Scholarship…or rubbish?

By Vic Rosenthal

Recently I wrote about CSU Fresno’s developing Middle East Studies program. I suggested that it might — like many programs and academic departments of Middle East studies — have an uncomfortable slant, tending towards radical Islam and including tendentious anti-American and anti-Israel content.

Mary HusainOne of the faculty members teaching several courses and proposed courses is Mary Husain. She has taught courses in the departments of Women’s Studies and Communications in the areas of “cultural studies, gender studies, and media persuasion”. She is listed to teach proposed courses in Middle Eastern Film Criticism, Middle Eastern News Analysis, and Intercultural Communication.

Ms. Husain has recently published an article with Kevin Ayotte, called “Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic Violence, and the Rhetoric of the Veil” (NWSA Journal, Vol. 17 No. 3). Although the article is not available on the web, I have obtained a copy from the library.

Here’s the abstract. Warning! academic prose is turgid:

In the wake of the “war on terrorism,” feminist analyses of international relations must broaden the concept of security to consider forms of violence beyond the statist security framework of realpolitik. This article argues that U.S. representations of the burqa rhetorically construct the women of Afghanistan as gendered slaves in need of “saving” by the West, increasing women’s insecurity by promoting various forms of neocolonial violence. In negotiating a middle ground between poststructuralist and materialist methods, this essay also argues for a feminist postcolonial criticism that will provide a more nuanced understanding of the nature of gender insecurity in the post-cold war world.

Were this written in English, it might go something like this: “from a feminist point of view, the US — by freeing women from the onerous restrictions of the violent Taliban — actually committed violence, both ‘epistemic’ and real, against them”.

This is not to say that Husain and Ayotte think the Taliban regime was a paradise for women:

It has been well documented that women in Afghanistan have been beaten simply for accidentally letting an inch of skin show (United Nations 2000, 7; amnesty International 1999; Physicians for Human Rights 1998, 52). Of course, the Taliban’s overwhelming misogyny neither began nor ended with the imposition of the burqa, and the wide range of oppressive policies that the Taliban inlficted upon women has certainly been discussed in the U.S. news media… [p. 115]

However, apparently these Western media are incapable of presenting the truth about Afghan women, because…they are Western:

Especially problematic is the ventriloquism of Afghan women by discourses speaking for (both “on behalf of” and “in place of”) them… Even if [the accounts of Afghan women interviewed on 60 Minutes] could be unproblematically interpreted as immediate and generalizable relfections of reality, that discourse has already been edited, prompted by certain lines of questioning, i.e., mediated. This is not to suggest that the women’s stories are false, but rather that even their indigenous narratives are inflected by their representation in an inevitably Western discourse (Spivak 1999, 49). [p. 116]

So we are already at a disadvantage, because we can’t understand in an objective sense their true situations, although getting beat up by fanatical misogynists for not covering all of their skin seems pretty objective to me.

OK, so the US is incapable of getting it. But how are we inflicting violence on them by overthrowing the Taliban? Ayotte and Husain explain:

In particular, the image of the Afghan woman shrouded in the burqa has played a leading role in various public arguments seeking to justify U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

Er, no. I think they mostly said they were after Bin Laden. But the point was made in the US that Afghan women were getting beaten up, not allowed to work in many professions, not allowed to go to school, etc., and that after the Taliban regime was overthrown, these things changed. And this was true.

The pursuit of gender security must therefore account for the diverse ways in which the neocolonialism of some Western discourses about third-world women creates the epistemological conditions for material harm. [p. 113]

And what are these “epistemological conditions”?

In all of the examples [of Western media’s more or less well-informed discussions of Muslim women’s dress] above, the overt vilification or subtle mockery of the burqa becomes a rhetorical technique whereby U.S. discourses inflict epistemic violence on Afghan women by denying the very possibility for agency through the choice of dress, ostensibly the cause at issue with these representations in the first place.

In other words, the media create an atmosphere in which the women are not viewed with sufficient complexity as diverse people who make choices about dress from legitimate religious or other motives. But as Husain and Ayotte point out elsewhere, the true oppression comes not from the burqa itself, but from the Taliban’s imposition of it, under threat of violence. It seems to me that the ones who got beaten up for inadequate covering were trying to exercise their ‘agency’! And the US, despite the ethnocentrism of the media, did not force anyone to wear a bikini instead of a burqa.

The authors’ point seems to be that in addition to the physical violence (beatings, murder, rape, etc.) practiced by the Taliban or the Janjaweed, there is also ‘epistemic violence’, which the US and Western media do, which is almost as bad:

To erase the diverse and contextually specific experience of Afghan women regarding covering practices inflicts epistemic violence by devaluing them as subjects (Spivak 1999, 291; Mohanty 1991b, 71). U.S. representations of Afghan women only or primarily as objects victimized by (even the Taliban’s) male agency ineluctably reduce knowledge of these women to their status as victims. This discursive elision of varied indigenous practices and the knowledge regarding their contextual values can only be described as a “violent” imposition on Afghan women’s subjectivity. [p. 121]

So what did we do with the representation of Afghan women that we had epistemically violated?

The representation of women’s oppression was employed partly to demonize the Taliban and to prepare the U.S. public (and the world) for the air strikes that began on 7 October 2001.

Actually the Taliban regime was pretty demonic in its treatment of women, and the main reason cited for going after the Taliban was Bin Laden.

It is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate comprehensively the justification for air strikes against Taliban targets, and it cannot be claimed that representations of burqa-clad Afghan women were responsible for the U.S. decision to attack the Taliban, since the air strikes began before the majority of discourse about the burqa appeared in U.S. media.


However, the epistemic violence done by eliding the agency of Afghan women in their representation only as passive victims played a crucial role in justifying the particular forms of military action taken, even after the fact. Because U.S. discourses about Afghan women suggested that they could not “save” themselves, “liberation” had to come from the outside…

So that, finally,

To the extent that Western representations of the burqa and oppressed Afghan women were successful in persuading public audiences to support uncritically U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the epistemic violence of such discourse wreaked physical violence on the bodies of Afghan women as well. [p. 125]

Summary: the US media made fun of burqas, which helped the evil colonialists justify attacking Afghanistan to ‘save’ the women, who in some sense didn’t need saving, at least not by us, since we don’t understand them. The war in Afghanistan hurt and killed a lot of people, some of whom were Afghan women, and this wouldn’t have happened if the colonialists had not started the war, which they partly justified by citing the Taliban’s cruelty to women.

There are 22 pages of this sophomoric rubbish masquerading as scholarship. From a political point of view, the “postcolonial” stance that it takes could just as easily be called ‘anti-Western’, or, in this case, ‘anti-American’.

If this is the kind of politicized analysis, idiotic jargon, and argumentation worthy of a ‘D’ in an elementary rhetoric class that students in the Middle East Studies program can expect from Ms. Husain, then they — and CSU Fresno — are in big trouble.

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2 Responses to “Scholarship…or rubbish?”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    Where in the world are such people as Mary Husain coming from? The absolute lack of common sense, and simple decency is astonishing. The dishonest intellectual gymnastics are transparent.
    One wonders what kind of university it is which would have her part of its faculty.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    I think you’ve been out of the academic world for a long time! This kind of stuff is apparently par for the course in such areas as ethnic or gender studies.