Middle East studies in the News
Duke Feminist Gives Thumbs Up To Taliban
by Cinnamon Stillwell
Afghanistan's Taliban was one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, and doubly so when it came to women's rights. For years, various activists expressed concern about the situation of Afghan women and supported the efforts of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan , to try and affect reform. So when the opportunity arose to overthrow that brutal regime, it was expected that RAWA activists would naturally back the insurrection.
However, it turned out these activists were more opposed to U.S. military intervention than they were in favor of getting rid of the Taliban, even if it meant that Afghanistan's women remained in a state of perpetual slavery. And among those who subscribe to such views is Duke University Professor Miriam Cooke. Cooke is a Professor of Asian and African Languages and Literature and President of the Association for Middle East Women's Studies, an international organization staunchly opposed to what they call on their website the "new imperialism," and a disciple of the theory of post-colonialism.  Cooke is also a strong proponent of "Islamic feminism."
Islamic feminism holds that Muslim women should enact social change from within the confines of their own culture and religion. Western powers are viewed as having purely imperialistic designs and, as a result, their intervention is unwelcome. Such is the "logic" that caused Cooke, a longtime proponent of Muslim women writers, activists, and intellectuals, to oppose the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban, as well as the democratization of the Middle East.
During a talk at a forum on the future of Iraq at the John Hope Franklin Center on March 26th, 2003,  Cooke rejected the liberation of Afghan women as a reason to go to war. Rather than being grateful for calling attention to the suffering of fellow women, she castigated First Lady Laura Bush for her radio address on behalf of the women of Afghanistan. Cooke accused Laura Bush of furthering "the imperial project in her highly gendered appeal to a world conscience."
Of course, this never was the principal reason for overthrowing the Taliban, but rather a welcome side effect. As for the al-Qaeda terrorist training camps dotting the Afghanistan countryside, Cooke said nothing. She is equally silent today on the ten million Afghans who are now registered to vote - forty percent of them women - in the upcoming election.
In the same talk, Cooke mocked "the campaign to democratize the Middle East," that she claimed, "deployed women as victims to save or to empower." Empowering Muslim women would seem to be a good thing, but according to Cooke, if Western interests are involved, women's liberation is no longer valid. Cooke opposed the war in Iraq for this very reason, fatalistically predicting that Iraqi women would end up "like the Shiite women who were driven out of their homes in southern Iraq in March, 1991, to enter refugee camps in Saudi Arabia and then went on to exilic futures outside the Middle East."
In fact, none of this happened and the numbers of asylum-seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan have been drastically reduced from pre-war levels. Most importantly, no longer are Iraqi women captive to Saddam Hussein's rape rooms, or to having their husbands taken away in the middle of night. And six female ministers in the new Iraqi government demonstrate that women are making strides in that country. But for Cooke, none of this seems to matter. All that matters is keeping those nasty "imperialists" (America) at bay.
So what exactly does Cooke have to offer to Muslim women as a concrete course of action to better their lives? It turns out, not much. Not only are her ideas vague and overly academic, all too often she falls back on concepts steeped in the terminology of Islamism. For instance, throughout her career, Cooke has written extensively about the idea of a "women's jihad."
During a lecture at Wellesley College in November, 2003, Cooke elaborated on this concept.  This jihad, she maintained, is not for an "Islamist state," but rather for "an Islamic community." Subscribing to a pacifist model, she insisted that women's role within the Islamic world should be "drawing attention to the consequences of war, not advocating violence." Yet somewhat contradictorily, she also sanctioned, "the defense of the community when attacked by outsiders." Which outsiders exactly she was referring to is unknown; but it's a safe guess that American soldiers and their allies were involved.
Indeed, Israeli civilians appear to be fair game for this "women's jihad." When Wafa Idris, a 27-year old Palestinian woman, perpetrated a suicide bombing, killing an 80 year-old man in January, 2000, Cooke's thesis about women and war were put to the test. But Cooke managed to justify this atrocity by falling back on her old "blame the imperialists" mindset. In typically garbled language, Cooke said, "for those of us who really are concerned with women's role in the Arab public square, in the way in which women have been trying to empower themselves vis-à-vis the U.S., vis-à-vis old colonial powers, vis-à-vis their own men, the situation has become so desperate that now women's participation in war is a mark of absolute hopelessness. 
As usual, Cooke jumps through hoops to blame anyone other than the culture that created suicide bombers - female or otherwise. And she conveniently overlooks the use of sexism in Palestinian society to coerce women into becoming suicide bombers as penance for the shame of having sex out of wedlock, being raped or unable to marry.
Beyond teaching her own courses, Cooke is very active in Duke's Islamic Studies Department. She is co-director of the university's Center for the Study of Muslim Networks (CSMN),  as well as being involved in the 2003-2004 Carolina Seminar on Comparative Islamic Studies. She accompanied a group of students on a trip to Lebanon in 2002  and has taken part in various local film festivals in the past few years. As such, Cooke has a lot of influence over the way Duke students experience Islamic culture and particularly its relationship to women.
Unfortunately, instead of learning about women's liberation, these students are receiving a lesson in women's oppression, and especially oppression caused by the United States. And as long as Islamic studies professors like Miriam Cooke serve as apologists for backwardness and repression, they will continue being part of the problem instead of the solution.
 Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA):
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