Nothing to lose but their burqas?

Cherie Blair's campaign to free the spirit of Afghan women is more likely to help her husband than it is anybody in Afghanistan.

Josie Appleton

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UK newspaper readers were treated to pictures of Cherie Blair QC apparently pretending to be Batman – but upon investigation she was actually encircling her eyes to evoke the suffering of burqa-clad Afghan women.

Flanked by Afghan women who explained how stifling the burqa was to wear, Mrs Blair preached to a Downing Street press conference: ‘Nothing more symbolises the oppression of women than the burqa, which is a very visible sign of the role of women in Afghanistan.’ (1)

The Muslim Council of Britain pointed out the ridiculous moralism behind this campaign, arguing that when the entire infrastructure of Afghanistan had been destroyed the issue of the burqa was not a priority. Mrs Blair’s campaign is a perfect example of the way in which many in the West have tended to highlight what they see as unappealing aspects of women’s lives in Afghanistan – and ignore the surrounding destitution (2).

But the strangest thing about Mrs Blair’s campaign was the timing. Why launch a campaign against the Taliban’s treatment of women when the Taliban are no longer in power? Why criticise the burqa when most Afghan women continue to go veiled of their own volition?

Mrs Blair tried to gloss over the effective collapse of the Taliban regime, writing in the Mirror that: ‘The Taliban, of course, is a brutal regime, denying all of its citizens the most basic of human rights and maintaining its power with savage cruelty….Only in Afghanistan under the Taliban can women be beaten for laughing out aloud, or can wearing nail polish lead to you having your nails torn out.’ (3)

This presentation of the Taliban as a chauvinist monolith, just when its fighters have scuttled back to the south, is perplexing. Perhaps Mrs Blair was trying subtly to raise the issue of women’s rights with the Northern Alliance who, she admitted, would not necessarily be ‘dedicated to women and girls’ education’ (4). Perhaps, like the UN human rights chief Mary Robinson, she was trying to ensure women’s participation in the upcoming transitional administration in Afghanistan.

But a more likely reason was suggested by Mrs Blair’s call to help women of Afghanistan: ‘We need to help free that spirit and give them back their voice at home so they can help build the better Afghanistan which we all want to see.’ (5)

‘Free that spirit’, ‘give them back their voice’, ‘the better Afghanistan which we all want to see’…this Messianic language recalls her husband Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton on 2 October 2001. ‘Let us reorder this world around us’, he said. ‘The values we believe in should shine through what we do in Afghanistan.’

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is disordering by the minute. As Western leaders become mired in squalid chaos, there is a noticeable lack of any honourable values shining through. In this context, the campaign to free women’s spirit represents a bid to raise Western leaders up from the senseless mess that is Afghanistan – to try to reassert some kind of morality. One of the few things that they can still be sure about is the right of women to equal esteem.

Though this campaign may help Blair to raise his head back home in the West, it is unlikely to help the women of Afghanistan. At present, it is probable that Afghan women – like all other Afghans – are more concerned about the mundane matter of survival.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Sisters doing it for themselves?, by Josie Appleton

Lifting the veil, by Josie Appleton

An Englishwoman in Washington, 20 November 2001, by Helen Searls

Aiding the Afghans?, by Bernadette Gibson

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Independent, 20 November 2001

(2) See Lifting the veil, by Josie Appleton

(3) Mirror, 20 November 2001

(4) Guardian, 20 November 2001

(5) Mirror, 20 November 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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