Academic journal article Genders

From Humanitarian Intervention to the Beautifying Mission: Afghan Women and Beauty without Borders

Academic journal article Genders

From Humanitarian Intervention to the Beautifying Mission: Afghan Women and Beauty without Borders

Article excerpt

[1] In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was quick to assimilate the terror attacks into a simplistic binary opposition of good and evil, absolving the U.S. of any foreign policy role in triggering the anger which prompted the attacks. As in the buildup to the first Gulf War in 1990, when Americans were asked to choose between two versions of masculinity, George Bush senior and the forces of good and Saddam Hussein and the forces of evil, we are haunted by colonial patterns of representation resurrected long after the death of formal colonialism, patterns which posit anti-American forces as the West's civilizational other. The mainstream media trumpeted Orientalist pronouncements on the attacks and urged indiscriminate military retaliation. Without offering the public any proof that Osama Bin Laden bore direct responsibility for the World Trade Center and Pentagon strikes, the U.S. commenced its war on a nation-less concept, "terrorism," by bombing targets within a nation, Afghanistan. This war was initially waged, according to the Bush administration, as a punitive measure, a kind of retributive justice, against those who planned the September 11 attacks, and as a preventive strike against future terrorist operations.

[2] Even as U.S. bombs destroyed Afghan hospitals, Afghan homes, and a U.N. land mine clearing office, the Bush administration insisted that its war was against "terrorism" and not against the Afghan people. As the military strikes continued and civilian casualties mounted (nearly 3,800 Afghans died between 7 October and 7 December 2001), the media began to suggest that U.S. policy was a form of "humanitarian intervention" designed to liberate Afghans from the brutal rule of the Taliban (BBC). Several themes dominated the claim to humanitarian intervention in articles published in the New York Times during this period: an emphasis on the danger of widespread famine and the construction of the U.S. as the purveyor of food aid; a foregrounding of the law and order problem in the region and the assertion of the U.S. as a model for democracy; and, most prominently, outrage over the horrifying status of women under the Taliban and the presentation of the U.S. as a liberator of Afghan women.

[3] Capitalizing on the sudden interest in Afghan women, the White House trotted out the heretofore reticent Laura Bush to deliver a national radio address on November 17, 2001. In her remarks, Mrs. Bush emphatically named misogyny to be a crucial aspect of the structure of terrorism, declaring that "The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists." And she credited the United States with helping to free Afghan women:

   Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women
   are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music
   and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the
   terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many
   countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is
   also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

Significantly, Mrs. Bush's interpretation of terrorism's gendered contours included women's right to wear cosmetics, along with more fundamental rights such as access to education and healthcare. "Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women," she announced, "Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish."

[4] Mrs. Bush's articulation of beauty consumer practices with resistance to a brutal form of patriarchy would become a leitmotif in mainstream American narratives about the condition of Afghan women. Ellen McLarney persuasively argues that Afghanistan provided "a fertile ground for the capitalist imagination: emancipation from the stranglehold of communist ideology on local and regional markets, emancipation from an oppressive religious regime, emancipation from 'backward' social and cultural practices, emancipation of the Muslim woman" (2-3). …

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