverty and domination. This anger takes the form of nationalism among the Arab masses. This nationalism entails a strong anti-colonialist feeling; it is also, to a large extent, the expression of an anger against Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, client regimes of the United States.

We rarely hear of the antiwar activism of Arab women. Their presence, nonetheless, has been impressive. (3) This war is in the process of sparking a prairie fire that the United States and its Arab puppets may not be able to contain. According to media reports many Iraqi men and women who had fled the oppressive regime of Saddam are returning to Iraq to take up arms against the invaders.

In other Arab countries, too, many are ready to join the resistance. Chris Johnson, a freelance journalist, reports on Iraqi’s “Female Fedayeen” (Saddam loyalists) who are adding to the rising number of female suicide bombers in Palestine and Chechnya (Johnson, 2003). Prior to the invasion of Iraq, The Sun-Herald reported on March 2, 2003 that “Every day, the women of Saddam Hussein’s ‘volunteer’ Iraqi army march through the streets in acts of defiance at America. These women are on parade in Diala province, seventy kilometers north-east of Baghdad. They join thousands marking the army’s eighty-second anniversary.”

In Kurdistan, the nationalist Kurdish leadership allowed the United States to use the Kurdish region as a safe and secure base for a northern front. Moreover, Kurdish guerrillas (peshmargas) are now doing part of the dirty job. (4)

In the West, the United States and Britain relied on nationalism to mobilize support for this unpopular imperialist war. American national chauvinism directed against France and the people of France, often propaganda conducted by leaders of the Bush regime and by the media and the market, at times even overshadowed anti-Islamism and anti-Arabism.

Nationalism is a major vehicle for conducting modern wars. People can readily be mobilized by inciting ethnic, nationalist and religious hatred. The left should face this challenge. The left will itself be drawn into this nationalist and religious quagmire if it does not take a different direction.

The left must emphasize aspects of this war which are ignored by nationalists and Islamists. These include:

  1. This is an imperialist war, aiming for a new U.S. hegemony and a redrawing of the geopolitics of the region. As with the two imperialist world wars, it is to a large extent a war for re-dividing the sphere of influence. It is to a considerable extent a war between imperialist powers (U.S.-Britain-Australia on one side, and France-Germany-Russia-China on the other side). Noam Chomsky, in his essay entitled Confronting the Empire (Znet, February 01, 2003), writes:

“The most powerful state in history has proclaimed, loud and clear, that it intends to rule the world by force, the dimension in which it reigns supreme ... They evidently believe that the means of violence in their hands are so extraordinary that they can dismiss with contempt anyone who stands in their way ... The doctrine is not entirely new, nor unique to the U.S., but it has never been proclaimed with such brazen arrogance ... The way to “confront the empire” is to create a different world, one that is not based on violence and subjugation, hate and fear.”

  1. This is a secular war that has little to do with religion. While fighting anti-Islamism or Islamophobia, the left should promote the separation of state and religion – a separation for which the peoples of the Middle East have struggled, since the beginning of the twentieth century. This politics is part of their political culture.

    Secularism, gender equality, class equality, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom of assembly are all integral parts of the political culture of the peoples of the Middle East. The left is not well informed about this history.
  2. After the end of the Second World War, the United States promoted Islam against the social movements of the region. The left is not well informed about a century of struggle by women, workers, peasants, students, journalists and other intellectuals. The United States and Britain have been the major enemies of these social movements. There has been a strong symbiotic relationship between Western imperialism and political Islam.
  3. Although this is an imperialist war that aims at dominating Iraq and the whole region, resistance by remaining elements of Saddam Hussein’s army does not constitute a liberation struggle. The Iraqi people’s resistance will lead to liberation if Iraqis aim both at overthrowing the Ba’ath regime and defeating the imperialist aggression. The United States and Britain have put together the Iraqi National Congress in order to legitimate their domination and to install a puppet regime.
  4. The left must struggle against the anti-French national chauvinism that is promoted by the United States and its market forces. We must also reject anti-Americanism. We have much in common with the people of the United States. Many Americans are, like the rest of the world, against this war. Many people in the world have been inspired by the American tradition of the struggle against the U.S. aggression in Vietnam.
  5. Like other wars, this is a patriarchal imperialist war. The left is not conscious about the gender dimension of this war.

The antiwar movement of the last few months has done much to promote international solidarity. I have seen in demonstrations people of all ethnic, national and religious backgrounds.

We can see this international solidarity in the attitude of the people of Iraq. The “human shields,” who are mostly from the West, have shown to the people of Iraq and the Middle East that this is not a war between religions or Westerners and Easterners.

This is not a new development. Norman Bethune joined the people of China to help their anti-Fascist struggle. Physicians Without Borders and Reporters Without Borders have helped the people of the region. The antiwar activism of the last few months has opened new opportunities for promoting internationalism. Internationalism should not be seen as a romantic vision of the communists, socialists or the left. Internationalism should be viewed as indispensable. There is no future without it. The scenario is much like Rosa Luxemburg’s “Socialism or Barbarism.”

The people of the Middle East share with the people of the West their century of struggle for democracy, socialism, freedom and gender equality. This shared politics is more prominent than differences of religion, language and geography.

The despots and reactionaries of the Middle East, too, share everything with imperialist politicians like Bush, Rumsfeld and the gang. Reactionaries such as Mubarak, King Abdulla and all the Amirs and Sultans of the Middle East never care about their religious and cultural differences with the Bush-Blair clique.

If this is not a war of religions and cultures, we should emphasize that it is primarily a war between classes. Rosemary Hennessy proposes that we need to have a shift “from anti-capitalist slogans to building class consciousness.” She adds, “when I say ‘class consciousness’ I mean the recognition that we who labor inside and outside the marketplace are the ultimate actors in history. And it is because of this fact that together we are the ones who hold the power.”

She suggests five ways for social movements to create class consciousness:

  1. “Keep the focus on capitalism for what it is – an exploitative class system, not one of many systems of oppression,”
  2. “Draw attention to what we live: capitalism produces unmet human needs,”
  3. “Class is not status or consumer lifestyle; or, the work of discovering that most of us are in the same boat,”
  4. “Wake up! Of course there is an alternative!” and
  5. “International solidarity can teach U.S. anti-capitalists crucial lessons in class consciousness.” (Hennessy, 2001: 83–90)

Therefore, this is a war which a bloc of the capitalist class of the West is waging, both against their former ally and against the peoples of the world. It is an economic war. It is capitalist exploitation of the working people of the world and the resources of the planet.

This is how the antiwar movement can be seen as a continuation of the anti-globalization and anti-capitalist movements. We must therefore remember that this war is part of a larger one, which has imposed the Anti-Terrorism Act on the people of Canada and the Patriot Act on the people of the United States.

Edward Said makes the link between the violation of democratic rights of American people and those of people of Iraq as a calamity of this war for both nations. “Americans have been cheated,” he write:

“Iraqis have suffered impossibly ... On matters of the gravest importance to millions of people constitutional principles have been violated and the electorate lied to unconscionably. We are the ones who must have our democracy back. Enough of smoke and mirrors and smooth talking hustlers.” (Said, 2003).

Aijaz Ahmad reminds us of the past colonial conquests and writes that in Iraq:

“(I)n the distant and dingy alleyways of that battered and occupied country, a resistance is in the making. It will take some months to take organisational form, more months to make a transition to credible forms of armed resistance. In the long run, though, the U.S. may have made for itself not just a client state whose assets can be bought up for a song, but a veritable Palestine writ large. As the whole history of anti-colonial movements has shown, history does not end with conquest. A different history then begins.”



  1. For a critic of the role of media see Hassanpour 2003.
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  2. There is a vast body of literature covering the history of the women’s movement in the Middle East. For an introduction to this prolific literature see Joseph (2000) and for Iran, the country which I have studied extensively, see Mojab and Hojabri (2000).
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  3. For instance, see Lina Mahmoud’s recent interview with young Egyptian women on their experience of participating in the anti-war demonstration in Cairo (Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 8–14 May 2003, Issue No. 637).
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  4. There are numerous reports on the preparation of Kurdish women fighters in support of the American forces in Iraq. Iraqi women and Kurdish women have taken opposing roles: Iraqi women are opposing the American forces, while Kurdish women of Northern Iraq are supporting the occupying forces. This conflictual role of women requires much attention by feminists in theorization of women, militarism, and nationalism. See, among others, The Guardian, November 26, 2002 and February 28, 2003; The Sun-Herald, March 2, 2003. The Daily Telegraph and The Toronto Star, April 11, 2003 both published colored photos of Kurdish Women Fighters on their first pages; also see The Observer, May 11, 2003.
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