Un-Veiling Women's Rights in the `War on Terrorism'

By Kapur, Ratna | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Un-Veiling Women's Rights in the `War on Terrorism'


Kapur, Ratna, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish. The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.... 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.

First Lady Laura W. Bush (1)

The bombings have increased the suffering of the people in Afghanistan. They must stop it at once.

Sabira Mateen (2)

Attention, noble Afghan people. As you know, the coalition countries have been air-dropping daily humanitarian rations for you. The food ration is enclosed in yellow plastic bags. They come in the shape of rectangular or long squares. The food inside the bags is Halal and very nutritional.... In areas away from where food has been dropped, cluster bombs will also be dropped. The color of these bombs is also yellow.... Do not confuse the cylinder-shaped bomb with the rectangular food bag.

U.S. Psychological Operations Radio, Sunday, October 28, 2001. (3)

I. INTRODUCTION

On the morning of the September 11th attacks, I was delivering a lecture in New York to law school students about post-colonialism. More specifically, we were discussing a passage from The Poisonwood Bible, (4) as well as a recently released film, Lumumba. (5) Both the text and the film relate the story of the Congo's turbulent moment of independence from Belgium. The Poisonwood Bible is set in the Congo in the late 1950's and early 1960's and critical of the American involvement in the assassination of the democratically-elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the subsequent installation of the military dictator, Joseph Mobutu. The story is related through the experiences of an American missionary family who arrive in the Congo from the State of Georgia. It is narrated in turn through the experiences of five women--the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a Christian minister who moves his family to the Congo in 1959 and sacrifices their health and safety in order to further his missionary dream of "civilizing" Africans. The source of inspiration for pursuing his civilizing mission is the Bible.

Ruth May is the youngest daughter, a prescient five-year old, and Rachel, the eldest, is a self-centered, somewhat petulant teenager. The other two daughters, Leah and Adah, are twins, but Adah suffers from hemiplegia, which leaves her limping and nearly speechless. Orleanna, Nathan's wife, tells the story of her experiences in the Congo in retrospect, from her later years on Sanderling Island, off the coast of Georgia. The girls, however, tell their story from the Congo as it happens, on the precipice of events. Nathan Price narrates nothing. He represents the patronizing attitude of white colonialists towards Africa, and the tragic legacy of violence they bequeathed to countries such as the Congo.

Most of the Price women discover the ability of the Congolese to adapt to the harsh conditions of their existence, and this realization brings with it the recognition of the Prices' own profound ignorance. Through some comical and tragic moments of colliding cultures, Leah observes that "Everything you're sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here." (6)

The Congo permeates the book, but it is a book that is just as much about America--a portrait of the nation that sent the Prices to save the souls of a people for whom it felt only contempt. As the Price women discover, the Congolese are not savages who need saving, and there is nothing passive in their tolerance of missionaries. The Congolese are exposed to and literally take on board the Americans' message elections are good, Jesus too--and they expose the message's contradictions by holding an election in church to decide whether or not Jesus shall be the personal god of Kilanga. …

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