Social System

PART 2: The Marriage between Feminism and Colonialism in the Muslim World

Modern-Day Attacks on Women and Shariah: Replicating Historical Colonial Agendas

Historically, Western colonial rulers constructed and widely propagated the narrative of women’s subjugation under Islam to gain legitimacy for their occupation over Muslim lands as well as to undermine Islamic governance in order to maintain domination over the region and its resources. In modern times, Western politicians and government continue to use the rhetoric of ‘Women’s Rights’ and the rallying cry of ‘saving the Muslim woman’ from the ‘oppression of the Shariah’ as a tool to morally justify colonial interventions in the Muslim world, as well as to fight the global resurgence of Islam and the re-establishment of the Khilafah, replicating the strategy of their forefathers.

The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq are recent examples where talk of women’s rights and lies regarding the mistreatment of women under the Shariah were used by Western leaderships and their supporters to aid the moral case for war and to justify continuing occupations. They were also used to achieve their visions of modeling those countries along Western secular lines and away from Islamic governance. Laura Bush for example, the wife of the former US President George Bush, said in a radio address in 2001 at the beginning of the war on Afghanistan, “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment… the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Cherie Blair, the wife of previous British Prime Minister Tony Blair, voicing similar support for the intervention stated in 2001, “The women in Afghanistan are entitled, as women in every country are, to have the same hopes and aspirations as ourselves and our daughters: for good education, a career outside the home, if they want one; the right to health care, and, of course, most importantly, the right for their voices to be heard.” These high profile Western women were joined in chorus by various feminist groups in support of the war, including the prominent US feminist organization founded by Eleanor Smeal, ‘Feminist Majority’ who ran an intensive campaign against what they viewed as the barbaric mistreatment of Afghan women under Shariah laws. The group’s actions have been described by many as having played an integral part in garnering widespread support for the ‘War on Terror’. Indeed, the US social anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind noted that the relationship between the neoconservative Bush administration and some US feminists was reciprocal and intimate. They said, “By the time the war started, feminists like [Eleanor] Smeal could be found cozily chatting with the general about their shared enthusiasm for Operation Enduring Freedom and the possibility of women pilots commandeering F-16s.”

However, such organizations, individuals, or even institutions such as the UN that also gave its backing to the invasion notably expressed little concern for the crippling affect that sanctions imposed on Afghanistan under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 had had on the country’s women preceding the war; OR that countless lives of Afghan women and their families and children were likely be lost in this venture; OR that Western governments were supporting the Northern Alliance into power in the country – a gang of warlords who had a notorious record of rape and abuse of women; OR the fact that Western bombing of Afghanistan that was in the midst of a 3 year drought would put the country’s women at greater risk of starvation due to impeding the delivery of food aid. All of which illustrated a lack of genuine concern for the wellbeing of Afghanistan’s women, as did the hellish conditions created as a consequence of the occupation which led to the deaths, injury and displacement of tens of thousands of Afghan women and created a lawless society with spiralling levels of abductions, rape, and violence against women. According to the UN, 5000 people were killed in the first 6 months of 2014 alone, and deaths and injuries to women and children caused by improvised explosive devises increased by 38% in the first half of 2013. And there are now 1.5 million war widows in the country.

Additionally, as with colonial rule of the Muslim world historically, the living conditions of women in Afghanistan failed to improve as a result of this modern-day colonial intervention. In fact in many cases they deteriorated. Today, 36% of Afghans live in extreme poverty, 8.5 million people, or 37% of the population are on the borderline of food insecurity, and there has been a rise in women setting themselves on fire due to financial desperation. One woman dies every two hours in the country due to maternal deaths resulting from a pitiful healthcare system, and there is only a 12% female literacy rate. All this has been accompanied by high levels of non-Islamic practices such as forced marriages and honour killings that have been allowed to flourish under a Western-inspired secular regime and system. This is the true lasting legacy for Afghan women of 13 years of Western colonial policies in the country, where talk of women’s rights has been nothing but a smokescreen to hide ulterior colonial political motives in the region.

Despite all this, over a decade after the beginning of the war, Western politicians absurdly continued to argue that Western intervention in Afghanistan had improved the lives of its women, while also shamelessly exploiting talk of Afghan women’s rights to justify continued occupation of the country. In November 2013, at a time when the US was attempting to convince both the American and Afghan public of the need for some US combat forces to remain in the country, both John Kerry, US Secretary of State and Hiliary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, were also arguing intently that the US needed to remain engaged in the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, warning about the dangers to Afghan women following the withdrawal of US troops from the country in 2014. John Kerry, in his address at Georgetown claimed that Afghan women and girls had made great progress since 2001, enjoying greater access to education and healthcare. He said, “As Afghanistan sees women standing up in Afghanistan, taking control of their country’s future, not only for themselves, but for all Afghans, we have to be determined that they will not stand alone. America will stand up with them as they shape a strong and united Afghanistan that secures a rightful place in the community of nations.” Hiliary Clinton stated,”…we are well aware this is a serious turning point for all the people of Afghanistan, but in particular the hard-fought gains that women and children have been able to enjoy.” This was despite the nightmare that the presence of US troops had caused for Afghanistan’s women for over a decade. All this demonstrates that as with the West’s historical precedence, feminist rhetoric and campaigns in relation to the Muslim world continue to be employed by modern-day Western-secular governments for nothing but colonial ends.

When the War on Terror moved to Iraq, Western leaders once again employed the language of feminism and apparent concern for the rights of Iraqi women to justify bombing the country. President Bush for example on International Women’s Day in 2004, nearly a year after the invasion began, addressed 250 women from around the world who had gathered at the White House, saying, “The advance of women’s rights and the advance of liberty are ultimately inseparable.” The president claimed that “the advance of freedom in the greater Middle East has given new rights and new hopes to women there”. In 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair fear-mongering against Islamic rule in order to justify continuing British occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq stated, “They demand…the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Shariah law in the Arab world en route to one caliphate of all Muslim nations. We don’t have to wonder what type of country those states would be…Girls put out of school. Women denied even rudimentary rights….All of it justified by reference to religious faith.”

However, as with Afghanistan such ‘concern’ for the rights of Iraqi women amongst Western leaders and governments was notably absent with regards to the debilitating impact that 13 years of UN sanctions had had on the country’s women and their families. These sanctions had led to high levels of malnutrition, widespread diseases, crippling of the healthcare system in the country, deterioration of women’s education due to the declining economic situation, and hundreds of thousands of deaths amongst children.

As part of the war effort, the US and British governments also actively funded, established, and supported a number of Iraqi feminist groups. For example, at a press conference two weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the then Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky stated, “We are at a critical point in dealing with Saddam Hussein. However this turns out, it is clear that the women of Iraq have a critical role to play in the future revival of their society.” Next to her were members of ‘Women for a Free Iraq”, a group comprised of exiled Iraqi women and formed in January 2003 to raise awareness of women’s persecution under Saddam Hussein. The movement received funding from the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies whose president, Clifford May was a former Republican Party operative and whose board was filled with prominent neoconservatives. The US State Department also publicized the abuses women suffered under the Saddam regime, while in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office included the regime’s crimes against women in its dossier on human rights abuses in Iraq. Additionally, Western governments aided the organization of numerous workshops, seminars, conferences, and training programs for women on democracy and human rights, especially in the initial period after the invasion. In 2003, the US allocated $27million for women’s programmes to be utilised in part for national women’s conferences and to support newly formed women’s organisations that both supported the colonial intervention in the country as well as promoted an understanding of “women’s rights” from a secular standpoint amongst Iraqi women. Many of these groups worked actively to ensure that the way forward for Iraq was through a secular constitution and that Islam was kept away from the state, reflecting the modern-day marriage between feminism and colonialism in the Muslim world.

However, despite all this talk of women’s rights, the women of Iraq as with Afghan women paid a heavy price for Western intervention in the country. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives, their families and their homes. Their society spiraled into an abyss of chaos, violence, and lawlessness leading to high numbers of abductions, rapes, and murders. 9.5 million of Iraq’s population now live below the poverty line with poverty rates increasing even further. And thousands of innocent Iraqi women have been abused, tortured or imprisoned by security forces of the Western supported secular regime to extract information from them regarding male relatives who were suspected to be insurgents. All this reveals once again that Western politicians and administrations held no sincere concern for the wellbeing of Iraqi women but rather exploited the language of feminism to secure their political and oil interests in the country.


There has therefore been a long marriage between feminism and colonialism in the Muslim world that is very much alive and strong today. Western governments utilized women’s rights and feminist ideals simply to pursue and further their colonial interests in the region. This included a goal of secularising systems and the culture of the people through eroding their Islamic beliefs, as well as fighting the resurgence of Islam within Muslim societies – all to strengthen their colonial foothold in the region.

All talk and initiatives by such governments towards women in the Muslim lands therefore holds no true concern for the happiness or wellbeing of Muslim women, nor will they bring anything positive to their lives. This is illustrated further by the intimate relationship that current Western governments have with secular and other non-Islamic dictatorships in the Muslim world which unashamedly oppress their women and rob them of basic rights but do the bidding of their Western masters. Hence, feminist initiatives and agendas at play in the Muslim world, whether promoted by women’s organizations, secular regimes, or institutions such as the UN simply aid the realization of colonial plans and strengthens their control over the politics and economics of Muslim societies. This includes the imposition of international women’s treaties such as CEDAW in our lands, the enshrining of the Western feminist ideal of gender equality in constitutions, the support of secular personal status codes as well as the promotion of the non-Islamic concept of ‘Islamic Feminism’.

Furthermore, the colonial lies regarding the oppression of women under the Shariah of the Khilafah continues to be replicated by successive generations of Western leaderships and politicians, generating hatred and fear amongst their public and even Muslims towards Islamic rule. They also provide them justification for continued and future interventions in the Muslim world. The ideals of feminism must therefore be rejected as firmly as the concept of colonialism in our Muslim lands is fought against. Furthermore, the outdated historical narrative of women’s subjugation under the Islamic governance of the Khilafah, which has its roots in a colonial agenda to dominate the Muslim world and rob it of its resources, should be discarded into the dustbin of history.

يُرِيدُونَ أَن يُطۡفِـُٔواْ نُورَ ٱللَّهِ بِأَفۡوَٲهِهِمۡ وَيَأۡبَى ٱللَّهُ إِلَّآ أَن يُتِمَّ نُورَهُ ۥ وَلَوۡ ڪَرِهَ ٱلۡكَـٰفِرُونَ

“They want to extinguish Allah’s Light with their mouths, but Allah will not allow except His Light should be perfected even though the Kafirun hate it.”

(At-Taubah: 32)

Written for The Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir by

Dr. Nazreen Nawaz

Member of the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir