Friday, May 04, 2007

Humanitarian "Feminism" from Above as a Form of Colonial Control

These interventions by the colonial state against social practices that oppressed women have been described as 'colonial feminism', that is where the colonial government intervened on behalf of women, claiming it was doing so on humanitarian grounds.

Sometimes these measures operated simultaneously as forms of colonial control. The colonial authorities were often sympathetic to those interventions that they regarded as a way of transforming the values of societies whose traditions resisted their rule. This was clearest with respect to the French colonial policy of forced unveiling in the Maghreb.

In all cases, it was entirely predictable that such legislative acts would become the focus for nationalist resistance. Yet, paradoxically for women colonial ideology could represent new forms of freedom. As a result, women were much more ambivalently placed in relation both to colonialism and anti-colonial nationalism. This has also meant that while women struggle with the legacies of colonialism in the postcolonial era, they are repeatedly accused of importing western ideas.

Well-meaning interventions by western feminist, human rights groups, and Ford Foundation-funded non-governmental organization can at times end up by making life more complicated for local feminists. Development of all kinds comes best from below rather than being imposed by above.

Interestingly, he also writes about how during anti-colonial struggles, women are often seen as the vessels of culture, "retrieved for the present from the society of the past."
For macho-nationalists, home and the domestic sphere, relatively free from colonial control, was the best guardian of the traditional values, culture, and identity of the new phenomenon they were creating on the Europen model against their European masters, 'the nation'.

Which means women's struggles do not end upon achieving self-determination, but that this is a precondition for a strong and viable feminist movement.

There's nothing new with what we are doing in Afghanistan, nor with the arguments used to justify it. It's been done by colonial powers in the past, and will continue to be done in our name unless we stop it.

Quotations from Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction by Robert Young. Formatting added to make it easier to read.

Inspired by the ongoing conversation here (see comments).

See also Afghan Women: Used by the Taliban, Used by Us.


TomCat said...

As male, sometimes understanding feminism can be a struggle for me, but I certainly support equality for women. I remember on the 1960s I had contact with several women's groups, coordinating efforts between the peace movement, the civil rights movement and the women's movement in New York city. I was surprised to learn that several women's groups received considerable financial support from Ford and other conservative foundations.

It makes more sense looking back on it. Then women were struggling to enter the work force on equal terms with men. But they had a choice. Today survival with a decent standard of living demands that both parents work. The choice for a woman (or man) to stay home and raise children means severe economic hardships for the family. And I sucpect this was what Ford and the other foundations wanted all along.

bfp said...

that's a really great book isn't it?
I just read it this semester--I really like him a lot.

sparkle said...

This so true. I had a hard time explaining to some western feminists that we couldn't just impose equality for women in afghanistan, all we could so was rebuild an infrastructure that would support an evolution towards that, and provide philosophical and financial support in the background if requested.

Anyway, I am deeply suspect of the U.S. government's interest in the rights of Afghan women. That was just used as justification for the bombing of Afghanistan post-9/11. At the same time the Bush administration was ostensibly jumping on the women's rights bandwagon, they were rolling back already feeble provisions to allow refugee status for women fleeing gender discrimination, the threat of honor killings etc.

Imposing our value and will is counterproductive.

When the Soiviet-supported communists came to power and declared Afghanistan was officially atheist, people went to their rooftops one night and all shouted "Allah AKHBAR" at the same time. An Afghan publisher, a secular man, told me this. Even he did it. Religion became a wayof protesting the dictatorship. The Soviet colonial effort to make Afghanistan secular produced the opposite result.

bfp said...

I am deeply suspect of the U.S. government's interest in the rights of Afghan women

so is everybody, it seems, but feminist org's like feminist majority!

feminist majority still lists "expanding peacekeeping forces" in afghanistan, even tho major feminists org's in afghanistan expressly decry military intervention.

FM has done next to nothing to restructure it's rhetoric such that the bush administration can not manipulate it so easily.

Red Jenny said...

How very annoying. I had a huge reply which Google decided looked like spam so it disappeared :(

Well, I won't rewrite it, but do go over and read this interesting post at Afghanistanica

saudi stepford wife said...

Great post and thanks for all the historic info. Part of my uni literature degree was on colonialism and it's remained a great interest for me. This post is of particular interest for me as a 'veiled' woman.

Red Jenny said...

SSW, that's why I love your blog. It gives me another perspective, something I think is so crucial. How could I, as a Western feminist, begin to tell you what you *should* do, or worse, force you to change your clothing, or habits, or whatever. It's not my place. I can learn from you, and offer solidarity, though.

I need to update my blogroll.

bfp said...

How could I, as a Western feminist, begin to tell you what you *should* do, or worse, force you to change your clothing, or habits, or whatever. It's not my place.

this made me smile like crazy--beautiful.