“White Feminism” and the “Westernized” Nostalgia

The Afghan miniskirts and their role in the definition of oppression and freedom.

Student Commentary

By Marica Loffreda / Matthew staff || Edited by Matilde Pozzato

Afghan’s women clothing has been widely used, with the complicity of imperialism, as a justification for war. After 9/11, it was revealed that the Al Qaeda, the organization responsible for the attack, was based in Afghanistan. The George W. Bush administration found the justification for “the war on terror” in the mission of ending the gender apartheid in Afghanistan of the Feminist Majority Campaign. The first lady Laura Bush declared that the reason for war was to free Afghan women. This is what can be defined as “white feminism,” which refuses to consider the role that whiteness and racial privilege play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as those of all feminists. Both within and outside the U.S. government, the white feminists chose war and occupation as the essential tools to free Afghan women. 

But groups like Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a political organization that has denounced religious fundamentalism since its founding in 1977, opposed the U.S. attacks and the US-backed government.  

Photos of young women in their miniskirts walking in the streets of Kabul in the 1970s have widely circulated globally and are usually used as a nostalgic framework of freedom and as a portrait of a time in which women were able to prosper.  

The images of women with miniskirts in the 1970s are often compared with images of women wearing the blue burqa as a symbol of backwardness and oppression. This conception of oppression and freedom seems to measure freedom in terms of body coverage without considering women’s freedom in terms of social, economic, and political rights. A photograph performs as the primary tool to define freedom and oppression while simplifying complex historical contexts within a single photograph.  

However, the images of the 1970s represented a small portion of the population, comprising a Kabul elite middle class that enjoyed the support and patronage of a King, Ahmed Zahir Shah, who built a bubble of prosperity in Kabul but kept the rest of the country in utter poverty.  

In 1979, only 18% of Afghans were literate and average life expectancy was only just above 40, meaning that half of Afghans died before that age. The average Afghan was certainly not wearing miniskirts and attending Kabul University. The framework of those images did not reflect the conditions of the majority of Afghans.  

Photo by  Gary Yost  on  Unsplash 

The hijab, in all its different forms, represents the identity of Muslim women who chose to wear it. It represents a protection, modesty, respect, devotion and a deep connection with religious beliefs. It is a question of religious and cultural identity and self-expression. 

Even though in the Qur’an it is mentioned that women and man should dress modestly, and cover their “private parts” of the body, it is not specified which parts and how. The numerous styles of Islamic dress throughout the world today reflect local traditions and different interpretations of Islamic requirements. In Afghanistan is traditionally worn the burqa, and under the Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, it was strictly enforced by law.  

The Taliban are currently governing the country after returning in power in the summer of 2021. They are not imposing a dress code for women, but highly insist that women wear it as an Islam order. However, Islam does not impose a specific dress code to women. Therefore, it is a question of the religious interpretation of a religious text that acts as a justification for oppression.  

After the 9/11 attack, the subsequent Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), created a generalized and radical narrative around the Arab world, religious beliefs and, especially, religious extremism connected with the Islam. This narrative is reflected, among many others, in the assumptions of oppression and freedom connected with the veil and the Western need to save Muslim women by their veil.  

Academic Sarah Ghumkhor claims, “veiling and unveiling has become a reductionist lens through which complex social, political and economic conditions are being read.”