Published: April 1, 2011 By

[1] Soon after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, the abject figure of the burqa-clad woman awaiting freedom was publicized by the State Department as a major justification for the war.  This recycling of a familiar nineteenth-century colonial narrative of saving brown women  was accompanied by the renewed popularity of harem literature and journalistic accounts of oppressed Afghan women, all of which functioned, as Gillian Whitlock puts it in her analysis of life narratives, as “soft weapons” in the war against terror (3).  The mobilization of this rescue paradigm, as well as the witting or unwitting scripting of liberation in Western terms post 9/11 in popular culture, the media, and in liberal women’s groups such as The Feminist Majority, has been critiqued by prominent feminist scholars such as Miriam Cooke, Zillah Eisenstein, Gayatri Spivak, Lila Abu-Lughod, and many others (Cooke, 468-470; Eisenstein, 148-179; Spivak (2003), 50; Abu-Lughod; Cloud; Khan;   Jabbra; Stabile; Ayotte). While I agree with the critiques offered by these scholars, I am skeptical of the implicit assumption of a sharp distinction between a naive, benevolent support of Afghan women in popular culture and the awareness of  feminist imperialism in post third-wave feminist theorizing or in sophisticated cultural works.

[2] As this essay contends, critiques of colonial binaries (such as liberated vs oppressed, modern vs traditional) undergirding colonial politics of representation, expressions of cultural tolerance, and attempts to identity with the Other (here Afghan women) are as commonplace in works of popular culture as in theory, and are, in fact, often accompanied by a consent to neoliberal imperialism variously figured as a celebration of a privatized selfhood, a valorization of freedom as consumption, a veneration of capitalism as freedom, or simply an acceptance of formal or informal occupation.  Furthermore, I argue that the desire to be the Other, to exchange places with the Other, either explicitly stated or evoked in popular women’s writing, feminist literature, or theory related to Afghanistan, often depends upon a strategic distancing from the larger structures of imperialism and a privileging of issues of identity and culture seen as divorced from empire.  Accordingly, the essay seeks to bring to light the erasure of empire in these works and to critically examine moments of cross-cultural identification and tolerance.
Although feminist understanding has long been part of the language of empire (Yeazell, 79), the specific languages of tolerance and empathy I am pointing out reflect the emergence of a far more self-conscious discourse that has emerged from a recognition of the shortcomings of imperial feminism that have been recognized not only in academia but in popular media.   Because rescuing Afghan women has been such a central narrative since 9/11, I will use Afghanistan as a cultural site to tease out the confluence of cross-cultural identification and neoliberal imperialism in a range of genres: journalistic accounts, popular memoirs, critical documentaries, book club literature about Muslim women, websites of humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan, and Eve Ensler’s poetry.  The essay will conclude by examining tentative possibilities for anti-imperialism in the models of feminist subjectivity and agency offered by The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and speculate on the potential of different models of feminist theory to create possibilities for understanding and action.   In particular, I will turn to Judith Butler’s essay, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” which critiques imperial binaries and theorizes a feminist-inspired identitarian subjectivity in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan.  I will suggest that  models of political community such as RAWA’s, growing out of historically specific moments, offer prospects for affiliation which, while contingent, resist some of the lures of appropriation inherent in identification.

[3] An analysis of self-conscious and empathetic feminist discourses is vital at a moment when neoliberal imperialism is aggressively consolidating itself, when cultural tolerance has become part of a common vocabulary, and NGOs and human rights activism are being seen as preeminent sites for enacting social justice.  The point is not simply a criticism of identification per se, although going native, as we know, is a supremely imperial gesture, but also a recognition of  the new forms under which feminist imperialism can remake itself.  At stake is the need to decolonize not just blatantly imperial feminism, which has been under critique since the advent of third wave feminism, but also a neoliberal imperial feminism which uses the languages of egalitarianism, humanitarianism, or even anti-imperialism.

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[4] The emergence of a racially tolerant feminist discourse of empire has been facilitated in the United States through a convergence of multiculturalism and neoliberalism.  As Omi and Winant have argued, the substitution of a rights- based conception of race in the 1960s to ethnicity theory in the 1970s and 1980s meant that issues of systemic racism were replaced by those of adaptation and assimilation (1-2, 16).  Multiculturalism has become so favored a narrative of nation that racism, segregation and exclusion are now seen only as the purview of fringe groups such as Neo-Nazis.  But if we are stuck in either liberal multiculturalism or a politics beyond race we can’t understand how the rhetoric of tolerance and imperialism coexist other than through bad faith–for instance George Bush’s calls for tolerance of Islam generally while authorizing the department of homeland security to arrest thousands of Arab-Americans (Schueller 2009, 135).  Or Laura Bush’s simultaneous acknowledgment in her post 9/11 radio address to the nation, of the gains made by women in most of the Islamic world, alongside her strident acclamation of the military invasion as feminist rescue: “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.”   Here Wendy Brown’s analysis of tolerance both as a technology of governmentality which depoliticizes inequalities as simply individual, and as a civilizational discourse which always puts the West on the side of tolerance is useful (15, 6).  This tolerance, which both George Bush and Barack Obama have touted as a mark of American exceptionalism and appropriated in the service of empire, has also been recruited by feminism today.

[5] Along with multicultural tolerance, which replaced the Civil Rights agenda of  racial justice at home and decolonization abroad, was the ascendancy of neoliberalism.  At the core of neoliberal economic policies of deregulation, privatization, and the dissociation of the state from social good, are ideological values of individualism and self-management, the privatization of people.  As Margaret Thatcher declared, there is “no such thing as society, only individual men and women;” “Economics are the method” she said “but the object is to change the soul” (Harvey, 23).  David Harvey writes, “the neoliberal insistence upon the individual as the foundational element in political-economic life opens the door to individual rights activism. . . .  Neoliberal concern for the individual trumps any social democratic concern for equality, democracy and social solidarities” (176). Such rights include those of expression, dress, work, and the right to private property, all of which can be declared impetuses for military intervention.  And as Naomi Klein has argued, military interventions can create the crisis conditions ripe for the furtherance of the neoliberal agenda of tax cuts, free trade, and privatization (7), bolstered by neo-colonial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank (Stiglitz, 12-13). Neoliberal imperialism thus thrives on crisis to then manage economic and social conditions.  Many human rights organizations, Klein argues, have unwittingly or not, participated in the neoliberal agenda by seeing their subjects as individuals, separate from and unaffected by the violent remaking of their countries along radically capitalist lines. The result has been a human rights language denuded of left critique or the North/South inequities of global capitalism (148, 150) .Since the 1980s, the agenda of human rights has increasingly been taken up by NGOs, privatized institutions set up in lieu of the State to deliver social goods and generally accountable only to their donors.

[6] In an era of neoliberalism, it has been all too easy for a racially and culturally tolerant feminism to be coopted into the neoliberal agenda of privatization and individual rights.  The bloated NGOization of Afghanistan, with 2,300 NGOs employing foreign workers at extravagant salaries, creating enclaves of luxury for them, replete with high-end shopping malls and four star chefs, while providing high cost aid, speaks to a country being reconstructed according to neoliberal economic lines (Herold).  Foreign women’s rights NGOs in Afghanistan are also susceptible to simply colluding with a neoliberal State propped up by forces of occupation.  By their focus on women’s rights alone, apart from other social solidarities and questions of national liberation, such organizations might well be participating in a twenty-first century version of classic nineteenth century imperialism, even as the well-meaning women in these groups are often well aware of the problems of  feminist imperialism.

Empathetic Feminisms: I am Afghan too

[7] In the veritable cottage industry about lives of Afghan women post 9/11, even the crudest of  works deploy a racially tolerant consent to empire, one in which the  Orientalist narrative of saving brown women operates alongside with “they know how to save themselves” and/or  “I need to be saved too.” Let us take a look, for instance, at the enormously popular account, The Bookseller of Kabul (2004), which received accolades from all major newspapers including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.   Norwegian journalist Asne Sierstad, who entered Kabul with the commandos of the Northern alliance in November 2001, literally part of the militarized liberation-occupation of Afghanistan, used her position as Western observer to minutely document the horrors of women’s lives while she spent three months in the household of Sultan Khan, an educated bookseller.  The Bookseller of Kabul (which was on the New York Times bestseller list, published in English translation in the U.S. and widely reviewed in the country) appeals to the Western reader’s desire to vicariously experience the stifling patriarchy of an Afghan household. There is the autocratic father and his two sequestered wives, the second child-wife who “wants nothing more than to sit at home, with few visits to or from relatives, a new dress from time to time,” and the virtually enslaved women of the extended family (185-86). Yet even in this formulaic narrative, the narrator often relinquishes the position of liberated observer, acknowledging her use of the burqa to gaze to her heart’s content without being stared at, or as precaution while traveling.  She presents Afghan women as victims of misogyny, little more than “objects to be bartered and sold” but also agents who “in song and poem” have “testified about their lives” (38).  Sultan’s stifling household does manage to produce its rebellious women: Leila, Sultan’s niece, needs no prodding to attempt to escape the house.  And seemingly oppressive traditions like arranged marriage sometimes harbor unexpected freedoms: Shakila is married off to an older man with a family, but her husband is progressive and facilitates her returning to work as a biology teacher. She finds liberation not by abandoning “outmoded” traditions, but through her arranged marriage.

[8] In other popular memoirs, the cultural work of manufacturing consent to empire is done by appealing to a surprisingly sophisticated cultural consciousness.  A particularly interesting work is the salacious memoir,Kabul Beauty School (2007), written by hairdresser Deborah Turner under the name Rodriguez.  “Crazy Deb”, an adventurous hairdresser from Holland, Michigan, having tried her hand at music, religion, and work as a prison guard, finds pleasure in humanitarian projects for the third world.  A mother of two, married to a jealous and abusive preacher, Deb tells us about her travels to Kabul as part of an NGO, Care for All Foundation, and her recruitment of tough American expat, Mary MacMakin, to help open a beauty school (not admitting, of course, that Mary MacMakin started the school (Bose 2009))  to help professionally train women to earn livelihoods in post-Taliban Afghanistan.  In the process she befriends her students, provides a safe haven for abused women, marries an Afghan man, participates in local festivities, and graduates two classes of Afghan hairdressers.

[9] In an analysis of the use of the discourse of freedom in justifying US militarism, Kelly Oliver quite rightly argues that “(T)he rhetoric of liberating women elsewhere conceals women’s oppression here at home while at the same time reassuring us that we are liberated” (47).  But even a potboiler like Kabul Beauty School, which was #10 on the New York Times bestseller list, and which has over a hundred reviews on Amazon, runs afoul this logic of feminist imperialism.  No doubt the memoir is sensational and voyeuristic, beginning with an account of a woman’s pubic waxing prior to a wedding: “We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband” (5).  Yet, this crude memoir also builds sympathy for Afghan women by doing the work of third-wave feminism. Turner  bonds with Afghan women in the counterpublic space of the beauty parlor, ruminating about the similarities of her life in Holland, Michigan, with an abusive husband and those of Afghan women under the Taliban.  “I read book after book about Afghanistan and I felt like I was leading a life that was nearly as contained as those of women there” (64-65).  She goes to Kabul to aid oppressed women, but Afghan women help her regain self confidence.  She writes, it is they, “the brave women of Afghanistan” who inspire her to leave her own marriage; she owes her freedom to them (108).  Questions for book club readers are fashioned to appeal to conscious, liberal, smart readers: “We so often think of ourselves as more socially advanced than Middle Eastern nations.  What does it say about this assumption that the author’s American preacher husband treated her in much the same way that a Taliban member treated his wife, Nahida, in Afghanistan?”

[10] Yet both the  memoir and the book club marketing appeal to a privatized notion of the self in which the liberal white woman can experience a subjective identification with Afghan women without attention to the very different positions the women inhabit.  The “lives” of Afghan women, in fact, were literally for sale. Turner wrote the book after receiving an $80,000 advance from Random House and offered students money to leave Afghanistan in exchange for their stories of forcible marriages at age fourteen, faked virginity, etc.  None of the students actually received the money and soon after the publication of the book, women with armed guards burst into the beauty school and threatened the workers. Some of the beauticians fled the country while others continue to live in fear (Nelson).  Yet in both the book and the paratext, the occupation of Afghanistan, which facilitates the purchase of life-stories, is simply taken for granted. The beauty academy functions as a humanitarian project through the NGO, Beauty Without Borders, which recalls Doctors Without Borders, while the Women’s Ministry in Kabul is simply a bureaucratic hurdle obstructing the free circulation of goods and ideas.

[11] Aihwa Ong sees neoliberalism as a form of governmentality in which policies augmenting the retreat of the State are accompanied by “a proliferation of techniques to remake the social and citizen-subjects” (14).  For neoliberal subjects, freedom, following the values of the market, is the right to be a consumer and consumer logic defines what it means to be free.  Hence the idea of the student as a consumer with rights to be delivered the goods she wants; the citizen as consumer demanding leaner government; the patient as consumer and so on. Feminism in the age of neoliberalism is similarly figured as the right to consume, and a common means of experiencing freedom for Western and Afghan women.  As Kelly Oliver puts it, “the freedom that we are bringing to these women is figured as the freedom to shop, which suggests that the American notion of freedom offered to the rest of the world through war can be reduced to the freedom of the market”(5). In an interview appended to Kabul Beauty School, Turner expresses this idea crudely: “Unlike in the United States, where we have many avenues to make ourselves as beautiful as we can afford (cosmetic surgeries, Botox, hair extensions), in Afghanistan you get what you get”(295).

 The Voices of Women in Afghanistan

Figure 1: Consumer goods in Post-Taliban Afghanistan Harriet Logan Unveiled: The Voices of Women in Afghanistan (New York: Harper Collins, 2002)

[12] Freedom as consumption finds its way in the unlikeliest of spaces.  Harriet Logan’sUnveiled: The Voices of Women in Afghanistan (2002), the work of a British journalist but published in the U.S., is a photojournalistic account of Afghan women during and after the Taliban rule.  Although the title and the cover of a woman looking through the mesh of a burqa accede to the colonial fantasy of unveiling superbly described by Frantz Fanon and Malek Alloula, most of the book questions the imperialism inherent in getting the subaltern to speak as it were.  In the photographs in the book, women look at, away, or in apparent indifference to the camera.  Their postures, clothing, affect and narratives are heterogenous: they are wistful, exuberant, or sad; covered, partly covered, uncovered; cooking, singing, walking, sitting, or reading. Some are grateful to the American troops for ousting the Taliban while others temper their relief at the Taliban’s ouster with resentment at the destruction caused by the U.S. bombings.  Palwasha states, “If I could, I would kill the Taliban and bin Laden.  No one was angry at America.  We wanted their help.  But after some days, when they hit people’s homes, we felt angry, because none of this was our fault” (83).   The book emphasizes the heterogeneity of Afghan women and gives voice to the ambivalence about the U.S. invasion despite the condemnation of the Taliban Yet the first page of the book, celebrating the freedom to unveil in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is also an uncritical celebration of freedom as consumption and commodification.  (See Fig 1).  Both the blurbs at the bottom of the page comment on the restrictions of the Taliban and the freedom after 2001, and direct our attention to the unveiled faces on the soap bars as well as to the unveiled faces of Hollywood and Bollywood actresses.  The display of soap bars and posters as freedom defines freedom as the ability to buy the expensive Nancy beauty soap, the Malaysian Eve soap, a coy poster of the sultry Kate Winslet, or the more exposed picture of Bollywood actress, Mamta Kulkarni, who gained fame after posing topless for the Indian film magazine, Stardust. The entry into modernity after the fall of the Taliban is signified by consumer practices which Logan represents through the unveiling of products (See McLarney, 4).  It also suggests that women’s freedom is the freedom to commodify by revealing as much of the body in public, a freedom that as Lila Abu-Lughod suggests, disciplines even if it liberates (13).

[13] A far more indirect consent to empire is evident in Liz Mermin’s critical documentary about the Kabul beauty school called The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004).  Mermin familiarized herself with the hairdressers in New York and then in an initial trip to Kabul and returned in 2004 to document the first session of the school in its entirety.  Unlike the works discussed thus far, the documentary is the product of a director well schooled in third-wave feminism and the colonial politics of representation.  She writes, “The dangers of presuming to represent foreign cultures have been hammered deeply into my brain (I was almost an anthropologist), but I found the story irresistible. . . .  Our standard vision of Afghan women – oppressed, hidden, tormented – isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s terribly narrow” (Mermin, “Director’s Statement”).  The documentary is self-conscious, critical, and demonstrates its sensitivity to feminist imperialism by including hilarious scenes of American hairdressers who undertake the task of bringing Afghanistan into modernity through Western beauty training.  In a compelling analysis of the documentary, Purnima Bose suggests that Mermin “eschews a heavy-handed approach” and offers “a subtle critique of feminist neo-imperialist individualism by including scenes in the film which showcase challenges to the white instructors by their Afghan-American colleagues and American students” (2010, 9). She also sees  Mermin’s footage of home beauty salons as testament to longstanding (and different) beauty practices of Afghan women (2010, 35). While I agree with Bose that the documentary does critique a feminist imperialism based on a valorization of Western   individualism (masquerading as universal), I don’t see this critique necessarily undermining a consent to occupation or neoliberal imperialism.  Indeed, thematized critiques of imperialism are often integral to narratives that are thoroughly imperial–from Cooper’s leatherstocking novels to Costner’s Dances with Wolves to Cameron’s Avatar.  And in the era of multiculturalism, it is all the more necessary to decolonize the anti-imperial imaginary (See Dawson).  

[14] In The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Mermin includes exaggerated South Park-like scenes of American do-gooders like Debbie Turner who undertake the burden of liberating Afghanistan through the art of makeup.  A caricature of Fabian chronopolitics in action, where the present belongs to the West, Debbie lectures the students: “It is your job as hairdressers, the most trendy and educated hairdressers in Afghanistan to set the trend for new hairstyles. . . .  It is your responsibility.  You’re the first class.  If you guys don’t do it, how can Afghanistan change and get into a more modern type look” How can Afghanistan change if you guys don’t change?”  And when some women disagree with Debbie about the importance of wearing makeup she hollers, “You’re stuck in a rut.  You’re stuck in a whole of the past that you can’t get out of and my god before I leave here you’re getting out of the hole” (Mermin 2004). Contrary to what Purnima Bose argues, there is nothing subtle in the critique of white American feminism here.  Smart viewers are invited to laugh at and disidentify with Debbie, the ugly American, who stands in for misguided feminist imperialism.  As viewers we cringe with embarrassment at her  display of American arrogance. And yet this self consciousness is part of a contemporary, multiculturally sensitive, anti-imperial consent to occupation, one also evident in the talking heads of Fox news or in the diatribes of Rush Limbaugh.

[15] Debbie represents an American presence we can disidentify with–as we can other hairdressers who patronizingly probe into their students’ lives– but the project of the beauty school and the enthusiasm of the students for this American venture scripts the occupation of Afghanistan as benevolent humanitarianism and NGOs as saviors.  Tellingly, none of the Afghan students are critical of the U.S. led invasion.  For instance, Hanifa comments, “We’re happy the Americans took Afghanistan and the Taliban left.  We couldn’t wear nail polish” (Mermin 2004 ).  The narrative thus invites American women to identity with Afghan women and their perseverance, while dissociating themselves from the imperialism that is being enacted in the name of feminism.  As stylist Terri Grauel, echoing Bush administration rhetoric about the invasion of Afghanistan put it, “Beauty without Borders” was born to spread democracy in Afghanistan, “one head at a time” (cited in “Waging Peace”).  At the same time, through its extra-diegetic sound, the upbeat music of the beauty parlor in contrast to the plaintive music of the streets outside, the documentary functions as an uncritical endorsement of the beauty parlor as empowering Afghan women.  Although the opportunity for hairdressers to become breadwinners cannot be slighted, the politics of the current situation cannot be ignored. In contemporary Afghanistan, erstwhile doctors and teachers who were forced to work as beauticians under the Taliban because it enabled them to work from the home, continue the work because under the conditions of an Afghanistan reconstructed under neoliberal principles, a beautician’s income is better than a government teacher’s or doctor’s (See Ali).

[16] Interestingly, the montage footage of Afghan history that the documentary begins with,  allows an erasure of the bombing and occupation of Afghanistan post 9/11, an effacement in keeping with the modus operandus of the hugely popular bestseller, The Kite Runner. The documentary opens with footage from the Kabul of the 1970s with its beauty pageants and disco dancing and moves on to the coup of 1979, the Soviet invasion, the formation of the Mujahudeen, the Soviet withdrawal, the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1992 and the Taliban takeover in 1996 signaled by pictures of burqa clad women.  From there the film jumps to the present of the beauty academy.  Like Harriet Logan’s photojournalism, Mermin’s film foregrounds the contrast between the modernity of 70s Kabul and the backwardness of Taliban rule, with the beauty school in a suspended, depoliticized present.  In a telling Q and A available in the DVD paratext of the documentary, Mermin explains her decision to avoid all reference to the US invasion as follows: “ . . . the fact is that this is the first time in a long time that there haven’t been bombs falling on that city. . . .  And the invasion was pretty quick.  People I think conflate Afghanistan and Iraq.  They’re completely different situations.  There isn’t the same kind of resentment. . . .  .  people feel like they were invaded and invaded and they’re more worried about being left to the mercy of warring factions . . . more worried about what would happen if there was no security there . . . .  Surprisingly it was a comfortable place to be an American” (Mermin).  Mermin left for Kabul shortly after making an anniversary special about the World Trade Center, the iconic site for the war on terror, to construct a documentary partly legitimating the invasion through its very forgetting.  Mermin’s answer normalizes the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan as part of an apparatus of security, necessary for curing the insecurity of Afghans.  Afghanistan arouses no feelings of  complicity, ambivalence, or traveler displacement in Mermin; instead it is a place where she simply feels comfortable as American.  It is this same normalization that motivated Rosemary Stasek, former mayor of Mountain View, California, to move to Kabul and declare herself “a true Kabuli,” while simultaneously, as logistics manager of the beauty academy, helping it “become a model of a professional Western work environment” (Stasek June 2005, Feb 2005).   On first visiting Kabul in 2002, Stasek writes, “I was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling of belonging.  This was a place I was supposed to be” (Stasek December 2005).

[17] Perhaps the strongest expression of identification with Afghan women was made by playwright and performance artist, Eve Ensler in “Under the Burqa,” a section added to The Vagina Monologues in 2001 and reproduced in the reprinting of the Vagina Monologues in the 2006 collection, Insecure at Last.  Ensler had traveled to Afghanistan in 1999 to see firsthand the brutalities  of the Taliban, accompanied by Freshta, a reporter for RAWA.  Subsequently, Ensler publicized the cause of RAWA, facilitating the V-Day Fund to help the organization run its clandestine schools (2001, xxxiv ).  In the poem the burqa becomes a metaphor for brute repression.  We are challenged to recognize the Afghan woman’s suffering as our own as we imagine the heat, suffocation, darkness and helplessness of a woman wearing a burqa while being beaten or witnessing the murder of her husband. The end of the poem breaks the barriers between self and other, subject and object, West and East, liberated and oppressed:

Imagine me inside the inside
Of the darkness in you . . .
inside the cloth
that is your head
inside the dark we share.

Imagine you can see me
I was beautiful once
Big dark eyes.

You would know me (2006, 40)

The woman under the burqa isn’t the object of Western feminist benevolence, separated from the self-individuated Western subject but rather an active agent who challenges women to recognize their common oppression.  We are all “under the burqa..” Although earlier in the poem Afghanistan’s distance from modernity is represented through traditional signifiers of Islamic backwardness such as arranged marriages, calls to prayer, and bearded men, the ending breaches this time-lag.  Yet it is not so much the hermeneutics of the poem as its continuation as part of the Vagina Monologues and its circulation that facilitate its functioning as the feminist justification for war.

[18] The monologues, if naive in a French feminist fashion of celebrating a pre-discursive embodiment and sexuality, are illustrations of Cixous’ exhortation, “Write your self.  Your body must be heard” (250). Ensler attempts to empower women by taking control of representations of the vagina, securing it as signifier of women’s subjectivity.  Each monologue is based on a “vagina interview” with one or two women and often includes verbatim phrases from the interview.  Even the monologue based on the story of a Bosnian woman refugee is titled “My Vagina Was My Village.” But in “Under the Burqa,” the vagina inexplicably disappears as if to suggest that issues of empowerment,  sexuality and the body are alien for Afghan women whose culture is Islamic (read: intolerant) and promulgates arranged marriages (read: backward).  It is also the only monologue not based on an interview, not marked as resulting from conversation with specific women but rather a representation of a composite of all Afghan women (Hall, 116). Thus despite the fluid boundaries of Self and Other, the structural elements of the colonial rescue fantasy of oppressed women are put into place.  In Ensler’s 2006 collection of essays and poems, Insecure at Last, “Under the Burqa” is preceded with a chapter titled “Almost Flogged,” detailing Ensler’s visit to Afghanistan and the horrors of life under the Taliban.  But nowhere in the chapter is there any mention of current U.S. involvement in Afghanistan or the role of the U.S. in supporting fundamentalist mujahudeen during the Soviet occupation.

[19] Given this strategic dehistoricization it is not surprising that “Under the Burqa” was a prelude to Oprah’s staged unveiling of Zoya, a representative of RAWA, at Madison Square Gardens  in Feb 2001. As Zoya describes it,

When the time came for me to go on stage, after Oprah Winfrey had read . . . “Under the Burqa,” all the lights went off save for one that was aimed directly at me.  I had been asked to wear my burqa, and the lights streamed in through the mesh in front of my face and brought tears to my eyes. . . .  I was to walk as slowly as possible. . . . I had to climb some steps, but because of the burqa and the tears in my eyes, which wet the fabric and made it cling to my skin, I had to be helped up the stairs.
Slowly, very slowly, Oprah lifted the burqa off me
and let it fall to the stage
(Zoya, 211).

In this extravaganza, which reminds us of the French colonial investment in unveiling, so powerfully described by Fanon in “Algeria Unveiled,” the V-Day crowd was treated to a spectacle of the helpless, oppressed woman, assisted and liberated by U.S. feminist benevolence and RAWA was allowed voice only by participating in a ritual of being saved.  As Gillian Whitlock points out, in this carefully staged event, Zoya became “part of the spectacle of a public unveiling through consent,” a prelude to the unveilings broadcast by Allied troops when they entered Kabul later that year (52).  This consent was bolstered not only by popular media but also by Left publications such as The Nation in which an exhilarated Margaret Spillane reported Zoya’s unveiling thus: “the most arresting image was that of an Afghan woman, obliterated by her burqa, moving like a silent, anonymous hill of cloth toward the stage.  When the cloth was lifted, a young woman emerged, dressed in the casual jacket-and-pants outfit that would blend in on any university campus in the world, but that her own country’s Taliban movement would deem reason enough to beat her to death on the spot” (6 ).   For Spillane, Zoya goes from being incomprehensible object (the “silent, anonymous hill of cloth”) to a subject readily comprehensible within a Western sign system.  In the transformation from archaism to modernity, objecthood to subjecthood, enacted by Zoya’s unveiling and facilitated by “Under the Burqa,” the dehistoricized politics of empathy in Ensler’s poem comes full circle.

[20] The mobilization of cross-cultural empathy in the marketing of books about Muslim women is evident in the most cliched of Orientalist works such as Jean Sasson’s – The Rape of Kuwait andPrincess Sultana’s Daughters, all of which have the ubiquitous faces of veiled women on the book covers.  Yet even in the marketing of these stereotypical bestsellers about veiled women, there is an appeal to an enlightened multiculturalism.  In Mayada, Daughter of Iraq: One Woman’s Survival Under Saddam Hussein, (2004) a question for book club readers asks “Compare the methods and process for arrest and arraignment between your culture and that of Mayada.  In what way are they different? Are there any similarities?” (322)  If we shift to a more highbrow work, a memoir like Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which the narrative appeal is party that of unveiling, there is a similar appeal to book club readers: “Discuss how the experience of censorship, fundamentalism and human rights, as well as the enjoyment of works of imagination and the desire for individual freedoms, may be similar in totalitarian societies and in democracies such as ours” (353).  I have described this appeal as multicultural  rather than transnational because the call for understanding does not demand destabilizing ideas of American (or Western) uniqueness embodied in its  freedom, acceptance of cultural difference, and democracy. Indeed it is paradoxically because of America’s exceptional freedom, and its commitment to diversity both at home and abroad, that American women have the ability to connect themselves to the ostensibly abject women of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.  Even young reader’s editions of enormously popular works like Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea,the cover of which shows two young girls reading, includes a section on research activities which involves students discussing similarities between Pakistani and Afghan cultures and Western customs.  The empathetic appeal of these works is not a dumbing down but a smartening up.

[21] The seemingly post-imperial moment is thus one in which expressions of cross-cultural tolerance have become central to the construction of a free, neoliberal subjecthood, evident also in NGOs and human rights activism, which tacitly assent to imperialism and a state of continual war in the name of democracy and peace (See Deer 5 for the idea of permanent war).  Humanitarian, Greg Mortenson is a good illustration of this.  Although Mortensen states that the long-term education of women, rather than a military fix, is the solution for Afghanistan, in Three Cups of Tea he never questions the agenda of the “war on terror” and in his acknowledgments to the book, thanks “the peacemakers, and people serving in the military around the world, who also dedicate their lives to peace” (x). Mortensen, who has now become an informal advisor to the military in its counterinsurgency operations, was  nominated by members of the U.S. Congress for the Nobel Peace prize in 2009 (Bumiller).  Mortensen’s position illustrates the continuity of nineteenth century imperialism and neoliberal human rights and some women’s rights activism today.  Women’s education in Afghanistan being used as a tactical counterinsurgency strategy compels us to subject human rights organizations to closer scrutiny.  Omar Dahbour argues that J.S. Mill’s view of empires as temporary institutions designed to uplift backward peoples functions in contemporary liberal imperialism, in which while imperialism and colonialism are viewed as illegitimate because undemocratic, a temporary hegemonic empire might be viewed “as a means, under certain conditions, of creating a liberal society when such a society does not exist in a given country (i.e., one ruled by an oppressive and/dictatorial regime)” (110).  Today, Dahbour suggests, values of liberalism such as personal liberty, private property, and religious toleration have been folded into those of human rights and human rights organizations which, tacitly or otherwise, often support militarization and war as a means of securing these rights (115).

[22] Thus far, I have argued that both popular and sophisticated cultural productions about Afghanistan, many of which tout tolerance and empathetic identification, and are self-conscious about an imperial feminism, problematically collude with a neoliberal agenda by appealing to  privatized ideas of freedom and consumption dissociated from larger structures of imperialism, or to an uplift ideology updated for the present.  Following the trend of much human rights discourse, this feminism has largely distanced itself from a critique of occupation.  I turn now to the possibilities for transnational feminist understanding provided by an indigenous group–the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a vehemently anticolonial group which insists on its particularity, but is not entirely immune to the lures of identitarianism; finally I examine the potential of different models of feminist theory, focusing especially on Judith Butler’s essay, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” written in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, and which, despite its critique of occupation, problematically buys into an identitarian feminist liberalism.  I pay particular attention to Butler’s essay because her theorizing about gender as performative and her interrogation of a prior, unmarked category of sex onto which gender is culturally imposed, have been highly influential in challenging liberal feminism.

The Difference of RAWA

[23] No indigenous Afghan women’s organization has made more evident the problems of an empathetic neoliberal feminism–whether functioning through major feminist organizations or NGOs–than RAWA.  Begun in 1977 as an organization of Aghan women’s rights, RAWA soon expanded its focus to work with refugees in Peshawar and began to run underground schools for children and started a bilingual magazine,Payam-e-Zan (Woman’s Message).  Today RAWA runs hundreds of schools, a hospital, clinics, orphanages, and is supported by progressive men and women in Afghanistan.  Obviously RAWA is not the only indigenous feminist organization in Afghanistan.  It is, however, the largest and longest running of Afghan women’s organizations today and is comprised of a volunteer base.  Although RAWA’s founder, Meena, was educated and privileged, as are many of its spokespersons, its membership includes large numbers of adult women with little formal education (Brodsky, 190).Yet the lack of recognition afforded RAWA by  NGOs working for Afghan women, as well as by major feminist organizations, points to a fundamental cleavage between liberal, multicultural feminism and anticolonial feminism.

[24] Whereas models of intersectionality introduced after third wave feminism made the race, class, gender mantra almost cliched, and feminists like Gayatri Spivak, Chandra Mohanty and Leila Ahmed critiqued the imperial gaze of much of Western feminism, the inseparability of women’s and national struggles, although given voice by Fanon in the context of Algerian liberation, is just beginning to be theorized (see Herr, Hassoo, Kim and West) because the focus of much postcolonial feminism was a critique of the gendered nature of nationalism.  (Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather was a classic example).   Yet, just as Alice Walker’s term “womanist” reflected the raced and gendered  concerns of African American women, RAWA’s agenda is feminist, anti-colonial, and nationalist (valorizing revolutionary rather than hegemonic nationalism). One of RAWA’s guiding aims, as stated in its charter, is that women’s emancipation “cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole” while another includes “support for other popular freedom and women’s movements worldwide” (Brodsky, 169).  Their website,,  includes posters such as “Afghan Women Can’t be Enslaved” as well as CDs of patriotic songs; a song sung by students of one of the Watan schools, and posted on their website, is “We Vow Oh Homeland” while a song sung at a RAWA function called “Arise Oh Women” calls on women to revolt “In the name of Afghan dignity.” Similarly, when RAWA posted a statement on the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, it was provocatively titled, “Neither the US nor Jehadies and Taliban, Long Live the Struggle of Independent and Democratic Forces of Afghanistan.” Zoya, a former student of a RAWA school, a lawyer, and spokesperson for RAWA’s foreign committee is clear about RAWA’s position against the “fundamentalist warlords”propped up by occupation forces and insists on withdrawal as the first step toward freedom (Rassbach).

[25] On the other hand, the politics of multiculturalism have meant that liberal feminism,   despite its awareness of cultural imperialism, has been unwilling to critique the politics of Afghan occupation where Northern Alliance men who committed crimes against women during Rabbani’s 1992-1996 regime, have been put into positions of power (Women Call Warlords…) As Sonali Kolhatkar, Vice-President of the Afghan Women’s Mission suggests, the Feminist Majority prefers to promote its campaign by selling squares of mesh, symbolizing the mesh through which burqa-clad women look outside, rather than celebrating the resistance of Afghan women through organizations like RAWA. (Kolhatkar, 34).  Speaking on behalf of the Feminist Majority Foundation and its Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, Eleanor Smeal for instance, condemned the Taliban, documented the success of global women’s movements, and cited the appointment of Dr Sima Samar as proof of the continued victory for Afghan women (Smeal). Nowhere in this trajectory of progress is there any mention of occupation or the entrenching of fundamentalists in positions of power or even the compromises made by women like Dr Samar to attain a position of power. RAWA, on the other hand, has been clear in its condemnation of Samar’s appointment, seeing Samar in cahoots with warlords of the Northern Alliance (Enloe 168).  Referring to RAWA’s condemnation of Dr Samar’s appointment, Zillah Eisenstein suggests the importance of recognizing the differences within feminist politics in Afghanistan.  She writes, “Feminist politics in Afghanistan is sophisticated enough to suffer the divisive differences that are part of any process of reform” (168).   Even works that emphatically refuse to use the burqa as signifier and attempt to represent the diversity of urban Afghan women, assent to empire.  Katherine Kiviat and Scott Heidler’s photo-ethnography, Women of Courage (2007), for instance, is explicitly designed to counter images of Afghan women as homebound, burqa-clad, or oppressed.  It includes interviews with Afghan women filmmakers, pilots, police officers, journalists, music TV hosts and athletes.  However, the introduction to the book runs as follows:  “We all remember those stomach-turning television news images of Afghan women wearing robin’s egg blue, all covering burkas. . . .  These images were then countered in late 2001 by those of . . . little girls wearing crisp new uniforms streaming into classrooms. . . .  All this because of the quick overthrow of the Taliban just months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001” (ix). The diverse occupations of Afghan women are thus scripted as advances made possible by the U.S. invasion.  A RAWA document of 2002 stated, “Majority of them [NGOs] sum up their non-political nature by insulting RAWA or not working with it or not speaking against “Northern Alliance,” although they do not want anyone to put finger on their direct or indirect contact with fundamentalists as a sign of their political nature” (“RAWA’S Answer to Nay Thupkaew”).

[26] At the same time, NGOs functioning through a supposedly apolitical stance, offer tacit support to, and function in tandem with the Northern Alliance leadership by not speaking against the Northern Alliance (“RAWA’S Answer…”).  As RAWA worker, Mariam, put it, “The NGO is a good tool to divert people and especially intellectuals from struggle against occupation” (Podur).   NGOs like The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, in operation since 2002, advertise themselves as saviors of Afghan women, without so much a nod to the work of RAWA or to the occupation of Afghanistan.  A flier for The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women reads: “Paula Nirschel founded the initiative in 2002 after learning how Afghan women were kept hidden and denied education for the seven years of the Taliban’s reign over Afghanistan.  Determined to make a difference, Paula started the program to offer education to some of the country’s highly motivated young women” (“Initiative to Educate..”).  RAWA also goes entirely unmentioned in Ann Jones’sKabul in Winter (2006), an otherwise trenchant expose of NGO corruption, and which contains an entire section on education including Jones’ own work with the NGO, Madar, training high school English teachers.  On the other hand, Left intellectuals like Michael Parenti appear irritated by the intransigency of RAWA’s firm stance against all occupation, including that of the Soviets (Kolhatkar, p. 36).

[27] Yet while RAWA’s spokespersons and activists are eloquent in publicizing their cause, Western journalists have been frustrated by the unwillingness of these women to answer questions related to their personal lives, even in ways that could protect their identities, and therefore harassment from local authorities.  For instance, when Tameena went on a lecture tour in the U.S. in 2001, it took journalists three different interviews to get Tameena to talk about the details of her own life (Benard, 235). Such reluctance to talk about their private lives, however, is not reticence but rather a conscious commitment to, and prioritization of community.  RAWA workers Sanouber and Karima expressed the importance of community thus: “Nowadays at RAWA everyone has the consciousness that no one is living here for personal life, all are together for one goal.  What RAWA teaches woman and all people is to put others first. . . .” (Brodsky, 263).  Such expressions of belonging to a politically defined community, both national and transnational, are at odds with ideas about individual agency which enable the privatized, acontextual expressions of cross-cultural identification characteristic of a seemingly progressive feminism today.

[28] This is not to suggest that RAWA discourages the empowerment and autonomy of its members.  On the contrary, its educational programs are designed to make women independent, and newer members are quickly encouraged to take on more responsibility (Benard, 233).  However, the empowerment and initiative encouraged by RAWA, within the specific conditions of fundamentalist oppression and foreign occupation, are geared toward creating a community of women who can free the nation.  Perhaps the clearest expression of a derecognition of liberal individualism, and an investment in a self rooted in a revolutionary community, is in RAWA founder, Meena’s poem, “I’ll Never Return” in which the “I” is part of all awakened Afghan women: “I’m the woman who has awoken/I’ve arisen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burned children. . . . Oh compatriot, no longer regard me as weak or incapable” (Meena).  The “I” is implicated in traumatic memories of violence and relates to the world through these collective memories which strengthen it.  Thus, paradoxically, as Gillian Whitlock argues, it is RAWA’s “resistance to the cult of the individual” that lead members to venerate their founder, Meena, as martyr to a cause (rather than, presumably, an individual with a vision) (66).

[29] RAWA’s activities, mission statements, and forums are imbued with specific, affective, material, and political histories which make clear the inseparability of the politics of feminism and national liberation for countries under occupation.  They encourage a wider feminist solidarity by appealing to distinct constituencies through the particularity of their position as anti-fundamentalist, anti-imperialist, and nationalist rather than to questions of identity.  On the other hand, RAWA’s online attempts to advertise  their global support are problematically identity based and encourage an easy exchange of subject positions.  On its website RAWA posts a number of poems, including those by American women fantasizing about or writing about the experience of wearing a burqa.  “After trying on the burqa,” Lydia Brackett declares, “I was moved to write the following poem” titled “How Would It Feel” (Brackett). RAWA not only puts up the poems but also prints them in their brochures and refer appreciatively to them (See also Benard, 222).  Despite the fact that these poems are written in appreciation for RAWA, presumably by women who have some knowledge about the complexities of RAWA’s position, they suggest an easy  transference of identity that skirts the messiness of material histories.  My point is not that such identifications with veiling are misplaced because they represent unilateral projections by American women–Afghan women might well identify with and project on American women–but that it matters what kind of identifications are possible and under what conditions.  Deborah Turner, for instance, can identify with the oppressions of Afghan women and thus find courage to end her own marriage, but the unequal relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan ensure that Deborah is not likely to ever identify with the “freedom” of Afghan women although the reverse is very likely.

[30] The existence of an ahistorical and acontextual identification, even if only an inconsequential part, for an organization so rooted in  the material and political realities of occupation and neocolonialism points out the problematic attraction of the gesture of identification, even as RAWA’s larger politics disallow the gesture.  In the final part of this essay, I want to examine the adequacy of  identitarian feminist politics as a way of forging  transnational connections by examining “Violence, Mourning, Politics,”a central chapter in Judith Butler’sPrecarious Life, written in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, in which she attempts to theorize a feminist-derived ethics of interdependence as the basis for a world without violence or the perpetual fear of violence which has engendered “an open future of infinite war in the name of a ‘war on terrorism’” (28).

We Are All Precarious (Female) Subjects

[31] For Judith Butler, as for many intellectuals, 9/11 demanded a theorizing for a viable politics.  Butler saw a nation confronted with its own vulnerability and attempted to articulate a positive ontology emanating from this sense of loss rather than one based on “violent acts of sovereignty” (xii).  In the central chapter titled “Violence, Mourning, Politics” Butler theorizes a subjectivity appropriate to 9/11 through the idea of vulnerability.  Brilliant and bold, the chapter analogizes the functioning of individual subjectivity with that of the nation as subject and attempts to formulate an ethics and possibility for community on the basis of loss, vulnerability, and dependency as alternatives to the post 9/11 mood of narcissistic melancholia and retaliation against a defined Other which can only lead to violence.  In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. instated a “violent and self-centered subject” that denied its own vulnerability and perversely justified its military attempts to shore up this sense of violent wholeness in the name of the feminist rescue of Afghan women.  However, instead of simply stopping at critique, as does much of third-wave feminism, Butler refuses to accede to the idea of feminism being hijacked as a colonial project and resolves to use the “resources of feminist theory and activism” to reimagine alliance and relation in a “counterimperialist egalitarianism” (42). This is surely a laudatory effort, one that has also been attempted, albeit in cavalier fashion as I have shown, in popular cultural works as well. The problem arises when moves toward counterimperialist egalitarianism are made through dissolving the differences of specific material and affective histories.  Butler’s essay performs a delicate dance between sporadic recognitions of difference and attempts to override these in the name of a new, if slightly circumscribed, humanism.

[32] Butler argues for a repudiation of the sovereign subject, based on postmodernist and feminist ideas of the relational self, as well as on philosophical theorizations on recognition, and emphasizes the importance of apprehending a “common human vulnerability” as the basis for a new community (30).  A feminist conception of the self in which bodily vulnerability is protected, without being subjectively eradicated, is particularly useful for the current moment (42).  Because we have all suffered losses and because our sense of self is always dependent upon some Other, a nurturing of this sense of incompletion/vulnerability can build a politics in which we can forge bonds with, rather than simply demonize the Other.  These bonds can then be the basis for progressive political action based on an intersubjective empathy rather than violence. Yet Butler argues that a common vulnerability does not necessarily imply a new basis for humanism because vulnerability is dependent upon norms of recognition.

[33] Commenting on Hegelian recognition, Butler writes, “we are not separate identities in the struggle for recognition but are already involved in a reciprocal exchange, an exchange that dislocates us from our positions, our subject-positions, and allows us to see that community itself requires the recognition that we are all, in different ways, striving for recognition” (44).  To solicit recognition is to emphasize bonds with the Other instead of a violent and violence-causing separation. Butler further suggests that recognition involves more than simply validation but rather an opportunity for growth.  In envisioning a liberatory potential in the possibilities of Hegelian recognition, Butler follows a line of scholars like Alexandre Kojeve and Charles Taylor who have seen Hegel’s theorization of recognition through the dialectic of the lord and bondsman inThe Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) as a productive challenge to ideas of dominance and an articulation of the possibilities of progressive human relations (Kojeve, 8; Taylor 241).  But if a radical human vulnerability, dependent upon recognition, is to be posited as the basis for a tranformative ethical encounter, it is important to again ask whether this valorization of recognition does not, in fact, depend on the erasure of unevenness that has been the basis for a West-centered humanism, and as Kelly Oliver argues, of the fact that the struggle for recognition is a “by-product of colonial violence” (158). Does this common humanism not function as a fetish which enables the critical filmmaker, the memoirist, the theorist or the book club reader to displace the potentially disruptive contradictions of the violence of recognition, onto a safer and more palatable notion of similarity? Does this similarity, in turn, not offer a position that can be easily assimilated within the politics of multicultural imperialism?

[34] In Black Skin White Masks, Fanon radically reformulated both Hegel and Lacan by rethinking the concept of recognition from the perspective of the colonized and raced Other.  Fanon argued that instead of a basic split at the heart of subjectivity, as theorized by Lacan, there is a fundamental difference for the black person who finds negative social value through the white colonist who acts as a social mirror.   “Dirty Nigger!” Or simply, “Look, a Negro!” … Sealed into that crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others. . . But just as I reached the other side, I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the Other fixed me there…”(109). For the black person, Fanon suggests, an apprehension of vulnerability and loss leads not to an enlightened subjectivity but rather to an objecthood because the dominant culture denies him human recognition.  Butler argues that because recognition is both performative and a precondition to being human, her positing of a vulnerability based on recognition does not create a new humanism.  However, recognition for her is central to being human because “we need and want those norms (of recognition) to be in place. . . we values their continuing and expanded operation” (43). But for the black person, as Fanon suggested, it is precisely these norms of recognition that dehumanize.

[35]Butler is well aware of the risks in postulating a common human vulnerability as the basis for a transformative ethics and politics, and acknowledges the impact of systemic inequalities.    She writes, “I do not mean to deny that vulnerability is differentiated, that it is allocated differentially across the globe. . . . but there is a more general conception of the human with which I am trying to work here, one in which we are, from the start, given over to the other, one in which we are, from the start, even prior to individuation itself, by virtue of bodily requirements, given over to some set of primary others . . . .”(31). Here lies the problem of what we can call a postmodern humanism in which the difference of the Other becomes absorbed as a difference within the self, which can then lead to a total exchange of precarious subjectivities, total identification.   Perhaps ingestion.  At the end of the essay, Butler writes, “For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you” (49).  Again, the difference of the Other is managed and sidestepped by the difference/incompletion of the self.  However, if nations, like individuals, are dependent on others and hence vulnerable, a recognition of this vulnerability will not eliminate the problem that some vulnerabilities are more vulnerable than others, that some incompletions matter more than others, that incompletions and vulnerabilities are differently experienced.  To imagine otherwise is perhaps the first step to securing a liberal consent to empire.

[36] I am not suggesting that we dispense with the possibility of a community of women but that we maintain a vigilance about how we want to postulate that community so that it doesn’t reinscribe imperialism.  At a broader level, it is perhaps the ethical turn in contemporary theory that must be scrupulously decolonized. Recognition, as some critics have warned, is necessarily caught within the logic of appropriation (Yar, 57) and there is no reason to think that a recognition based on vulnerability would simply avoid appropriation.  As Majid Yar writes, to see the other as “known, understood, interpretable, is to rob her of her alterity or difference, to appropriate and assimilate her into a sameness with my own subjectivity” (62). Indeed the internalization of the Other (through a hypernationalization of transnational issues), as  as John Carlos Rowe has suggested, has been a staple of US imperial culture since Vietnam (576).
More ominously, empathetic identitarianism is being seen as a viable military strategy both by counterinsurgency experts and anthropologists working with the military (See Ricks and McFate).  But the alternative to liberal multiculturalism and its politics of easy identification is not intolerance and Orientalism or simply a Derridean fetishization of radical singularity–“every other (one) is every (bit) other” (82) that refuses context and hence any possibility of connection.  Between an identification that masks authority and erases unequal power relations and, on the other hand, racist Othering, are possibilities of recognizing the particular,  unequal relationships of imperialism that place women in simultaneous positions of similarity and extreme alienation.

[37] RAWA’s positioning of itself as an organization arising out of the specific conditions of Afghanistan, cognisant of its shared agenda both with national liberation movements and groups working for the rights of women, while simultaneously differentiating itself from Western feminist ideas of individual agency, is an example of recognizing points of convergence and difference and creating possibilities for action.  There are possibilities for women’s solidarities and understanding in Cynthia Enloe’s term “cross-national” instead of cross-cultural, because of the political recognition of differences therein, as well as in her call for a feminist curiosity (157, 158).   Instead of recognition and identification, we might think, as Zillah Eisenstein suggests, of partial connections and polyunity (29).  Or we might attempt, as Spivak does, to imagine a social practice of responsibility as right (what she calls haq), grounded on alterity rather than commonality (1999, 72) (without the nostalgia that Spivak seems to evince for the “pre-capitalist high cultures of the planet” 1999, 55).  At the end of her internment novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, which has heretofore tempered the difference of internment with the use of generic appellations such as “Mother” and “Father,” Julie Otsuka suddenly has the narrator address the reader from a position of extreme Otherness: “I’m the one you call Jap.  I’m the one you call Nip.  I’m the one you call Slopes.  I’m the one you call Yellowbelly.  I’m the one you call Gook” (142). In a brilliant essay on the refusal of identification, Tina Chen reads this ending as a “paradoxical moment of both identification and alienation”(170).   I suggest, however, that this ending rejects identification but without alienation.  The narrator directs us instead to an affective interaction with those who haven’t experienced internment but without holding out the possibility of identification.  Otsuka thus suggests a way we might think about negotiating difference.  The rejection of identification does not mean an absolute disidentification resulting in political paralysis but rather, through the unease of material otherness, an impetus to create a decolonized space in which the different and unequal past and present histories through which women are often violently connected can be can be debated, contested, and become the bases for transformative encounters.


I would like to thank Ashley Dawson and Lee Quinby for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this essay and Ann Kibbey for her valuable suggestions in revising the essay.  Some of the material on Butler appears in a different form in my essay “Decolonizing Global Theories Today” (246-249).

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