Policy Memo: Reorienting Islamic Feminism within American Foreign Policy
Hello! My name is Grace Hall, I am from Meridian, Idaho, and I am a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with minors in Arabic, political science, global studies, and I’m working towards a TESOL certificate. Since first studying Arabic my freshman year of high school, I have known that I wanted to work and live in the Middle East through diplomacy or teaching English. As such, I have dedicated my educational career to understanding and writing about Arab politics, Islam, Islamic feminism, and development in the Arab world. Some of my accomplishments include being a State Department scholarship alumni, an assistant ESL teacher at CWI, a research assistant on conservation and race in South Africa, a recipient of the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity grant, and I’m an intern for the World Language Resource Center where I am writing my own Intermediate Arabic textbook.
Policy Memo: Reorienting Islamic Feminism within American Foreign Policy
From: BSU student
To: The United States Department of State
Subject: Reorienting Islamic Feminism within American Foreign Policy
Date: December 15, 2020
America’s concerns regarding women’s rights in the Middle East were triggered by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and continued to grow with the advent of the Persian gulf war in 1990, the 9/11 attacks, and the invasion of Afghanistan (Shannon). Within these contexts, U.S conversations about Muslim women and their identities increased and the long-standing western stereotypes that Muslim women are victims in need of liberation by the western world became mainstream. This intensified western feminist campaigns and U.S policies that aimed to defend women’s right in Islamic countries, garnering support for the war on terrorism. This was done through advocating for nationalist feminist ideologies, where the issues of women in the Middle East become the issues of women all around the world (Shannon). However, these movements often focus on small aspects of Islam, such as the veil, leading it to become a powerful symbol of Muslim women’s oppression in western media. This focus on the connection between Islam and women’s suffering in the Middle East devalues Islamic feminism, a context of feminist resistance to patriarchal and oppressive societies within a religious context. Furthermore, the focus on women’s clothing rather than women’s systemic poverty and malnutrition camouflages the patriarchal and militarized masculinity that drives American military and political discourses. In order to achieve substantive change towards women’s rights in the Middle East, there needs to be a change in orientalist dialogue within western diplomacy, where both eastern and western feminist ideology plays a role. This can be done through promoting more female and Muslim representation in foreign affairs, deemphasizing the veil as a political tool, reorienting Islam within American policy, and promoting U.S and western feminist organizations to work directly with Arab and Islamic feminist organizations.
At its core, orientalism is the representation of the West as right and the East as primitive and wrong. In the context of feminism, Muslim women and Middle Eastern women in general are marked as exotic and “the other” by their veils and burqas. Based on the binary orientalist view of civilization vs barbarity, colonialist and imperative societies introduced and used the image of a victimized eastern woman to call for her liberation through colonialist intervention. This narrative of the protection and salvation of eastern women became a driving factor in post cold-war American policy, especially during the US’s war on Terror. In this sense, liberal U.S feminist dialogues about women’s rights abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq became incorporated into policy to justify and garner support for military intervention and violence. In fact, in 2002 George W. Bush claimed that the victory over the Taliban had “liberated the women of Afghanistan”(Abu-Lughod). However, these policies of linking liberation to U.S invasion only led to the linking of the enemy “other” to Islam. The problem with this dialogue is that it fundamentally ignores the voices, needs, wants, and progress of the women in the Middle East who seek to make their own choices towards freedom and autonomy.
When veiling became a symbol of tyranny in the U.S and unveiling a symbol of freedom, it devalued Muslim women’s religious expression. As Islamic feminist Leila Ahmed asserts, some Muslim women believe that the veil not only addresses freedom and dignity but it also provides greater social mobility in a world that considers women only as an object of sexuality”(Ahmed). Thus the hijab itself is not restrictive or oppressive on one’s agency, actions, or behaviors, rather it is the treatment of the hijab by others that can create conditions of restriction and oppression. Furthermore, some people in the western world view women living in Islamic societies and Muslim women in general as oppressed, ignorant, and silent. This is anything but the truth, as women all over the Middle East are fighting and demanding basic rights through both Islamic and secular feminism. They do so not because of their exposure to western feminist ideology, but rather their own feminist discourses that arose out of frustrations with their states, religion, and societies. Women have never been silent in the Middle East, they have just been silenced through social censorship. Representing and addressing Islamic feminist ideology as part of U.S policy making, is important in producing productive change for women in the Middle East. It allows for their religious identities and traditional societies to be valued and preserved, while also promoting their social and economic mobility.
The Stake Holders
- Western Feminist Organization
- Women Living Under Muslim Law
- UN Women: TheUnited Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
- The U.S Government and Foreign Affair Entities
- The U.S Department of State
- The United Nations
- Islamic Feminist and Middle Eastern Feminist Organizations
- Sisters in Islam
- Women2Drive Campaign
- Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
In order to successfully advocate for women’s rights in the Middle East, all three of the stakeholders listed above-and the organizations that fall underneath them-need to work together to promote women’s participation in civil society and their access to education, careers, and healthcare. However, at the moment, the U.S and other international organizations only take western feminist ideology and perspectives into mind, impacting the ability of their policies and movements to enact meaningful change in Islamic countries. Rather, the U.S government and international organizations need to take a more effective and local stance in addressing change. This can be done by taking into consideration the culture, history, needs, and wants of Arab and Muslim women in the Middle East and working with local women’s organizations and projects that already exist within the country. By investing in local projects, the U.S will promote change at the community level while also acknowledging the work and progress of local feminist movements. This will help foster stronger and more positive relationships with smaller communities, demonstrating that democratic practices are compatible with Islamic feminism and Islamic countries.
- Deemphasis on the veil as a political ideology and tool
- S foreign policy and some western feminist ideology, equates the veil to a symbol of oppression and victimization of Muslim women. Thus Islam is sometimes made out to be in incompatible with feminism. However, this connection between Islam and women’s suffering needs to be terminated from western political discussion, as it often stems from hasty generalization and devalues the cultural and personal meaning of the veil outside of a religious context. The veil has changed meaning over time. What was once seen as a symbol of oppression, has become popular amongst modern young Muslim women. For example, Muslim women have described numerous motivations for covering, such as: Islamic faith, strongly held beliefs about gender, to circumvent public harassment, an expression of solidarity, a call for social justice, and a rejection of the West (Ahmed). This helps to express the distinction that Muslim women can embrace Islam while still opposing the patriarchy, institutional discrimination, violence, and abuse.
- Integration of more female and Muslim diplomats
- In order to have a clear perspective when implementing gender based policy, it’s important to have females in the field. The U.S government severely lacks in female representation in foreign policy and it needs to promote women’s representation, participation, and influence in diplomatic institutions (Linde et al.). Women are prone to look at scenarios differently than men, especially when considering “multiplicity of new actors and problems in patriarchal structures”(Rahman). In order to address gender issues in the Middle East, the U.S government and international organizations need the perspective of women in policy making. Furthermore, given the intersectionality of gender and religion in Middle Eastern feminist ideology, there needs to be more representation of Muslims in foreign policy. U.S Muslim women are able to empathize with the struggles of Muslim women abroad, making them more qualified than any man or non Muslim woman to propose solutions to gender-based violence and marginalization in islamic countries. Furthermore, female diplomats in general are able to tap into a different social circles than males. In gender segregated countries, women are able to reach out to and have discussions with women where men would not be allowed. This is prevalent in the most rural and conservative societies where the outreach of western powers to feminist organizations is needed in order to address the most pressing concerns of Muslim women in Arab societies (Rahman).
- Reframe Islam in Diplomacy
- The main reason that the U.S is employing feminist ideology is to justify military intervention to confront religious extremism in the Muslim world. However, the U.S has lacked in “integrated and sustainable strategies to confront religious extremism,” and has “failed to recognize the challenge is not only a conflict with the West, but also involves ideological shifts within the Muslim world” (Maghraoui). Islamic renewal is a moment to reclaim religious heritage from extremist groups in order to promote progressive reform and the adopting of modern public and international law. Thus in recent years, Islam has actually show a great potential to adapt and modernize (within the frame of western perspectives of modernization). However, the U.S’s framework of viewing the Muslim world as the birth place of terrorism, a direct result of religious extremism, is a harmful misunderstanding of the region’s political culture and attitudes towards terrorists. In order for the U.S to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East, it needs to change its image of fighting Islamic extremists to supporting Islamic renewal (Maghraoui).
- The United States should focus on public diplomacy through supporting Islamic religious reforms, linking American values to Islamic traditions and organizations. This will discredit Islamic extremists and emphasize Islam’s compatibility with American values and democracy.
- The United States should work with Middle Eastern Islamic and feminist organizations to promote reform that will benefit Arab women from the bottom up. Historically, when the United States has supported reform at the state level, Islamic states have used women’s rights as a political facade to garner international support while still marginalizing women on the ground. The most notable example is Saudi Arabia. Thus the U.S and western feminist organizations should work directly with the women and organizations that wish to enact change and are already working towards it.
- The United States should support religious charities. Religious organizations provide much needed services and support to women that some countries may fail to implement themselves. By placing more aid directly into these organizations, it takes away power from Islamic networks that use social services to radicalize, men, women, and children (Maghraoui).
- The U.S and international feminist organizations need to work with local Middle Eastern feminist organizations, both secular and religious.
- The United States and international women organizations based in Europe are approaching women’s rights issues in the Middle East from the perspective of westerners. In order to create sustainable and impactful change, these organizations need to talk to and work directly with Muslim women in oppressive countries. Through this method, western support contributes directly to the goals, needs, and wants of the women affected.
- If the U.S. government and the American Muslim community could start working together for the common good, “the United States would be able to (1) bridge its relations with Muslim countries overseas more effectively, (2) avoid missteps in foreign policy and public diplomacy through a better understanding of the Muslim perspective, and (3) encourage the further intellectual and spiritual development of Islam through support for American Muslim leadership roles” (Johnston).
By maintaining a western liberal-feminist perspective when approaching eastern traditionalist-feminist issues, The U.S is propagating imperialist ideologies of the savior/victim complex. This then results in Muslim women being made out to be victims of their own culture and religion. This ideology is then further manipulated to justify military intervention to pursue the U.S’s own political and economic interests in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, these military operations that are supposed to save women have instead exacerbated existing economic and social challenges and created new ones. Until U.S foreign policy takes into consideration the perspective and needs of women in the Middle East, it will never be able to create sustainable and impactful change to their lives. Thus in order to do so, western feminist organizations along and the U.S government need to work closely with and employ the perspectives of Muslim women and Islamic feminist organization. This can be done through encouraging more women in the field of diplomacy, bringing in an eastern feminist perspective, and contacting Middle Eastern women’s organizations and Islamic feminist organizations to provide direct financial, educational, and political support. By employing the recommendations above, the United States and western feminist organizations will be able to work towards their goals of women’s rights, protection, and equality in the Middle East. While also respecting the traditional cultures and religious identities of Arab women and acknowledging the already existing feminist organizations that operate outside of a western context.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” Ethics Forum, 2002, org.uib.no/smi/seminars/Pensum/Abu-Lughod.pdf.
Ahmed, Leila. “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.” ResearchGate, 2011, www.researchgate.net/publication/282003903_A_quiet_revolution_The_veil’s_resurgence_from_the_Middle_East_to_America
Johnston, Douglas M. Johnston. “Faith-Based Diplomacy: Bridging the Religious Divide.” U.S. Department of State Archive, U.S. Department of State, 2006, 2001-2009.state.gov/s/p/of/proc/79221.htm.
Linde , Ann, et al. “The Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2019–2022, Including Direction and Measures for 2020.” The Swedish Foreign Service, 2019, www.government.se/499195/contentassets/2b694599415943ebb466af0f838da1fc/the-swedish-foreign-service-action-plan-for-feminist-foreign-policy-20192022-including-direction-and-measures-for-2020.pdf.
Maghraoui , Abdeslam M. “American Foreign Policy and Islamic Renewal.” United States Institute of Peace, 2006, www.usip.org/sites/default/files/resources/sr164.pdf.
Rahman, Talyn. “Women in Diplomacy: An Assessment of British Female Ambassadors in Overcoming Gender Heirarchy, 1990-2010.” American Diplomacy , 2011, americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2011/04/women-in-diplomacy/.
Shannon, Kelly J. “U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s Human Rights.” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15750.html.