Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I'm really happy that you're part of our day, and that we're part of yours, so let's get to it. Now, if you've been following recent media coverage about Afghanistan, then you've probably encountered headlines like these.
Speaker 1: We can't make a country care about its own women. Only Afghanistan can do that. USA Today, August 16th.
Speaker 2: The nightmare resumes for Afghan women. America rescued them 20 years ago. How can we abandon them to the Taliban again? The Wall Street Journal, August 17th.
Speaker 3: Afghan women fear the worst, whether war or peace lies ahead. Whatever happens once the United States withdraws will not bode well for Afghan women.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You can hear these same sentiments in broadcast media.
Speaker 4: Much to the Taliban's consternation, one of the great victories of the past two decades has been the education and the limited advance and freedom for Afghan women and girls. That era appears to be over.
Speaker 5: Many women in Kabul haven't even left their homes out of fear. Under the previous Taliban rule, women, in many cases, were not allowed to go to school. They had to have their full-body covered, and they needed guardians to accompany them in the streets.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All of it should sound very familiar because the American media had a lot to say about Afghan women 20 years ago. Here's a 60 Minutes report from October of 2001.
Speaker 6: For the women of Afghanistan, the veil, the burqa, has become the symbol of the Taliban's power. Even women who fled to the United States have been afraid to remove that veil of repression, fearing reprisals on their family back home, and from Taliban supporters here in America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the intervening years, American media occasionally checked in on the women of Afghanistan, especially when doing so included the opportunity to interview a high-profile guest. Take a listen to Today show co-host Savannah Guthrie during a 2016 segment with former first lady Laura Bush.
Savannah Guthrie: Former first lady Laura Bush, she's here to talk about a new book called We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope. She wrote the introduction and launched the efforts to get it published. The book includes Afghan women's accounts of their successes, their triumphs, despite great adversity there. It's a topic that Mrs. Bush has been fiercely passionate about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now to be clear, it is not fake news to claim that Taliban governance is devastating for women's lives and futures, but it is misleading reporting to hint that this is a consequence of Islam, rather than the result of the Taliban's totalitarianism. It's not fake news to claim that women have enjoyed more professional opportunities and access to the public sphere during the past 20 years, but it is deeply inadequate to report this while failing to note that the repression of Afghan girls and women coincided with US intervention 50 years ago during the Soviet-Afghan war.
It's almost irresponsible to ignore that the economic devastation and violence connected to America's post 9/11 invasion fell disproportionately on Afghanistan's women and girls. It's not fake news to say many Americans are concerned with the fate and future of Afghan women but it is startling to report this while ignoring generations of Afghan women who have organized on their own behalf. The Takeaway as a media outlet reporting at this time of American initiated chaos in Afghanistan. We're going to begin today by asking how can we do better? Here to discuss this is Amani al-Khatahtbeh who is founder of Muslim Girl an organization working to normalize the word Muslim for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Amani al-Khatahtbeh: Thank you, Melissa. I'm happy to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rafia Zakaria, who is the author of the new book Against White Feminism. Welcome, Rafia.
Rafia Zakaria: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amani, let me start with you. A recent tweet of yours read, "After over a decade of our tireless work to push back against the stereotype that 'Islam oppresses women,' here go the Taliban once again bastardizing my religion and reigniting the white savior complex that got us into this mess." Expand.
Amani al-Khatahtbeh: For me, 9/11 happened when I was a child and, of course, I from a very young age was bombarded by a lot of the media misrepresentation of our wars abroad in Muslim countries from being political wars to being contorted into being humanitarian ones, "on the pretense of liberating Muslim women," giving them their freedom, going in to save brown girls and women from brown men.
Obviously, all of these elements have played into a very problematic atmosphere that has resulted in life or death situations, not only for the populations being devastated by US intervention overseas but also for Muslims around the world that now have had to push back against the disempowerment of this Western lens that we need outside intervention in order to be rescued, in order to be safe. We clearly see now, hindsight is 2020, that those policies absolutely devastated women and girls proportionately more than anybody.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed, in fact, Rafia, I'm just going to ask you to pick up there at the end of where Amani has brought us to, this idea that we begin in this moment of 9/11 but actually not just beginning there, going back before that moment, in the ways that the political interests of the US had these devastating effects.
Rafia Zakaria: Yes, you're right. The fact is that the way these women are being portrayed, Muslim women, Afghan women, has very little to do about those women themselves, and everything to do with positioning the white American woman as feminist in chief. If you want the white American woman to present this front of being feminist in chief, well, it helps to have these "other women" for that feminist in chief to save.
Over the course of the war on terror, you've seen not only the elevation of white women in that role but then now repeatedly, in the media coverage, as you pointed out, in your introduction, there is this idea that as for as long as white people were there in Afghanistan, they were somehow protecting Afghan women, and so now that they're leaving, there's no one to protect Afghan women. There's a very pointed attack on that culture there, which says that this culture is inherently unfeminist. It has a very particular pointed attack on women in a way that American culture does not.
There's a whole ongoing discourse here off now positioning American feminism as another offshoot of American exceptionalism, where what Jessica Chastain did in Zero Dark Thirty, the white American woman is out there to go save the world by torturing brown men. All of that is part of this discourse and you see it reemerge in this five minutes that America has allotted to Afghanistan after ignoring it for decades [chuckles] and, of course, by next week, it will be forgotten again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm sorry, you heard my call and response there to what feels like so much truth that you are telling us. I have to say as currently a working member of the US media, I get the ways that the news cycle pushes and drives us and that we're always trying to find a story and report it and report it well but this one, the consequences and the length of time that we've been telling this same narrative. Amani, I want to come to you because part of what's happening here, from my perspective, is the ways that you intervened, you and other particularly Millennial and Z generation Muslim women, intervened by making use of media in a very different way.
Can you talk a little bit about the initial founding of Muslim Girl which is now stunningly old? [chuckles] It's such an established institution now, but talk to me a little bit about that.
Amani al-Khatahtbeh: Absolutely. When I started Muslim Girl as a teenager, all we had available at our fingertips was social media and the resources that were provided to us through the internet, and in that way, we were able to really melt a lot of the borders on the conversations that we were having. Really, the intent of creating Muslim Girl was to create a platform where we can reclaim that narrative in the media as a new generation of Muslim women and girls that aren't here to say, "This isn't the real Islam. This is what we really believe in," but rather to have the conversation on our terms.
Because for the majority of my life, a lot of the conversations that you've been talking about that the media has been covering a lot of the propaganda we saw from 20 years ago, and even some of the coverage that we see today, for the most part, always by non-Muslims, non-Afghans, non-Iraqis, people that don't come from the communities that are directly impacted. A lot of the times, it's always been white women and even more so white men speaking on behalf of Muslim women in these populations and "tribulations that they have to endure because of the religion". Of course, we know the very dire political impact that that narrative has created.
This is what empowers so much of our ideology of American exceptionalism, that these problems occur abroad but they don't happen here, and we have to be the global cop to be putting out these fires and going into other people's countries that aren't asking for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amani, are you suggesting that there is gender inequity here in the United States?
Amani al-Khatahtbeh: Oh, as if that's such a radical [chuckles] assumption to make. That's the problem. When we have these issues at home, for example, when domestic violence is the top killer of women, we call it domestic violence. When it happens in a Muslim country, we call it an honor killing. Even the way that we tell these stories, the way that we label them is intended to continue othering them. It's no surprise to me that the headlines that are re-erupting right now have suddenly taken on this moral discourse about how we have to save women, it's about their rights and stuff like that when we all know that the United States government does not give a damn about brown girls or brown women.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rafia, talk to me a little bit more about your concept of feminist in chief. It's such a powerful one that both exposes something about feminism but also about a certain kind of militarism and hierarchy. What does it mean to dismantle that?
Rafia Zakaria: Well, the essential issue here is white supremacy which means that just as white feminists in the United States embraced carceral punishment to "demand protection" from the state, so essentially, we had the Violence Against Women Act, and the demand was of white feminists in the '60s and '70s that they wanted protection from domestic violence, which sounds fantastic. What ended up happening was that after the passage of the act, five times as many Black men were arrested as white men, and you had this demand by white women for protection, and that contributing to mass incarceration and increased rates of domestic violence against Black women.
In the case of the war on terror, it was an embrace of the course of power of the state to bomb other countries. The demand by Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and even Gloria Steinem was that, "Oh, we want protection from terrorism." What they did is imagine that they could exploit white feminism by which I mean a feminism very much inflected with racial privilege to this other country and then we'll be safe from terrorists. In both of those cases, the core is this idea that feminists and the state are one and the same. That to be a true feminist, you have to adopt this positioning towards men of other cultures.
In the Afghan case, of course, it is the quintessential saving brown women from brown men which positions the white feminist, like I said before, as feminist in chief. It's not just an issue of media coverage right now, it's also an issue of the fact that the women who created the narrative around Afghan women from the get-go were white American women. There's story after story after story of a white woman reporting from Afghanistan, and this was repeated recently in many CNN segments, that focus on the heroism of the white woman in having made the choice to go cover the story, which, of course, again, positions the white feminist as the heroine of the story.
Americans in being fed this propaganda in many, many different ways have internalized it. The other issue is that if it were talked about in this way, then people would see an essential and crucial connection between movements like Black Lives Matter in the United States and anti-imperial movements in places like Afghanistan because the core is the same. The same idea that everyone else has to passively receive American policies and the white American woman knows best what Afghan women need, what Pakistani women need, what women anywhere and everywhere need.
Also, the painting of the Afghan women as only valuable when they are somehow assisting the United States in demonizing Afghan men. You have program after program. Even the UN is currently running programs under countering violent extremism which essentially focus on training Muslim women to "be informers" on their communities. This happened here domestically in the US as well and there is no critique of that even now. There's no critique of that from any political party. It's not just a Republican thing, it's also Democrats who are failing to do that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 20 years in Afghanistan we cover five different administrations. Amani, give us an alternative vision. What is Muslim feminism for you?
Amani al-Khatahtbeh: I think that the most important thing that people need to understand is they have to listen to what these women have to say. If we had did that 20 years ago, if we had listened to Afghan women, none of them were asking for US intervention. None of them were calling for American feminists to come rescue them. The fact is that because we have spoken over their voices for so long that we have created the situation for them. Now, yes, Afghan women are paying the ultimate price for the narratives and the rhetoric that we are putting out there from this side of the world.
That is so wrong and disruptive, to imagine what future generations are going to have to continue healing from and rebuilding right after all of the incredible progress that was made in reaction to the first round of all this. I think it's necessary for us to really use this as a moment to take a step back and pass the mic to the people that are directly impacted, allow them to represent and speak for themselves, and to lead us on what needs to be done for their benefit and for the best outcome for their futures.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen to Afghan women and believe Afghan women. Amani, Rafia, thank you both for discussing this extremely important topic with us.
Rafia Zakaria: Thank you.
Amani al-Khatahtbeh: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:19:15] [END OF AUDIO]
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