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

As a historian or scholar, it’s not always the case that you can find neat intersections between your own work and present-day concerns. (Indeed, some scholars would contend that a presentist focus distorts the quality of one’s work.) But a foible of scheduling and a recent lively discussion in the media about the situation of women in the Arab World (and more broadly in Muslim countries) has provided me with an opportunity to try to connect some of my D.Phil. research with what I think is an important discussion in the mainstream media today.

The debate in question concerns a recent article by Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist who had written several articles critical both of the Mubarak regime as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After continuing to report from Cairo since then, in November 2011 she was arrested, beaten, and reportedly sexually assaulted by security forces, a horrifying incident similar to what had happened to 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan at Tahrir Square earlier that year and underscoring the fact that early hopes for a liberal Egyptian Revolution might have proven overstated. Last week, in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, Eltahawy published an article entitled ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’, which highlighted the pervasive nature of misogyny in the Arab World. She writes:

An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.

Mona Eltahawy, author of 'Why Do They Hate Us?'

This article has provoked diverse responses, the foremost being the counter-argument that Eltahawy attempts to pre-empt in her piece: namely, that Western societies are also oppressive towards women and that Western policy élites only seem to become animated about the rights of ‘oppressed’ Arab women when it corresponds with their geopolitical interests. One classmate of mine at Oxford and a fellow Rhodes Scholar, Monica Marks, a D.Phil. Candidate in Oriental Studies here, wrote a piece that encapsulates this point of view. (Eltahawy wrote Marks’ response off on Twitter as ‘post-colonial mumbo jumbo.’) Beyond this simple bipolar opposition of viewpoints, however, there are other voices that deserve to be taken into account: Arab Christian women who fear for the rights of their sisters and daughters (or brothers and sons) in the Middle East as, potentially, more Islamist governments come to power, while also feeling resentful of blanket treatments of ‘Arab’ culture as distinct from a (still fuzzy) ‘Arab Muslim’ culture.

So what’s the relevance of all of this to the seminar talk I’ll be giving this Wednesday evening at 8 PM at Corpus Christi College’s Rainolds Room? While I find the particulars of the debate about the rights of Arab women (and the proper framework within which to have such a discussion) fascinating, what interests me even more as a historian is how the structure of such debates (‘how can we help Muslim women?’) repeats itself across different contexts. We saw this kind of debate surrounding the treatment of women by the Taliban circa 2001, but Soviet feminists in the USSR had similar debates around the time of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. Following the invasion in December 1979, Soviet women – primarily Russians but also Kazakhs and others – sought to invite Afghan Communist feminists to Moscow and Tashkent, to explain to them how Soviet women could give them the ‘gift’ of liberation and progress. The Afghans women’s responses … well, they varied.

The 'new woman' of Afghanistan checks out the 'old woman', circa 1980.

In the talk, I’ll try both to unpack the encounter between Soviet and Afghan women in the 1980s as well as to set this encounter in broader historical and presentist context. I’ll break down the history of indigenous Afghan attempts to make Afghan women modern, how Soviet feminists came to try to engage in a global conversation about women’s rights in the 1970s and 1980s, and what Western intellectuals – whether they speak a language of global human rights or ‘postcolonial mumbo jumbo’ – might learn from their Soviet antecedents’ attempts to address their counterparts across cultural divides.

The talk is going on at 8 PM this Wednesday, May 2 in the Rainolds Room at Corpus Christi College(For more precise directions, see below.) Thanks to the organizational talents of Emma Rix, a fellow student at Corpus who is organizing the MCR-SCR Seminar Series this term, in lieu of the usual sandwiches and juices there will be wine and appropriate evening snacks. Come!

How to get to the Rainolds Room

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