Recently, prolific commenter Erin, sent me an email expressing her thoughts about the German poster campaign featured in a previous muslim roundup. She was so impassioned that I asked her to organize her thoughts into a guest post for her blogging debut. An extensive world-traveller and visual artist currently hailing from Calgary, please join me in welcoming Erin to the blog.

"Oppressed women are easily overlooked. Please support us in the fight for their rights."

At first glance, she does not immediately jump out at you. She is wearing a burka the same colour as trash bags.

There is something very disturbing and inappropriate about this poster by the German NGO, Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte (IGFM), and the way it presents the point that it’s trying to make. The way it views women, particularly Muslim women as “other,” and particularly how it proposes that they need “saving.” Although my opinions are based on someone who is female, Muslim, and a feminist, I do not think you need to be all, or any, of these identities to have the same reaction.

To the West, Afghanistan is a representative of all that is negative and backward about Islam, a country clearly in need of “assistance.” The Taliban, and now the government, use the religion of Islam to justify oppressive cultural practices against women and to reduce: their status, freedom, ability to work, opportunity for proper education, opportunity for healthcare, and ability to exercise political rights. As a woman and as Muslim, I abhor this.

There are many other cultures, governments, religious leaders, and dictators in the world who use their religions, patriarchal belief systems, or politic power to justify oppressive practices against women. Regardless of whatever religion you are, this is wrong and it should never be an issue of Muslims only helping Muslims, or Christians only helping Christians.

At first glance, (or second glance in my case since I did not initially realize that there was a woman in the photograph, which, I think, is the intent) there is a very powerful and obvious statement being made — a statement about the way Afghan women are viewed in their society, how they are treated, and their particular role.

The abuse and treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan is nothing short of appalling. However, at the expense of providing assistance to other, “lower profile” countries, Afghanistan appears to be the West’s pet project for female liberation. I remember Laura Bush, and other high-profile women visiting Afghanistan and proclaiming immediately after the US invasion, that the women had been “liberated.” This generally entailed showing pictures of women sans burka and hijab, implying somehow that because the women were now able to remove the burka they had somehow been liberated, or implying that military intervention protects and fosters women’s rights.

The burka received an inordinate amount of attention at the expense of other issues. In fact, the US occupation and President Hamid Karzai have not prevented massive human rights violations and violence against women living in Afghanistan, and in some instances, have made things more difficult for women (source). Equality and liberation is about equal access to education, freedom of movement, freedom from violence, ability to access proper healthcare when needed, reproductive health, and being given rights of ownership under the law.

Next I looked up the definition of trash, because the poster appeared to be illustrating two contradictory objects: a bag of garbage and a human being; and implying that both are analogous.

Trash is:

Worthless or discarded material or objects; Refuse or rubbish; To throw away; discard; A person or group of people regarded as worthless or contemptible; A worthless person; also: such persons as a group; Something in a crumbled or broken condition or mass.

These definitions resonated with me most. I find it degrading to have a woman — any woman or human being — associated with a bag of garbage, and imply that she is trash, and essentially worthless. This particular woman is viewed through a particular lens, and a non-Muslim lens at that. It implies that she is voiceless, not human, helpless, discarded waste, apparently due to the current situation in Afghanistan. She is a burden, who must rely on others for pick-up or help.

Furthermore, it stereotypes all Afghan women into one large, negative, monolithic group, and points to the woman sitting as trash as being a victim of circumstance, instead of pointing to, and blaming: the socioeconomic, political, religious, and cultural barriers that are the real junk that should be thrown out. The intent of the poster is obviously to make an outrageous statement and attract the viewer’s attention, but possibly with unintended consequences regarding the other issues it raises.

As a Muslim woman, whether I wear hijab or not, I have a significant issue with the assertion in the poster. It implies that all Afghan women and (by default) Muslim women are oppressed and that covering is insidious and oppressive. Since when does the West have the right to determine what oppression is? It only serves to perpetuate the stereotype of the helpless, subjugated, oppressed, and voiceless, Muslim woman.

Trash is silent, and, therefore, so is the woman in the photograph. Why did they not show a picture of an Afghan woman burka-less? Not every Afghan woman even wears a burka, and many other Muslim women choose not to cover. Probably because we then would not have been able to identify her as Afghan and Muslim, and we might be forced to address the fact that other women in many other countries around the world are oppressed — and that this oppression has nothing to do with a piece of cloth. More importantly, we would have then been forced to put a face to an individual and possibly conclude that this faceless woman has a voice and may actually have something to say — instead of believing that her liberation is necessarily going to come in the form of simply removing her burka.

But, if she was not wearing a burka, then the statement “oppressed women are easily overlooked” would no longer be valid, because she would no longer be invisible. “Oh, if only she could remove the burka, then she would be visible and liberated and not overlooked,” seems to be what the poster is implying. Instead of real limiting factors of: Unequal access to education for girls, child marriage, death in childbirth, threat of physical and sexual violence, and restrictive access to proper medical care.

Finally, I have a problem with the assumption that it is only the “enlightened outsider” (i.e. the West) who can save “the Other” (the poor, oppressed, burka clad, Muslim woman). Western aid and Western feminism is directly linked with saving the women of the world who, presumably, cannot help themselves, while ignoring the fact that it is exactly these women who, given the proper tools, know better than any of us what they need.

There is much research proposing that solutions to problems need to be local, that efforts are to come from within, from the people who are affected and those who know the culture and are adept at addressing major social issues. This is particularly true for Muslim women living in very traditional societies.

Women in Afghanistan and elsewhere are already fighting for their human rights within the framework of their own social, religious, and cultural standards. It is from within this framework that they are able to negotiate and reach out to women who would benefit the most.

Sakena Yacoobi is a native of Afghanistan and is the founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), a non-profit organization providing health and educational services to over 350,000 women and children across Afghanistan. AIL educates women through workshops taught by locally trained teachers, many of them also women, and the programs are supported by local mullahs. By using the Quran and teaching it in a neutral way, Afghan women learn about their rights and are given the tools to communicate and negotiate with their husbands. AIL also operates girls’ schools with locally trained teachers, and women’s centres which contain mini health clinics.

By working within the culture and by respecting traditions, it is possible to give Afghan women the independence to fight for and define their own rights — not those defined by the West.

This is not to imply that there is no need for foreign aid, as indeed there are compelling cases when it is needed and many times foreign NGOs and governments provide financial support to local NGOs. However, there is much truth in the statement that “only the oppressed can free the oppressed.”

All women should be allowed to define for themselves what freedom from oppression looks like. The barrier to freedom is not, as IGFM implies, the burka. Defining oppression should not be based on some construct of what women should look like, and should not place individuals in groups based on religious, geographical, or cultural identities. The negative, narrow construction of Muslim and Afghan women as worthless, subjugated, monolithic, oppressed, and in desperate need of Western help is far too limiting to account for the true range of diversity and solutions which exist.

I’m convinced that posters like these do more damage than good, and do not present an alternative to the viewer, of a strong and empowered woman, where a burka or hijab is not seen as the real issue.

Image Credits: Everything Afghanistana wonderful tumblog showcasing everyday life in “this war torn country.”