Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 21, 2004

Imperialist feminism in Iraq

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on September 21, 2004

One of these days some enterprising radical scholar should write an article or a book on how feminism was used as a justification for the “war on terror”.

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a segment of the left was championing RAWA, a feminist group in Afghanistan that while never actually supporting the war, would make appearances on CNN at the very moment the USA was being whipped into a war fever–not a very wise time and place for a group with a progressive agenda.

Two years ago, Bush told the UN: “Respect for women… can triumph in the Middle East and beyond…The repression of women [is] everywhere and always wrong!”

While most unbiased observers recognize that Saddam Hussein promoted women into leadership positions (despite having extremely backward attitudes on other questions), feminism has also been misused as a way of controlling the population. NGO’s have sought to drive a wedge between groups conducting the resistance against imperialism and women in their communities who have been traditionally oppressed. By lining up women behind nominally progressive goals, NGO’s or functionaries in the Provisional Governing Authority apparently seek to divide and conquer.

This process is described in great detail in a fascinating article that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine section. (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/19/magazine/19WOMENL.html) It is focused on the late Fern Holland, a 33 year old PGA official who was assassinated recently. She was involved in setting up women’s centers and providing legal advice to Iraqi women.

Two such women came to her seeking aid in a legal dispute with a Baathist official who built a house on their land and refused to leave. Holland decided that the best way to deal with him was to get a legal write to destroy the house. Although the Times does not explicitly say so, she basically tried to bribe the judge by bringing an Internet cafe to his rice-farming village.

She managed to cajole the court into providing legal cover for bulldozing the house. Although the judge agreed that, ”No one should jump over a woman’s rights,” he pointed out that it was shameful to destroy somebody’s house. After the judgment was made, no Iraqi would carry out the order. Holland had to deliver the bulldozer herself. An Egyptian NGO colleague told her, “A bulldozer…that is an Israeli act.” She replied, ”They can’t just harass women this way, Dr. Adly.”

With her mixture of brutality, gung-ho idealism and missionary contempt for the natives, Holland will remind you of the CIA character in Graham Green’s “The Quiet American.” As reporter Elizabeth Rubin puts it, “From early in her life, Holland harnessed a go-it-alone, pioneer mentality to a Wilsonian belief in universal human rights and self-determination. As an American, she felt a moral obligation to the world, despite or maybe because of her decidedly rough beginnings.”

When a friend from Oklahoma told her about antiwar protests and the failure to find WMD’s, she responded, “I don’t know anything about W.M.D. But I can tell you this countryside is littered with the graves of men, women and children murdered by this regime.” When you read through the Times article, a consistent portrait is drawn of an imperious American official who will not allow herself to be bothered by counter indicative information. In other words, a touchy-feely version of Condoleeza Rice or Paul Wolfowitz.

When she arrived, there were profound illusions that the Iraqis could be bent to the US’s will. Rubin describes the prevailing mood:

It was an exciting time. Visions were grand. Cash was flowing by the truckload from Baghdad. Because it was confiscated money from Saddam’s coffers that the U.S. was distributing and not official American funds, there were almost no regulations on how it was spent. As Rachel Roe, a reservist and lawyer who was rebuilding the legal system in Najaf, told me: ”Fern showed up in the palace in Baghdad looking for the head of democracy and human rights to see what’s the plan and found some 21-year-old political appointee who had no idea what was going on. Someone would just say, ‘O.K., take this cash, put it in a backpack and build democracy centers.’ It was insane. I was looking for guidance on Iraqi law and was met by a 22-year-old American in charge of the Ministry of Justice who said, ‘Don’t worry about that, I’m pretty sure we’re going to rewrite that constitution anyway.’ This is a country of 23 million people, and we’re there with no plan for what we’re going to do. So we just started figuring it out ourselves.”

The article concludes with the following perceptive observations:

Shortly before I left Iraq, I went to a Baghdad provincial council meeting with a council member, Siham Hamdan. She lives in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City and had spent several days with Holland in Washington. A professor of English literature at Mustansirya University in Baghdad, Hamdan tried to explain why Iraq’s young men had revolted. ”We did nothing for them in a year,” she said. ”No jobs. No projects. No water, services, sewage, electricity.”

And then there was the cultural miscommunication, which seems to have been complete. The American military has its code of ethics and behavior; the Iraqis have their dignity; and the two have only clashed. She said she spent her last night in Washington touring the city with Holland and had met some of her friends. ”I came to believe she was wonderful,” Hamdan said. ”She told me she wanted to come back to Iraq because she loved the people and couldn’t leave them anymore.”

The conversation reminded Hamdan of E. M. Forster’s ”Passage to India.” She valued Forster for understanding that some English conventions were wrong, and that he needed to change the colonial mentality: ”He tried to tackle this in all his novels until he made this final clash — personal, religious, political, social, cultural, all in one time, in one place in the caves.” She was describing the novel’s climax, when two Englishwomen visit the Marbar Caves with their Indian male friends, and the young Miss Adela Quested comes flying out of the darkness accusing the Indian doctor of assaulting her. ”From that point every party tries to defend his own,” Hamdan said. ”And what began as an attempt at friendship and understanding ends in misunderstanding, failure and total chaos. And the final sentence is marvelous.” As Hamdan recalled it, the English colonial, Fielding, asks the Indian doctor if they can ever be friends again: ”And the doctor answered: ‘Not yet. Not now.’ ” Hamdan laughed, then said: ”Sometimes I feel what’s happening between Iraqis and Americans is just like this: ‘Not yet. Not now.’ I can have an excellent understanding on the personal level but understanding between our nations is somehow impossible.”

Actually, the novel ends a little differently than Hamdan remembered and, in the context of Iraq today, perhaps more prophetically. The Indian doctor on his horse rages at his old friend Fielding: ”Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then’ — he rode against him furiously — ‘and then,’ he concluded, half kissing him, ‘you and I shall be friends.’ ”

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