An unchanged model: the role of women within the relationships of development
By Silvia Vacchi, University of Warwick
Historical relationships between “developed” and “underdeveloped” countries are influenced by gender relations, and some patterns, despite society’s and human evolution, have not substantially changed throughout history. This is illustrated by a comparison between the British colonial period and the invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S. in 2001. Accounts of these periods can be found in “The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset” by Philippa Levine (2013), and “Unveiling Imperialism: Media, Gender, and the War on Afghanistan”, by Stabile and Kumar (2005). Both pieces examine the gendered norms and behaviors within the relationships between the Western developer/invaders and the underdeveloped/invaded in each of the time periods. The comparison of these periods highlights the centrality of the oppression of women within the relationships between the developed and underdeveloped.
The first historical phenomenon that will be considered is the period of the British colonization. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain started expanding its political, military and commercial dominion over a number of (mostly) underdeveloped countries. The British imposed unequal trading relationships in order to enhance Britain’s growth and strengthen its overall power. Besides the obvious consequences that this caused to the colonized countries’ economies and political structures, we can observe that their social and gender relations were severely impacted as well. This resulted in profound inequality between the genders.
The second event is the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which took place in 2001, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This territory had been a crucial area during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had occupied the country at the end of the 1970s, and at that point Afghanistan fell under the control of a pro-Soviet party. This, in turn, was rejected by a revolutionary and extremist group, the mujahideen, which were supported by the United States in order to counteract the Soviet power. This controversial move proved to be disastrous for the fate of Afghanistan, whose population (and women in particular) began to experience limitations to their rights and freedom (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 766-768). Although men had to comply with certain rules as well, the main abuse was perpetrated on women, who saw severe limitations to their basic rights and were frequently targets of violence (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 769). The deterioration of women’s rights was presented as the main reason for the later US aggression; however, as we shall see, this was definitely not the truth.
The first similarity between the cases that can be detected is that both represent forms of colonialism. In fact, in both situations we can observe a strong Western country taking over a foreign territory in order to pursue its own interests. A second analogy between the two phenomena is the concept of male dominance. In the case of British colonialism the number of white, British men in the colonies was significantly higher than that of women (Levine 2013, 155). In fact, as Levine puts it, “The most general impression of the Empire was of a man’s world” (Levine 2013, 156). Although American men didn’t have any significant numeric advantage on local women, the preponderance of their power found further confirmation in their treatment of women.
On the one hand, both the British colonizers and the US soldiers dealt with women from a position of greater power. On the other, local men in the colonies and Afghan men exercised this same patriarchal power on women. Although both behaviors were deeply unjust and unequal, the latter was seen as especially backward and inhumane, including practices such as underage marriage, female slavery or prostitution (Levine 2013, 156-157). The way indigenous men in British colonies mistreated women was judged unbearable and unacceptable by the colonists of the 18th century (Levine 2013, 158). Similarly, the US media channels started condemning the atrocities imposed on Afghan women after 2001. This scandalized American public opinion, and ultimately helped convince people that an American military intervention was necessary. It is crucial, however, to point out that this was a strategic move on part of American institutions, considering that the violation of Afghan women’s rights had started well before, and yet little to no public attention had been turned to the situation earlier (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 772-775). For example, “[...] from 12 September 2001 to 1 January 2002, 93 newspaper articles [about women’s abuse] appeared – three times the number of articles that appeared in 1999 and six times the number that appeared in the 18 months before 11 September 2001” (Stabile, Carol and Kumar, Deepa, 2005, 772).
This similarity probably stands out the most between the two historical moments, and it finds its roots in the notion of protection of women. In fact, since both the colonial and the Afghan societies were seen from a male-dominated perspective, it was only considered natural for Western, white men to protect women and present themselves as their saviors and protectors (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 769-770; Levine 2013, 158). This assumption was in both cases exploited in order to legitimize the invasions, which were triggered by much less noble intentions. In fact, in the same way that the colonists exploited the protection of women in order to foster the growth of their economy and power, the US had their own economic and political interests in the region. This is suggested by the fact that the country only decided to intervene in the region after 2001, while remaining indifferent during the previous decade (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 769).
One last interesting parallelism between the two situations is the relationship between Western women and local ones. During the nineteenth century women began to join their husbands in the colonies, because it was widely believed that the presence of more British women would help the colonists settle, with significant economic benefits as a result (Levine 2013, 161). This phenomenon highlighted the differences between these white, British women and the indigenous ones. It could be asserted that the women of the colonies were judged as the less valuable people within the colonial society, to the point that they were even discriminated by other women. In fact, British women who had emigrated to the colonies began an activist movement to protest against the violation of their and the local women’s rights; however, they didn’t judge these indigenous women as their equals, but rather as helpless beings who needed aid and protection (Levine 2013, 176).
The patronizing attitude of Western white women is evident in the case of Afghanistan as well: Afghan women were seen as oppressed by Afghan men and by their religion, which was seen as inherently masculine and patriarchal by certain US liberal feminist groups, such as the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) (Khalid 2011, 15-16). This group, among many others, employed a kind of discourse that Edward Said would define as “Orientalist”, which entails the hierarchical representation and construction of the identity of Afghan women as the “Other woman” (Mohanty 1988, 61). This narrative construct a biased and oppressive conceptualization of the subjects in question.
From this comparative analysis, it can be concluded that, despite time, change and evolution, a lot of trends remain the same when it comes to historical and human patterns. What is even more evident is the fact that women are the targets of many forms of violence, because they are usually judged as inferior and weaker members of society across many times and cultures. At the same time, women are also used as scapegoats and political instruments: in fact, being considered incapable of their own protection, their helplessness is usually exploited as an excuse for the pursuit of other ends.
Khalid, M. (2011) “Gender, Orientalism and Representations of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror”, Global change, Peace & Security, 23:1.
Levine, Philippa (2013) "The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset", Ch. 9, Gender and Sexuality, pp. 155-179.
Mohanty, C. T. (1988) “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”, Feminist Review, 30.
Stabile, Carol and Kumar, Deepa (2005) “Unveiling Imperialism: Media, Gender, and the War on Afghanistan”, Media, Culture and Society, 27: 5.