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U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women's Human Rights

U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women's Human Rights explores the integration of American concerns about women's human rights into U.S. policy toward Islamic countries since 1979, reframing U.S.-Islamic relations and challenging assumptions about the drivers of American foreign policy.

U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women's Human Rights

Kelly J. Shannon

2017 | 280 pages | Cloth $69.95 | Paper $24.95
Sociology / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Battling the Veil: American Reactions to the Iranian Revolution
Chapter 2. Muslim Women in U.S. Public Discourse After 1979
Chapter 3. Sisterhood Is Global: Transnational Feminism and Islam
Chapter 4. The First Gulf War and Saudi "Gender Apartheid"
Chapter 5. Female Genital Mutilation and U.S. Policy in the 1990s
Chapter 6. The Taliban, Feminist Activism, and the Clinton Administration
Chapter 7. Muslim Women's Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy Since 9/11


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This book traces a quiet revolution in U.S. foreign policy over the last few decades: the rise of women's human rights as a central concern in American relations with the Islamic world. As the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, the George W. Bush administration explained its war goals in striking terms. The United States fought to avenge 9/11 and remove the Taliban from power, they claimed, but an important aim—the press called it a "collateral benefit"—was the liberation of Afghan women. President Bush connected Islamic radicalism with women's subjugation. Even before the war began, he had condemned the oppression of Afghan women in an address to a joint session of Congress, describing it as part of "al Qaeda's vision for the world." After commencing the U.S. invasion a few weeks later, the administration emphasized women's rights as an important objective that went hand in hand with combating terrorism. As First Lady Laura Bush explained that November, "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of Americans supported the war in Afghanistan that fall. Echoing the administration, the U.S. media increasingly focused on the need to restore Afghan women's human rights. The Taliban forcing women to wear the burqa symbolized their oppression for the American public and policymakers alike. By November, as the Taliban appeared to be on the verge of defeat, discussions about Afghan women nearly eclipsed other coverage of the war. Democracy Now observed in December, "As the US-led war in Afghanistan has escalated, the situation of Muslim women has taken the world's center stage." Journalists, women's rights activists, policymakers, and the American public welcomed the liberation of Afghan women.

Women's rights were not traditionally a priority for American policymakers. Many feminists, scholars, and political commentators found the Bush administration's focus surprising, especially given its adversarial relationship with American feminists before 9/11. They saw Bush's focus on Afghan women as politically opportunistic, designed to elicit public support for the war, and emphasized how the administration's rhetoric resurrected an imperial logic of "saving brown women from brown men," in the famous words of Gayatri Spivak. While these criticisms had merit, they overlooked an important part of the story. Given the geopolitical, economic, and security stakes of the "War on Terror," as well as the Republican Party's record on gender issues, the Bush administration's central positioning of women's human rights in its Afghanistan policy must also be understood in another context: the history of U.S.-Islamic relations during the previous two decades.

The administration's condemnations of the Taliban spoke to a deep-seated American concern about women's human rights in Islamic societies that had become a prominent feature of U.S. discourse about Islam since the 1970s. The "rights revolution" in the United States—inclusive of civil rights, women's liberation, human rights, and other movements—had increased Americans' sensitivity to social injustice, inequality, and oppression, both at home and abroad. Bush's connecting the War on Terror with protecting Afghan women from oppression reflected how much Muslim women's rights resonated with the American public, as indicated by the acclaim for the U.S. military when it supported Afghan women.

In the years before Bush took office, as American public opinion increasingly favored women's equality in the Islamic world, feminists launched effective campaigns to change U.S. policy imperatives to include women's human rights. Feminists had been so successful that, far from being simply politically opportunistic, the Bush administration's attention to Afghan women also spoke powerfully to the effectiveness of the women's human rights movement in making Islamic women's rights a visible policy issue before Bush assumed office. In many ways, Bush was following precedent: women's human rights had become so salient that policymakers had to consider them when dealing with Muslim countries.

American leaders also reevaluated the U.S. global mission as the Cold War ended. In the shifting international landscape of the late twentieth century, the Muslim world emerged as a crucially important region for U.S. interests. Liberals and conservatives passionately debated abortion and the role of government but were largely in agreement in their views about the status of Muslim women. American liberals and feminists promoted universal human rights, democracy, and equality, while many conservatives renewed their emphasis on freedom, U.S. values, and the American way of life. Freeing Muslim women from oppression and promoting their human rights served both agendas.

Understood in this context, Bush's emphasis on Muslim women's human rights emerged out of a significant shift in how the United States had approached the Islamic world over the previous two decades. Public support for the transnational human rights movement and the notion of universal human rights meshed with U.S. principles of pluralism and democracy, which allowed activists and policymakers to situate human rights as a meaningful policy issue. American public concern and feminists' lobbying efforts regarding Muslim women in particular drove this shift. They pushed the United States to embrace a more expansive and serious definition of human rights in its foreign policy toward Islamic countries, one that condemned not only public human rights abuses, such as state-sponsored genocide, but also those that transpired in the "private" sphere, the site for much of women's oppression. This initiated a new phase of U.S. human rights policy in which women's rights became a driver and a target of American policy.


This book seeks to understand how American discourse about Muslim women's human rights took shape in the years after the Iranian Revolution and how that discourse, along with feminist activism, affected U.S. foreign policy. Gail Bederman has defined discourse as a "set of ideas and practices" that organize "the way a society defines certain truths." Discourse analysis reveals the ways in which knowledge and power are entwined, particularly how "ideas widely accepted as true determine what sorts of power relations people believe are desirable, and what sorts of political aims and strategies they can imagine." Understanding how the United States deployed state power on behalf of women's human rights in Islamic countries requires that we understand how Americans perceived and understood Muslim women. Public and political discourses often reflected these perceptions and offer a window into the meaning Americans ascribed to Muslim women's rights.

A major element of U.S. discourse was the idea of human rights. Americans came to understand the place of women in Islamic societies largely through the language of universal human rights that emerged from global grassroots activism in the 1970s, which was in turn central to feminist activism. Human rights sometimes competed with and sometimes reinforced older, more imperial discourses that had shaped earlier U.S. understandings of the Islamic world.

To understand the transition, this book engages with the scholarly literature on the history of human rights. The field of human rights history is relatively young, but it has grown exponentially over the last decade. Historical scholarship has focused primarily on how people have defined human rights over time and on the origins of the contemporary human rights movement. Some recent studies, however, have expanded the debate to examine what influential human rights historian Samuel Moyn has called the "salience" of human rights. They investigate why human rights, and not other concepts, "came to fit the imagination and reorient the actions of large swathes of people." Scholarship on U.S. foreign policy also has explored how human rights NGOs and transnational activists influenced and were influenced by U.S. policy, how Americans defined human rights, and why U.S. policymakers and the American public embraced human rights at particular moments but not others. These kinds of questions are central to this book, although the origins of the modern human rights movement are beyond its scope.

This book adds to historical understanding of how the global human rights movement evolved in the 1980s and 1990s by examining public and feminist discourses and campaigns about Muslim women. By the time of the Iranian Revolution, the "human rights revolution" was already well underway as a global, grassroots movement. Because Americans historically privileged civil and political rights over other human rights conceptions, human rights had become a Cold War tool: American policymakers and human rights activists primarily focused on the lack of individual political and religious freedoms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many Americans thus emphasized a narrow conception of human rights in the 1980s, but women's rights activists from the United States and Muslim countries debated the concept and ultimately expanded the definition of human rights to include social, economic, and cultural rights.

Women's rights activists urged the international community to embrace a more capacious definition of who was human that included women and girls in order to counter engrained notions in many cultures—including in the United States—that women are inferior to men. In pressuring the United Nations, U.S. government, and global civil society to declare that women's rights are human rights, by the 1990s feminists, especially those who focused on Muslim women, effectively expanded human rights law to include gender issues, such as women's education, bodily integrity, marriage and family rights, freedom of dress and movement, and reproductive rights, as well as violence against women.

Feminist activists concerned about women in Islamic societies logically embraced a human rights discourse. Women's rights had been marginalized internationally for most of the twentieth century, as demonstrated by the ghettoization of women's issues within the UN system from the 1940s through 1960s. Quarantining women's rights from the broader human rights movement likely would have continued this trend, while adopting a human rights framework offered feminists an effective way to appeal to governments and global civil society.

The transnational human rights and feminist movements also shared many tactics and goals. Both were universalist grassroots movements that sought political, social, and cultural transformation based on human dignity and equality. Human rights have been enshrined in international law since the late 1940s, so feminists used the power of law and human rights norms to support campaigns for women's equality worldwide. Universal human rights discourse and law allowed women's rights activists to rise above cultural relativism and to counter arguments by male cultural and religious authorities who defended women's subordination as culturally authentic. In other words, feminists could use human rights' claim to universal and transcendent rights to counter relativistic arguments that women's rights derived from religion and culture.

Beyond their appeal to transnational feminists, human rights were also salient for Americans generally from the 1970s onward. In his seminal 1999 article, Kenneth Cmiel explained the rise of "human rights politics" in the United States in the 1970s, as Congress, President Jimmy Carter, and individual Americans took up human rights issues and participated in transnational human rights networks. Cmiel argued that Americans began to take human rights seriously because "for many activists in the United States, a commitment to human rights was a form of patriotism, reaffirming the best ideals of the American nation."

Other historians have built upon this claim to explain the human rights consensus, as many Americans embraced human rights as a central component of U.S. foreign policy by the 1970s. One historian has argued that supporting human rights allowed Americans to recover from the trauma of the Vietnam War. Liberals could deploy human rights to distance the United States from what they saw as immoral Cold War policies that led to American support for undemocratic regimes. Conservatives meanwhile used human rights to reassert U.S. moral leadership and to attack communism. Thus, human rights "helped redefine America to Americans, for they were about American identity even more than they were about foreign policy," and they "shifted the focus from problems at home to problems abroad."

Implicitly, this interpretation suggests that American human rights activism was another form of U.S. imperialism. However, as this book argues, American support for human rights was often more complex than that. Certainly, calls to advance women's rights in Islamic societies could be used to support an imperialist agenda, but the salience of Muslim women's human rights was not just about American self-absorption or empire building. Many Americans were genuinely motivated by universal concepts of rights that did not always overlay neatly onto preexisting U.S. ideals. While they did not abandon national identity, many American activists sought to build alternate communities that minimized nationalism in favor of other solidarities. The global feminist movement was one such attempt to build transnational community, and U.S. feminists' calls for greater attention to women's human rights abroad went hand in hand with their battle for gender equality at home. Americans' human rights activism was thus simultaneously a project to transform U.S. identity and to build a truly universal system of rights. These two impulses sometimes competed with and sometimes reinforced one another, but, in both cases, feminists redefined human rights as women's rights, and this made U.S. foreign policymakers take notice after having ignored women's rights for decades.

Drawing on the human rights movement's example of lobbying governments and exerting "third-party influence," women's rights activists mobilized public opinion on behalf of Muslim women and ultimately succeeded by the 1990s in getting U.S. policymakers to take women's human rights seriously when formulating policy toward Islamic countries. Consequentially, women's rights became a key point of contention between the United States and governments of Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. This revolutionary policy shift has had a complex impact. U.S. policymakers often adopted feminists' language and human rights concepts and included women's rights in policies meant to advance democracy, pluralism, human rights, and prosperity worldwide. However, they also often combined women's human rights discourses with neoimperialist ones that cast Muslims as backward and in need of Western enlightenment. U.S. policies often assisted women's rights activists in Muslim countries by providing crucial development aid and moral support, but when those policies accompanied military intervention, as in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, they also engendered fierce resistance, as many Muslims came to equate women's equality with U.S. imperialism. This book seeks to decipher the complicated relationship between transnational feminism, human rights, imperialism, and U.S. foreign policy regarding women in Islamic societies.


Beyond contributing to scholarly debates about the history of human rights, this book also touches upon fierce debates within U.S. foreign relations history over the relationship between culture and power. Conventional diplomatic histories focus on policy elites and official state-to-state interactions as drivers of U.S. policy. Their analyses privilege the influence of "hard power" concerns, such as economics, geopolitics, security, and strategy, on U.S. policy decisions. In the last few decades, however, historians have challenged this approach by using cultural and gender analysis to expand the field of diplomatic history into the history of U.S. "foreign relations" broadly defined, which encompass any interaction between Americans and people from other countries. These studies include "soft power" in their analyses of U.S. behavior and seek to understand American foreign relations in a new light, whether by tracing how cultural assumptions influenced policy or by highlighting the influence of non-state actors.

The result has been a division between traditional and nontraditional methodological approaches and an ongoing—although by now fairly stale—debate over the utility of cultural and gender analysis for understanding U.S. behavior. Many excellent traditional studies of American policy shunt culture and gender aside, leaving potentially important factors in policymaking unexamined. On the other hand, because culture is a slippery concept, cultural and gender analyses of U.S. foreign policy often fail to provide concrete evidence that culture had a measurable impact on specific policies. While thought-provoking and engaging, these books often leave traditionalists unsatisfied in their treatment of causation.

The culturalist-traditionalist divide certainly characterizes, and persists in, studies of U.S.-Islamic relations. Those historians who do incorporate cultural analysis often dissect U.S. leaders' cultural stereotypes of Arabs or Muslims, but they tend to focus on the policymaking elite or neglect to examine how human rights influenced American relations with Muslim peoples. Moreover, no history of U.S. policy toward the Islamic world includes women as its central focus. The field—and even those studies that utilize gender analysis—often focuses exclusively upon male historical actors. The relationship between women and U.S. foreign policy remains underexplored. This project therefore examines women as both objects and creators of U.S. foreign policy. Several studies have illustrated the importance of culture, and of gender in particular, in Western or American thought and rhetoric about the Islamic world, but few connect this issue directly to U.S. policy decisions beyond the level of rhetoric. This book, however, makes those connections.

The boundary between traditional and cultural methods is artificial, at least in this instance. This book demonstrates how American cultural attitudes about Muslim women have been absorbed fully into U.S. policy, effectively dissolving the boundary between hard and soft power. Protecting Muslim women's human rights has become an essential part of U.S. policy, and only by transcending the methodological divide between culture and hard power can historians understand how this occurred.

Based solely on traditional approaches, the story this book tells would be inexplicable. In this case, non-state actors, including feminist scholars, activists, and journalists, often spoke directly to American policymakers, and policymakers' language frequently mimicked or reflected the discourses of women's human rights activists and the U.S. public. American cultural perceptions about Muslim women had a specific, measurable impact on U.S. policy, in some cases even trumping hard power concerns. This book, in short, turns conventional wisdom about the drivers of U.S. foreign policy on its head.


Most Americans gave little thought to women living in Muslim countries prior to the late 1970s. Those who did tended to deploy Orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as belly dancers, harem girls, and symbols of Muslim backwardness—not unlike centuries-old European representations of Muslims. With few exceptions, there was little indication before the 1970s that Americans believed they should help Muslim women claim their human rights.

Edward Said famously argued that Western scholars, novelists, artists, and politicians constructed a binary "style of thought" called Orientalism that cast the Muslim world as the "Other" in order to dominate it. Orientalism therefore worked in the service of the colonial state. Through this discursive construction, the Muslim world was the home of a backward culture that was the mirror opposite of the "modern" West. Scholarship inspired by Said has demonstrated how Western discourse historically cast Muslim women as sexualized objects of fetish or as silent symbols of Muslim despotism and inferiority.

American discourse about Muslim women after the Iranian Revolution certainly contained these elements, but it was not strictly Orientalist in nature. Orientalist stereotyping now competed with other frameworks, such as universal human rights. While many scholars have pointed out the shortcomings of Said's theory, particularly when applied to the post-1945 United States, Melani McAlister's "post-Orientalist" model is particularly useful for explaining American characterizations of Muslims since 1979. McAlister argued that Said's paradigm assumes a homogeneous "West," but in reality the United States differed from European nations, and Americans themselves were never homogeneous. She explained, "Political and cultural conditions in the United States produced a post-Orientalist model. . . . These representational dynamics were not always in the service of U.S. state power; in certain cases, they explicitly contested the presumptions of official U.S. policies. But even the official rhetoric of nationalist expansionism worked to establish the United States as different from the old colonial powers, and it did so in part by fracturing the East-West binary on which traditional Orientalism had depended." Moreover, not all stereotypes of Muslims are Orientalist; "they might be racist, imperialist, and exoticizing without engaging in the particular logic of Orientalism: binary, feminizing [regarding Muslim men], and citational."

In this book, I follow McAlister's lead and characterize American attitudes as post-Orientalist. American public discourse from 1979 onward incorporated new frameworks that sometimes competed with and sometimes reinforced Orientalist understandings. Islamophobia, for instance, was a relatively new discourse after the Iranian Revolution. Scholars have defined Islamophobia variously as "moral panic," "anti-Muslim prejudice," or an anti-Muslim "ideological formation," but these definitions are too vague. The primary, defining characteristic of Islamophobia is fear. Islamophobia casts Muslims, especially men, as dangerous to Americans, the United States, and Western values. Not since the Barbary Wars centuries before had Americans feared Muslims, but because of the Iranian Revolution, Americans began to combine Islamophobic and Orientalist frameworks to understand Muslim men. They also went from seeing Muslim women simply as exotic to seeing them as victims of dangerous Islamic men in need of U.S. support.

Post-1979 U.S. discourse about Muslim women thus incorporated Islamophobia but also placed their oppression within the universalist framework of women's human rights. Muslim women ceased to be silent symbols. Women from Islamic countries increasingly participated in U.S. public debates by giving speeches, authoring publications, appearing on television, and actively participating in NGOs. These women most often were middle or upper class, educated, and secular, rather than conservative or poor. Nevertheless, when Muslim women participated in U.S. public debates, they seemed less like the inferior Other and more like people who cherished the same universal freedoms and rights as Americans did.

The conversation about Muslim women was therefore not an American monologue, nor was it driven simply by Orientalist logic. Universal human rights and women's rights frameworks competed with Orientalism, imperialism, and Islamophobia as Americans sought to understand the place of women in Islamic societies. Much as Bederman described, this discourse was "multiple, inconsistent, and contradictory." Such frameworks allowed Americans to pursue the simultaneous and sometimes opposing goals of fostering an equitable world based on universal human rights and seeking to dominate the Islamic world.

For example, in the late twentieth century, women's rights were one barometer by which Americans judged social progress in Islamic societies. This was not entirely new: since at least the eighteenth century, Westerners generally identified certain freedoms for women—specifically those that Western women enjoyed—as markers of modernity. As Europeans colonized Africa and Asia, they had often pointed to the oppression of women in those regions as justification. The British claimed to defend women from "backward" men in places like India and Egypt. Part of the imperial project was to remake the cultures of the colonized, and women's roles were central to this effort because women symbolized tradition and raised the next generation. Even Westerners who opposed feminist advances at home, such as women's suffrage, condemned non-Western societies for oppressing women in order to validate the Western "civilizing mission." Meanwhile, Western feminists became complicit in imperialism by seeking to uplift their more oppressed "sisters" in the colonized world. Scholars refer to this phenomenon as "colonial feminism." During the Algerian War, for example, French feminists staged a public unveiling of Muslim women in Algeria to demonstrate that only continued French rule could ensure rights for Algerian women.

Late twentieth-century American understandings about Islam were influenced by this history. Conservatives in the United States who sought to limit reproductive rights and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment nevertheless condemned gender practices in Muslim countries. They disagreed with feminists and liberals about many issues, but they did not push for American women to be stripped of the right to vote, deprived of education, subjected to mandatory dress codes, forced to marry at a young age, or forced to undergo female genital mutilation, as women were in some Islamic countries. At the same time, however, many liberals and feminists in the United States characterized Islamic practices that they believed oppressed women as violations of universal human rights. By the 1970s, the impetus to protect Muslim women's human rights came not just from elites, traditionally the shapers of U.S. policy, but also increasingly from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media, scholars, and the general public. While Americans often disagreed sharply about the meaning of concepts like "liberty," "freedom," and "rights," many nevertheless agreed upon the basic desirability of promoting such values on a global scale. By advocating for expanded rights for Muslim women, many Americans sought to bring about a world based upon universal rights and freedoms as they defined them.

While feminists, scholars, and NGOs may not always have dominated public discussions of Islam, they played vitally important roles in the construction of U.S. foreign policy regarding Muslim women. These actors, particularly members of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and the Feminist Majority, lobbied the U.S. government, publicized violations of women's human rights in Islamic countries, and led campaigns to put international pressure on governments that oppressed women. Ultimately, public opinion and feminists' campaigns had a powerful effect on policymakers, and they competed against the older historical discourses of Orientalism and "rescue" narratives. By the 1990s, concerns about Muslim women sometimes drove U.S. policy, as when the Clinton administration refused to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a situation no conventional understanding of foreign policy could have predicted. In this instance, women's human rights concerns surpassed substantial hard power ones. At other times, rhetoric about the oppression of Muslim women was a tool to legitimize U.S. interventions in the Islamic world that were driven initially by quite different concerns. Bush's criticism of the Taliban's treatment of women exemplifies the latter.

That U.S. policy imperatives came to include the protection of Muslim women's human rights at the turn of the twenty-first century says something important about how Americans saw their role in the post-Cold War world. By arguing that U.S. concerns about Muslim women reflected U.S. culture and values, however, this book does not suggest that such concerns were therefore illegitimate or spurious. This book is not an exercise in cultural relativism; many customs and laws in Muslim countries do harm women and should be condemned, as should violations of human rights everywhere. That said, this book's goal is to explain the roots and political instrumentality of U.S. opposition to Muslim practices that subordinate women. Historians of U.S. foreign relations often portray Americans' interactions with non-Western peoples as a zero-sum game, wherein criticism of American policies, attitudes, and actions involves lionizing the "Other" while casting the United States as the villain. Other scholars reverse the roles but use the same framework, pitting the benevolent United States against evildoers. This study seeks to transcend the good/evil binary and demonstrate in all its complexity the influence of Americans' concerns about women's human rights on their interactions with Muslim peoples.


A Note on Terminology: In discussing a topic as broad as the "Muslim world" or "Islamic world," there are limitations in terminology. There are many differences among Islamic societies, and Islam is practiced in multiple ways by groups who hold differing levels of religiosity and myriad political views. Muslim-majority countries stretch from Africa across the Middle East and into Central and Southeast Asia, but Muslims live around the globe, including in Europe and the Americas. At the same time, many non-Muslims live in Muslim-majority regions. Without implying that I see Islam as monolithic and with the knowledge that there are Muslims worldwide, I use the terms "Muslim world" and "Islamic world" as a necessary if flawed shorthand to refer to those countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with Muslim-majority populations. Similarly, when I use terms like "Americans," "American," and "U.S. feminists," I necessarily refer to non-Muslim people in the United States and characterize the United States as a non-Islamic country. Although the population of American Muslims is growing, they still make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population. When I do discuss Muslim Americans, I indicate that explicitly.

Many people in the United States equate the "Islamic world" with the Middle East and assume that most Muslims are Arab. The majority of the world's Muslims actually live in Asia, and not all Arabs are Muslim. The American conflation of Islam with the Arab Middle East most likely stems from recent foreign policy; older missionary, tourism, and trade activity; and the longer tradition of contact between the Middle or "Near" East and Western Europe. This conflation may also stem from demographics. While the majority of the world's Muslims live in Asia, Muslims make up a supermajority in Middle Eastern and North African countries. Less than 20 percent of the world's Muslims live in the Middle East and North Africa, but over 91 percent of people living in this region identify as Muslim. In contrast, 62 percent of all Muslims live in Asia, but they comprise just under a quarter of the continent's population. This may explain why U.S. understandings of Islam derive largely from the Arab Middle East.

Just as the "Islamic world" is not a monolith, there is no single Muslim gender system. Again, I necessarily refer to this as a shorthand, but I use such terms with the acknowledgment that they obscure complexity. Women's rights, roles, and status vary greatly across Muslim societies. The Iranian and Saudi governments legally subordinate women and restrict their dress and behavior, but in different ways. In other Islamic countries, such as Turkey, and among Muslim communities in the West, women are relatively free and enjoy more legal equality. Within many Islamic societies, some women choose to veil, while others do not. Many Americans assume that all Muslim women veil, but veiling practices encompass a variety of hijab styles and degrees of covering, from women who do not veil at all to women who wear simple headscarves to those who wear the blue burqa of Afghanistan or black abaya and niqab (face veil) of Saudi Arabia.

Beyond geography, women's rights are also influenced by class. As is also the case in the West and other regions, women from wealthy families benefit from higher education and greater resources and consequently often live freer lives than do women from poor families. However, the conventional wisdom in the United States has been that women ubiquitously have significantly lower status and fewer rights than men in Islamic gender systems. While the reality is more complex and women in the United States have yet to enjoy full equality with men, I am referring to this general understanding of Muslim gender relations when I use such terms.


Each chapter in this book focuses upon a key moment that demonstrates the gradual integration of Muslim women's human rights into U.S. foreign policy. This policy issue was mainstreamed slowly, but the process cumulatively created substantial pressure for U.S. policymakers to take women's human rights seriously by the 1990s and 2000s. Chapter 1 identifies the Iranian Revolution as the catalyst for intense U.S. public attention to Muslim women's rights, a conceptual precursor for Americans' later understanding of women's human rights in the Islamic world. Because of the Iranian Revolution, Americans from across the political spectrum began to characterize the harsh repression of women as a key—and reprehensible—characteristic of Islamic fundamentalism.

Throughout the 1980s, the notion that Muslim men in general oppressed women became firmly entrenched in U.S. public discourse, and some Americans began to advocate for the United States to take action on behalf of Muslim women's human rights. Chapter 2 examines the growing concern for Muslim women throughout the U.S. public sphere, from the news media to scholarly studies to popular culture. Public receptivity to the integration of women's rights into foreign policy incubated and solidified in the years between the Iranian Revolution and early 1990s. Feminists later mobilized this public opinion to campaign for women's human rights in the Islamic world.

Chapter 3 traces the development of feminist NGOs and feminist concepts that played an important role in later U.S. policy decisions. The UN world conferences on women during the UN Decade for Women—in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985—provided a forum for American feminists and their Muslim counterparts to discuss the problems women faced in Islamic countries and to create networks of information and support. Through these international networks, American and Muslim women allied in the 1980s to form NGOs, such as the Sisterhood Is Global Institute and Women Living Under Muslim Laws, that publicized the plight of Muslim women and later lobbied the U.S. government to prioritize women's rights in U.S. foreign policy. The lively debates between U.S. and Muslim feminists about how to define women's human rights during the Decade also influenced how Americans later defined policy. While the U.S. public and policymakers continued to draw upon older stereotypes about Muslim women, feminist NGOs most forcefully worked to reconceptualize Muslim women's situations as a matter of universal human rights rather than Islamic backwardness.

Chapter 4 centers on the first Gulf War of 1990-91. As the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved, the Gulf War gave Americans a new enemy: Iraq's Saddam Hussein. However, the war caused some Americans to question the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia because of what they referred to as Saudi "gender apartheid." Women's legal subordination in Saudi Arabia caused feminist organizations and a vocal minority of the U.S. public—mainly women—to oppose American involvement in the war. By questioning the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia because of Saudis' treatment of women, these Americans suggested for the first time that concern for Muslim women's human rights should be integral to U.S. foreign policy.

Chapter 5 investigates the moment when public and feminist concern for Muslim women's rights first found its way into U.S. policy. American foreign policy priorities began to shift in the 1990s. As part of a transnational movement, American activists tried to eradicate the African practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM, which Americans characterized as an Islamic custom (although the reality is more complex). American activists situated their arguments against FGM within the larger U.S. discourse that linked Islam with the oppression of women. As a sensational issue that garnered much publicity, FGM became for many Americans the touchstone example of the Islamic abuse of women. On a tide of public outrage, Congress outlawed the practice in 1996 and tied U.S. foreign aid to efforts to eradicate the custom abroad. Simultaneously, U.S. asylum courts ruled that fear of FGM for oneself or one's children was sufficient grounds for granting political asylum to women from FGM-practicing societies. These groundbreaking legislative and judicial efforts initiated the institutionalization of women's human rights into U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic world.

Chapter 6 identifies and analyzes the moment when the U.S. policy establishment fully embraced putting women's human rights at the center of policy toward an Islamic country. Largely due to public opinion and feminist lobbying, the Clinton administration refused to recognize the Taliban regime as a legitimate government owing to its deplorable treatment of women. Because of U.S. interest in running an oil pipeline across Afghanistan and the Taliban's connections to terrorist groups, Clinton's decision had tangible economic and political consequences. Here, human rights trumped economic and strategic considerations. Soft power prevailed over "hard" issues in this instance, representing a major shift in U.S. policy imperatives. The chapter traces this historic decision and analyzes its consequences.

Finally, Chapter 7 analyzes continued U.S. attention to women's human rights in the Islamic world since 9/11, when projects to defend Muslim women's human rights accompanied U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. An imperialist, Orientalist framework also prevailed in Bush administration rhetoric and the discourse of some U.S. feminist organizations that supported warfare. The Obama administration, meanwhile, worked to distance itself from Orientalism and imperialism. However, in its haste to withdraw from unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it left the place of women's human rights in U.S. foreign policy uncertain.

As the United States deepens its involvement in the affairs of Islamic countries, Americans' relationship with Muslim peoples has become increasingly fraught. The development of U.S. policies regarding Muslim women demonstrates how cultural issues and debates about human rights have become entwined with hard power concerns. Events like the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of groups like Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State underscore the high stakes of tensions over culture and women's rights that have developed between East and West during the last several decades.

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