“An educated wife and mother is a better wife and mother. No husband is better off because she is chained by ignorance. No son is better off because his mother cannot read.” Students of Middle East history might guess that these are the words of Qasim Amin, the Egyptian lawyer whose writings at the turn of the twentieth century foreshadowed that common trope of Middle Eastern nationalism and state feminism linking partial women’s liberation to national liberation through the benefits of both to men. Perhaps L. Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq, received a briefing on Amin’s ideas before leaving Baghdad, several journalists in tow, for the shrine city of Karbala, where he spoke these words to a gathering at one of ten centers for women’s rights newly opened with funds from the US-British occupation authority.
More likely, Bremer’s visit was part of an early February public relations initiative by US officials intended to highlight the wonders invasion and occupation have worked for Iraqi women. In the week preceding the proconsular junket in Karbala, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao both made the trip to a similar women’s center in the southern town of Hilla. Quoting a woman who told him she saw no contradiction between her hijab and women’s rights, Wolfowitz wrote in the Washington Post: “In such words, we find the hope of a new Iraq.”
This latest public relations campaign, so reminiscent of First Lady Laura Bush’s speeches justifying the Bush administration’s first war in Afghanistan, evokes the impassioned exposes of the chattel status of Muslim (and Eastern Christian) women penned by countless British and French colonial officials and American missionaries ministering to earlier generations of benighted natives. In the post-September 11 era, questions of women’s rights and gender politics have once again assumed a central place in the ambient chatter about the urgent necessity of democratization in the Arabo-Islamic world. Aside from the crass propaganda value of claims to have lifted the yoke of male dominance from the shoulders of Afghan and Iraqi women, the administration’s neo-conservatives may like to focus on women and gender because these issues fill an otherwise perplexing gap between their intellectual acceptance of “clash of civilizations” theory and their running political skirmish with State Department Arabists who insinuate that Arabs and Muslims prefer autocracy to “freedom.” The exigencies of the latter compel the administration continually to assert that the downtrodden peoples of the Middle East do not differ in the slightest from Slovaks, Bolivians and Texans in their visceral yearning for democracy. Yet the coherence of “clash of civilizations” theory requires the construction of an essential difference between Islam and the West. In to bridge the logical chasm walk the oppression of women and the illiberal attitudes toward gender equity in the Arabo-Islamic world, so palpably incongruous with the heavily female medical schools and the ubiquitous mini-skirts of the cosmopolitan West. According to Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, who gave statistical flesh to this “sexual clash of civilizations” with data from the World Values Survey in the March-April 2003 issue of Foreign Policy, “the values separating the two cultures have much more to do with eros than demos.”
Any open attempt to deploy the eros-related results of the World Values Survey to justify US policies of regime change in the Arabo-Islamic world would certainly encounter difficulties. Inglehart and Norris, for instance, find 12 percent of respondents expressing tolerance for homosexuality in predominantly Muslim societies, as opposed to 53 percent who profess tolerance in the West. Presumably then, the constitutional amendment opposing gay marriage with which Bush’s handlers hope to club the Democratic nominee in the November election is being drafted in the culturally eastern wing of the White House. The survey finds similarly large gaps between the Muslim East and the West in levels of tolerance for divorce and abortion. This result obscures the endlessly bitter battles that rage within the US over the questionnaire’s litmus test for tolerance: “Abortion can always be justified, never be justified or something in between.” One of the survey questions under the rubric of gender equality asks participants if they “strongly disagree” with the statement that “on the whole, men make better political leaders than women do.” In the West, 82 percent strongly disagreed, compared with 55 percent who vehemently said no in Muslim societies. Yet Pakistan, the current object of Western fears of Islamic fundamentalism run amok, has 7 percent more women serving in its parliament than there are women in Congress. So-called Western values, by themselves, do not translate ipso facto into greater political participation for women but, as per the logic of immutable difference posited by the “clash of civilizations,” the Bush administration does not necessarily believe it can implant them.
The gender assumptions grounding the Bush administration’s mission civilisatrice run more along the lines that Afghan and Iraqi women are a natural constituency for American-style liberalism who, as a matter of course, will see US soldiers as liberating them from their own fathers, brothers, husbands or sons. In the rhetoric of Paul Wolfowitz and Laura Bush, the simple act of removing totemic male oppressors’ first, the Taliban, and then, the regime of Saddam Hussein, inspires in these women sufficient gratitude to overwhelm the terror many of them felt during the crashing thunder of US bombardment and the lasting trauma left by war. The longings of women for liberation are tied solely to symbolic self-expression. Hence, the alleged empowerment of Afghan women to rip away their burqas, or the construction of centers where Iraqi women can speak freely in the post-Saddam political order, trumps any concerns the women may have about wartime disruptions of systems of drinking water, medicine and transportation. Such things are not “women’s issues.” Neither was the doubling of the maternal mortality rate in Iraq from 1989-1998, largely as a result of US-led sanctions starting in 1990. Finally, as Afghan women and girls have learned, the paternal attentions of the United States are fleeting. Once US military intervention has erased the legal prohibition on their education, it matters little to the Bush administration (or the American media) if they cannot walk to school without being physically assaulted. Now that the Afghan constitution passed by a loya jirga on January 4 contains a provision mandating equality of the sexes under the law, it matters little if the law is not enforced.
The Bush administration echoed human rights groups in applauding another provision of the Afghan constitution setting aside 25 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament for women. Again, “sexual clash of civilizations” theory would imply that such stipulations are only necessary in societies with low tolerance for gender equality, but should this measure be implemented, Afghanistan’s legislature would be 4 percent more female than Pakistan’s, and 11 percent more female than Congress. Perhaps this irony, in addition to the instinctive Republican revulsion for quotas, helps to explain why Paul Bremer and Elaine Chao told women in Karbala and Hilla that the 40 percent set-aside rule in the draft Iraqi Fundamental Law is excessive. (Bremer has said he might countenance 20 percent.)
Underlying these disagreements over the size of quotas are two other unspoken assumptions of the discourse on the relation of gender politics to democratization, namely that putting token women in positions of power will improve the lives of ordinary women and that redressing the “gender deficit” necessarily renders the polity as a whole more democratic. Here the evidence from the Middle East is mixed. In mid-February, George W. Bush and his secretary of state took pains to praise Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab head of state to visit the White House since Bush proclaimed his grand Middle East democratization initiative, for his country’s progress in extending women’s rights. Indeed, the Tunisian personal status law is a model for the region, and Tunisia boasts the second-highest percentage of women deputies in parliament in the Arab world. Yet Tunisian elections, of both women and men, are rigged to maintain majorities for Ben Ali’s ruling party, casting doubt on the one-to-one correspondence between state feminism and more general democracy. First place in the Arab female representation derby belongs to Syria. Enough said.
In Iraq, the contradictions within the neo-conservative “forward strategy of freedom” for the Arabo-Islamic world are again exposed by the disagreements over how far the Fundamental Law — envisioned as the basis for the first post-Saddam Iraqi constitution — will go in enshrining protections for women’s rights. In some ways, the late December 2003 decree of the Iraqi Governing Council that repealed relatively progressive personal status legislation fits perfectly into the Bush administration’s preferred narrative of women’s liberation by American tank and bureaucrat. Decree 137, rammed through while the nominally liberal members of the council were courting their friends on the banks of the Potomac, would relegate such matters as divorce and inheritance rights to the judgment of the clerical authorities of Iraq’s diverse religious sects. In theory, this could allow a Sunni man to divorce his wife by simply saying aloud, “I divorce you,” three times in succession. Sunni women would not have the same prerogative. The measure cannot go into effect unless it is signed by Bremer, and so far, the proconsul has not signed it, allowing him to appear responsive to protests of Iraqi women that erupted when the document was made public. The embarrassing fact that Decree 137 is the brainchild of America’s Shi’i allies in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is counter-balanced by the fact that America’s Kurdish allies emphatically reject the measure. Hence Wolfowitz can argue, against detractors who would have the administration put down the white man’s burden, that Arabs and Muslims want civil rights and democracy, “and we should do everything we can to help them.”
At the same time, Bremer has coyly refrained from pronouncing Decree 137 a dead letter, possibly to maintain leverage in ongoing closed-door debates with SCIRI and other religious parties over whether Islam will be “a source” or “the source” of Iraqi law in the proto-constitution. If it becomes “the source,” many Iraqi women fear, SCIRI and its supporters may write their own regressive personal status law after the US-British occupation authority dissolves on June 30. One can already hear Bush administration officials explaining away such a development with recourse to the language of the “clash of civilizations.”