History has been written by, about, and for men, western feminists have argued for some time now. Consequently, History has been a largely patriarchal, as well as male, enterprise. Building on the works of European women’s writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the activism of the suffragettes of the early twentieth century who are credited with winning the vote for women, the feminists of the mid-twentieth century began unearthing and documenting the historical and contemporaneous experience and political perspectives of women. They also turned their attention to how it was that women had been written out, silenced, or simply disappeared from most accounts of history. Reclaiming the stories of these silenced women became a major feminist project in its own right. To rewrite origin stories thus became a critical aspect of the politics of contesting the patriarchal order, and of challenging the power of men to shape History in their own image. The tradition of Herstory was hence developed by feminists as they sought to highlight the centrality of gender to the politics of knowledge production as well as to the organisation of the social world. This is Herstory’s foundational narrative. It remains firmly entrenched within the political universe of western feminism. However, this narrative is as much western as it is feminist.
The power vested in these twin aspects of the feminist narrative – reclaiming history and transforming the present – was viscerally brought home to me as the drumbeats for the war in Afghanistan were quickening across North America following the 9/11 attacks in the US. I was scheduled to speak at a national conference on ‘Ending Violence Against Women’ that had been organised by Canadian feminists. Using the occasion to speak out against the looming invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the larger war on terror, I revisited significant moments in the well documented history of US foreign policy. I highlighted the point that the brunt of this war would inevitably be borne by Afghan women and children. The Canadian feminist movement, I argued, should actively organise against Canada’s involvement in the Afghan invasion, as well as its support for US foreign policy more generally. This argument, I believed at the time, should be a no-brainer for feminists.
The backlash to my speech was instant. The mainstream media whipped up a storm of public condemnation, provincial and federal ministers denounced me. I was inundated with hate mail and threats of violence. I had not expected such public vitriol, even less was I prepared for the ‘internal’ response from the feminist movement. Prominent feminists lauded the Canadian government for its role in the war on terror, defining this imperialist aggression against a country already ravaged by decades of war as an honourable attempt to ‘save’ Afghan women and girls. More disturbing, the larger women’s movements across North America and Europe, not to mention in many parts of the Global South, enthusiastically embraced and reproduced the Islamophobic constructs of Islam as an inherently fanatic and murderous religion, and of Muslim men as irredeemably fanatical and misogynistic. Muslim women appeared in this ideological framing of the war on terror as hapless victims of their families, communities, and religion. In the ensuing media furore, I repeatedly made the point that European empires had developed their colonial policies through these very kinds of constructs of the peoples and cultures they were colonising. So, for example, the British had used the rationale that they were ‘saving’ Indian women in their colonisation of South Asia, much like the French argued they were ‘protecting’ Algerian women in their occupation of Algeria. While some feminists did take a critical stance against the war on terror, they were but a handful. They defined the war on terror, especially the subsequent invasion of Iraq, as imperialist in nature and opposed it on these grounds. Yet even those feminists who opposed the wars were reluctant to challenge the damaging constructs of Islam as promoting violence and of Muslim men as pathologically woman-hating. These constructions became rapidly institutionalised in state practices as well as political and public cultural discourses, often with feminist leaders promoting them. Rather than learn from the histories of past imperialist wars and occupations on women’s lives, feminist movements instead advanced the idea that western cultural values were equality oriented, especially on the question of women’s rights. War against Muslim men hence became defined as the way to promote Muslim women’s equality.