Democracy Now discusses women in Afghanistan

ermadog at ermadog at
Sun Dec 16 20:15:15 MST 2001

> Some say the practice of covering the head symbolizes Americans' unease
over the role of women in Muslim societies. But others say wearing the
hijab, or head covering traditional to women in Islam, is liberating.<

Having text-only access to the internet means I am unable to listen to
this programme. I am getting awefully tired of this discussion, though.

I think we all realize that, in the hands of the Western media, the veil
is simply a too-pat symbol of everything the American administration would
have us believe is wrong with Islamic extremism. This doesn't mean that we
must accept the opposite conclusion. that the veil is liberating. As I've
noted before, wearing "sensible clothes" can have the effect of
ameliorating, at least on a day-to-day basis, some of the tension created
in patriarchies, which typically are uncomfortable with women's sexuality.
However, one must never forget that the "protection" thus afforded is
entirely illusory in the long run, affording no protection whatever from
the undercurrents of woman-hating violence found, to one degree or
another, in all manner of patriarchal society. I think everyone recognizes
by now that rape is not a matter of flaunting your legs in a mini-skirt.

The symbolism of the full burqa, in my opinion, goes deeper than simple
unease surrounding women's sexuallity, since it erases not only all trace
of sexuality, but all traces of the woman's individuality and very
humanity. This, I feel cannot be explained by appeals to tribal tradition.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that the full burqa would seriously
hamper a woman's ability to engage in productive work, such as helping out
with the harvest, which tribal women have traditionally engaged in; and,
in fact, scenes shot in rural villages throughout the war showed rural
women unconcerned about covering their faces. Indeed, I'm not certain that
the Taliban actually had much of a tribal consciousness to begin with,
seeing as they were products of the Pakistani refugee camps. In the
austere environment of such camps, one traditional role of women -
preparing and distributing food - was taken over by relief workers; and
the institutionalized caretaking of these workers must have had a
levelling effect on the consciousness of both men and women.

We also all know that repression of women is symptomatic of more general,
anti-human policies throughout a given society; and, in this respect, I'm
inclined to believe that the full burqa is reflective of the reductionist
thinking inherent in fundamentalist thinking everywhere. Let me point out,
first, that Islamic fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, a product of
the 15C. collapse of the Islamic Empire. I suspect that the enlightened
culture of Islam was a product of the rapidity of the rise of the Empire.
Having no time to build up and train a governing beauraucracy in the
newly-conquered territory, the Arab overclass had to rely on local talent
and thus cultural tolerance became a necessity. At a time when the
Christian West was engaging in a two-centuries' long period of
anti-intellectual reaction, culture in the Arab world flourished. At a
time when sectarian warfare was the hallmark of Christianity, the Islamic
Empire sheltered the Monophysite Church from Byzantine persecution. It was
under Islamic protection that the Coptic Church, with its treasure of
Gnostic Gospels, survived to this day.

In the history of ideas, the universalist religions offered a step forward
on the long march toward "freeing humanity from the concrete" as Marx put
it. In idealizing the human soul, these new religions severed the ties of
place and ancestry - and thus of insularism, irridentism, and parochialism
- that characterize tribal spirituality. However, since ethereal ideas of
the human soul offer little spiritual enrichment, all the old gods found
renewed expression under the banners of the new religions, becoming
Christian or Buddhist saints or lesser gods in the Hindu pantheon. In
fundamentalism, the central idea of the human soul is pared down to its
bare essence, and is recognized only in its connection to God.
Paradoxically, the thinner the central idea, the more passionately the
believer defends his narrowed understanding of human life.

An excellent study of fundamentalism can be found in Edmund Cohen's _The
Mind of the Bible Believer_ (Prometheus Books), which he wrote when he
snapped out of a two-year conversion from liberal Judaism to born-again
Christianity. In trying to understand how a well-educated person such as
himself could have been influenced by such a thread-bare spirituality, he
analyzed the psychological mechanisms inherent in the fundamentalist
outlook. He emphasizes that fundamentalism is a matter of psychology, not
theology, and is similar in all religions. Of course, Marxists never
explain any social phenomenon solely in terms of psychology, so I would
recommend this as a companion to the usual classics - Reich's _Mass
Psychology of Fascism_, Shere Hite's more recent work on the patriarchal
family and authoritarianism, and Trotsky's discussions of the class base
of popular fascism.

In the absence of any meaningfull data on the class nature of Islamic
fundamentalism, I am inclined to see it as a manifestation of right wing
populism. As we all know by now, the madrassahs were set up by Saudi oil
money as an alternative to popular unrest. In the dire straits left behind
when the two superpowers retreated, the Taliban saw total jihad as the
immediate and sole task at hand, and simply had no use for the "softer
side" of life represented by women. I suggest that their idea of toal
jihad had more in common with fascist "sturm und drang" than with
socialist revolution. This is the meaning of the full burqa.

Joan Cameron

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