‘The repression of women is always and everywhere wrong.” Some readers of Socialist Worker may be surprised to learn that the person quoted above is George Bush. Although not known for his radical, egalitarian views – or actions – it’s amazing how different one of our rulers can sound when there are wars to be fought.
The notion of saving oppressed women has been a recurring theme throughout both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. When justifying the war in Afghanistan, Tony Blair talked of it being a war against those who “stopped Afghan girls going to school, made women wear the burqa and beat them in the streets of Kabul”.
Recently Blair pitched into the “debate” about the veil, suggesting that it raises questions about “how Islam comes to terms with and is comfortable with the modern world”.
But the notion of the enlightened West bringing civililsation and liberation to oppressed women is nothing new. The idea of liberating women from backward, uncivilised societies was promoted by the British ruling class to justify the British Empire.
Throughout the Victorian period, our rulers deemed that “civilisation” equalled Victorian morals and ways of life. The colonialists could then proclaim that they were “civilising” countries that did not adopt such morals. This sounded much nicer than grabbing land and resources and oppressing the colonised population.
The history of the British occupation of Egypt shows not only how claims about liberating women were used to justify imperialism, but also how Western notions of Islam were developed to suit the needs of Western rulers.
The position of women in Islam has always formed part of Western interpretations of Islamic societies. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries this was derived from old stories told by Crusaders and travellers, who only had limited access to male views of the meanings of Islamic practice.
These interpretations were then generalised from a few examples to define Islam as a totality. However, the issue of women within the Western interpretation of Islam only took centre stage as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries.
The British consul general Lord Cromer led the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. According to Cromer, Islamic societies were inferior to the West. Native Egyptians lacked rationality and the capacity for logic, and needed to be “persuaded or forced” into adopting Western ways of life.
The worst aspect of Islamic societies, according to Cromer, was their treatment of women. He saw the oppression of women as being at the heart of Islam’s “backwardness”, and the veil in particular as the key obstacle to “civilising” the society.
But the policies of Cromer and the British administration show the shallowness of their claims to support women’s rights in Egypt.
Access to higher education was blocked, and fees for primary education increased. This policy disproportionately affected girls’ education, and was pursued in spite of a popular demand for education for boys and girls.
Cromer believed that education should be curbed as it could foster nationalist sentiment. He also opposed the training of female doctors and argued that a woman’s place was in the home.
When the first young woman in Egypt obtained a secondary school certificate, it was of such significance that it was reported in the newspapers.
But Nabawiyya Musa had achieved this in spite of the obstacles put in the way by Douglas Dunlop, the British adviser to the ministry of education. He had refused to let her sit the examination because she was female.
The imperialists insisted that colonised women be oppressed the Western way, which is something Cromer knew a lot about. This great warrior for women’s rights came home to Britain and founded the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
Feminism that threatened the power of white ruling class men was opposed, while “colonial feminism” that could strengthen their power was embraced.
There were a variety of responses to colonial ideas from the colonised, largely shaped by class. In Egypt, the ruling and middle classes saw a potential for advancement by being aligned with the British. So some actively promoted the “Western” way of life.
In 1899, Qasim Amin’s controversial The Liberation of Woman was published in Egypt. It was completely bound up with the British colonial presence in Egypt.
The book called for the banning of the veil. It was sycophantic in praising the colonising powers, while repeating colonialist stereotypes of Islam. Native Egyptians were described as “savages”, lazy and stupid.
The key to changing this was the same for Amin and the colonialists – to alter the behaviour and customs of Egyptian women.
Ironically for a book supposedly championing women, Amin’s book is heavily sexist. It claims that Egyptian women did not “know how to use a toothbrush” and “the ignorant woman does not understand inner feelings”.
Muslim marriages are described as being inferior and based on ignorance – again this is seen as the fault of women.
Amin’s suggested reforms made his attitude to women clear. He wanted women to have primary education only – enough to fulfil their housewifely duties of managing the budget and raising children.
There was a mixed response to the publication of the book. This was one of the first times that colonial ideas had been expressed from within the colonised population. The pro-British press celebrated the book.
But Egyptian newspapers such as Al-Liwa were critical, disagreeing with “the rush to imitate the West in everything”. Al-Liwa opposed a proposed ban on the veil, not because the veil was seen as an immutable facet of Islam, but because the paper disagreed with having a colonial power imposing national culture.
Resistance to colonial oppression has therefore sometimes led to an even stronger defence of customs such as veiling. As Franz Fanon put it when looking at the resistance to French imperialism in Algeria, the veil was defended because “the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria”. The West had made the veil into a symbol of resistance.
There are other examples of the British ruling class claiming concern for women’s rights in order to justify imperial and colonial adventures.
In India, although the rights and status of women in many areas were greater than much of Europe, the British viewed Indian women as passive victims, backward and subordinate.
William Bentinck, the British governor-general of India, was just one of many British imperialists who took up the issue of sati (or suttee) – the practice of widows burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre.
In 1829 he wrote On Ritual Murder In India in which he highlighted the issue of sati, arguing that he wanted to end such practices by bringing “a purer morality” and “a more just conception of the will of god” to the Indians.
Presiding over the systematic robbery of India and the bloody repression that went with it, Bentinck argued, “The first and primary object of my heart is the benefit of the Hindus.”
Of course sati is undoubtedly an oppressive practice, but the British campaign against it was used, as the writer Suvendrini Perera has pointed out, “as a moral justification to the British to impose their rule on India”.
Incidences of early motherhood resulting from child marriages were also used by the British to demonstrate India’s “depraved” gender relations.
Before British rule, India was widely regarded in Europe as a superior society. This changed when Britain needed to start to justify its conquest of India.
Indian men were portrayed as effeminate and inferior to British men – strengthening the idea that India was not fit for self-rule.
Britain presided over widespread impoverishment and famine in India, and consciously developed a policy of divide and rule to maintain power. The notion that any of this benefited Indian women is distasteful to say the least.
In Ireland similar ideas were used. Irish women were seen as being “under threat” from “brutal, violent and animalistic” Irish men. This is different to the portrayal of Indian men, but the implications for colonised women were the same – they were a defenceless and weak group who needed the enlightened British to rescue and protect them.
Imperialist powers have repeatedly captured the language of women’s rights and used it to justify imperialism, while simultaneously blocking any reforms that could help liberate women.
Western rulers talk about the need for Muslim women to unveil so that they can be liberated. But when women demand concrete reforms that would mean real improvements in their lives, such as health funding, housing and education, they are denied.
Women’s rights have been set back by the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana has pointed out the hypocrisy of Bush and Blair’s claims to liberate women: “Iraqi women were long the most liberated in the Middle East. Occupation has largely confined them to their homes.
“A typical Iraqi woman’s day begins with the struggle to get the basics: electricity, petrol or a cylinder of gas, water, food and medication. It ends with a sigh of relief at surviving death threats and violent attacks. For most women, simply to venture on to the street is to risk being attacked or kidnapped for profit or revenge.”
In this context, she argues, most Iraqi women rightly view the rhetoric of women’s rights with scepticism. “In Iraq,‘women’s rights’ is an absurd discourse chewing on meaningless words.
“No wonder that the US-funded NGOs, which preach Western-style women’s rights and democracy, are regarded as vehicles for foreign manipulation and are despised and boycotted.”
Real liberation for women cannot be imposed by bombs, war or imperialism. It can only be brought about by struggle. When imperialist powers talk the language of liberating women it is never women who benefit. It is the imperialists.
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