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Seminar Talk Up: ‘Under a Red Veil? The Soviet Quest to Liberate Afghan Women, c. 1979-1989′

May 3, 2012

Both the Prezi as well as the recording of last night’s seminar talk at Corpus Christi are now online, here and here, respectively.

Overall it was a really stimulating and productive evening. As I put this presentation together, which is based on a chapter of my dissertation, I had some new thoughts that I’ll have to insert into the dissertation itself. Looking at the history of international feminism, I was struck by a tension between two ways of thinking about ‘the feminist cause’ globally since the 1970s.

On the one hand, it seems to me that Soviet organizations like the CSW (the Committee for Soviet Union, the group that organized the seminar for Afghan women that this piece focuses on) and their counterparts in the ‘Third World’ were remarkably aggressive – and, it would seem, successful in parts of that Third World – at situating feminism within a broader global Leftist struggle for social justice. That is to say, it wasn’t enough to agitate for feminism on its own merits, or because women deserved to have the same legal framework and educational opportunities as men in order to actualize or fulfill themselves; rather, you had to support feminist causes (as defined by the USSR and its African and Asian allies) along with a whole smorgasbord of other causes on the Left that seem unrelated to us today: the struggle against apartheid in South Africa; opposing racism in general but especially in the United States (see the work of the dazzling Sophie Lorenz, a PhD candidate at Heidelberg for an example of this, when the DDR fawned over Angela Davis); supporting the Palestinian liberation movement if not also the delegitimization of the Jewish state; and opposing Chinese ‘adventurism’ in the Third World, whether in the form of PRC support for the mujahideen or the Chinese invasion of Vietnam. What a panoply of causes feminists on the Left had to sign up for to be able to engage with other activists in the Second World! (Incidentally, Jeremy Friedman’s excellent dissertation, ‘Revising Revolution’, covers many of these topics based on work in Soviet, Chinese, and South African archives – write to him to obtain a copy.)

Delegates at the 1975 UN World Conference on Women

On the other hand, it seems to me that within the First World and among its allies (roughly, the USA, conservative groups in Western Europe, Israel, South Africa to a certain extent) an alternative framework for thinking about the feminist cause came into being. Unlike the Soviet-led framework, which sought to place the oppression of women within a larger framework of global oppression, the First World framework re-imagined feminism as part of a broader ‘freedom agenda’ that often fused with skepticism towards the United Nations, international institutions in general, the Arab World, and anti-Communism. Americans could be moved to be concerned with the plight of women in the Arab World or in Sub-Saharan Africa because this was an instance not of global ‘injustice’ similar to apartheid or, for example, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but rather of ‘totalitarian’ governments or societies – be they Soviet or Arab – oppressing women (along with dissidents, Jews, and others). Frustratingly for many feminists, however, this ‘freedom agenda’ and opposition to totalitarianism abroad was often married with policies that seemed to be exacerbating the problems that women faced around the world: the first Reagan Administration and the George W. Bush Administration were, if nothing else, steadfast in promoting a ‘freedom agenda’ around the world, but they also supported the Mexico City Policy; the USA is also one of the few countries globally (along with Sudan, Somalia, and Iran) not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women for reasons of domestic political opposition.

Tunisian Ennahda Party activists like Suad Abdel-Rahim: result of an anti-totalitarian Arab Spring or portentous of an Islamist backlash?

What’s the result of this Cold War legacy? I had a wonderful conversation after the presentation with Monica Marks, a fellow Rhodes Scholar in attendance, on just this topic. On one level, scholars like Monica, who are pursuing the kind of in-depth research into local and national feminist traditions that activists in the West need to pay more attention to, are perplexed by the cries of ‘cultural relativism’ raised by activists on the right. Why, they ask, do figures like Ayaan Hirsi Ali make so much noise about the West’s decline into cultural relativism when (from Monica’s point of view) many of the female activists in the Middle East speak openly in a (universalist) language of human rights? While I’m far from an expert in these realms (and would defer to established scholars on the subject like Sam Moyn), one possibility is that the Cold War legacy of feminist discourses makes ‘freedom agenda’ activists extremely wary and nervous towards any Arab-led calls for social justice. Historically, they might argue, many of the calls that countries like Iraq, Syria, or (until the early 1970s) Egypt made for ‘human rights’ or ‘women’s rights’ were part of an anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-racism, anti-apartheid package that they found unacceptable. Too often, the slogan ‘human rights’, when it came from Soviet clients in the Middle East or Africa, was all too often an excuse to bash America or Israel over the head while many of these countries were (in the activists’ view) totalitarian themselves, like Syria or Iraq.

This is why, as I argued in the talk, the Arab Spring has represented such a perfect storm for these international feminist debates. On the one hand, the fall of tyrants like Mubarak or Gaddafi would seem to portend a victory for the ‘freedom agenda’ that President Bush fought for internationally during his Administration, a victory for the feminism-as-anti-totalitarian cause. But the fall of these Arab tyrants has, potentially, given space for the anti-totalitarian Right’s other bête noire – radical Islamism – to assume a large place in the political life of these countries. Figures on both the anti-totalitarian Right and the social justice Left could celebrate jointly when Ben ‘Ali  or Mubarak fell. But now that the future of these countries is uncertain, the anti-totalitarian crowd (into which some have slotted Mona Eltahawy) finds itself butting heads again against more Left-aligned activists who are less universalistic about human progress, often more engaged with the specific Arab cultures in question – but also potentially less willing to see anti-American or anti-Zionist strands within these Arab-led ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ movements today. How the battle will play out, I do not know, but I hope, as I revise this piece more, to provide more context for how we debate these issues today.

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