Cross-Cultural Identification, Neoliberal Feminism, and Afghan Women

By Schueller, Malini Johar | Genders, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Cross-Cultural Identification, Neoliberal Feminism, and Afghan Women


Schueller, Malini Johar, Genders


[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. …

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