Kelly J. Shannon, Ph.D., is associate professor of history, the Chastain-Johnston Middle Eastern Studies Distinguished Professor in Peace Studies, and executive director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Initiative at Florida Atlantic University. She is author of U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s Human Rights (2018) and numerous articles and book chapters on United States-Middle East relations.
Women’s Human Rights and U.S. Relations with the Islamic World: Advice for the Biden Administration
By: Kelly J. Shannon
December 11, 2020
The incoming Biden administration must place women’s human rights at the center of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Respect for human rights, especially women’s rights, is a crucial component of pluralism, democracy, prosperity, and peace. Yet previous administrations’ policies regarding women often caused tensions with Muslim peoples, created complications for women’s rights activists in Islamic societies, and were often accompanied by other U.S. actions that undermined human rights. The Biden administration must learn from this history and prioritize women’s human rights as an important policy issue in a way that is effective and avoids the often problematic, imperialist approaches of earlier administrations.
While damaging U.S. actions in Muslim-majority countries date back to the early Cold War, twenty-first-century American policies have caused particular harm and mistrust. The Biden administration inherits these problems. Among other policies, the War on Terror since 9/11—especially the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—unleashed devastating violence against civilians abroad and caused in the United States a significant rise in Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hate crimes, and government profiling. Hijabis became particular targets for Islamophobic abuse because their headscarves are visible markers of Muslim identity.
When the George W. Bush administration implemented policies in Afghanistan and Iraq intended to advance women’s rights, the fact that those policies accompanied American military intervention often worked against the goal of women’s liberation. The Bush administration, along with groups like the Feminist Majority, deployed an imperialist narrative that cast Americans as rescuers of Afghan and Iraqi women.
The Bush administration, along with groups like the Feminist Majority, deployed an imperialist narrative that cast Americans as rescuers of Afghan and Iraqi women.
Instead of situating these women’s oppression in the context of global patriarchy, such attitudes singled out Muslim men as fanatical misogynists and Muslim women as victims in need of saving. The U.S. narrative erased a century of women’s rights activism in Muslim-majority countries and eliminated nuance in how Americans perceived and engaged with Muslim peoples worldwide. This narrative also allowed conservative and fundamentalist Afghans, Iraqis, and people in other Muslim societies to characterize women’s equality as a form of Western imperialism that must be resisted. As a result, women’s rights activists in Afghanistan and elsewhere faced added danger, as targeting their work became one form of Islamic fundamentalists’ resistance against the United States.
While President Barack Obama attempted to repair the damage caused by the War on Terror, most notably in his June 2009 Cairo speech, his administration deployed drones to execute suspected terrorists, primarily in Muslim-majority countries. This was a clear human rights violation that also led to the deaths of scores of innocent people, as when a U.S. drone strike struck a wedding procession in Yemen in 2014. The Obama administration also implemented its women’s rights agenda unevenly. Although Hillary Clinton’s State Department made women’s equality everywhere a priority, the White House did not always do the same. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a law in April 2009 that legalized marital rape, Secretary Clinton immediately issued a strong condemnation, whereas President Obama’s tepid response drew sharp public criticism. After Clinton stepped down, there was a noticeable decline in the administration’s emphasis on women’s rights in its foreign policy.
Although Hillary Clinton’s State Department made women’s equality everywhere a priority, the White House did not always do the same.
Since January 2017, the situation has worsened. The Trump administration abandoned longstanding U.S. human rights policy and left key offices dedicated to gender equality in the State Department and other executive branch agencies unfilled while also attacking women’s rights within the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s narrow definition of human rights as encompassing only the rights to property and religious freedom made overt what the administration implied since day one: Human rights are unimportant to Trump.
In fact, the administration committed numerous human rights abuses, from its treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers at the U.S. border to its stepping aside in October 2019 to clear the way for Turkey to enact genocidal violence against the Kurds in Syria. Among the dead was Hevrin Khalaf, an up-and-coming female politician whom Turkish-backed forces brutalized and summarily executed. The administration’s “Muslim ban” and harassment of Americans of Iranian descent compounds the damage it has done abroad by separating families and singling out Muslims as an unassimilable, existential threat to the United States. When the Trump administration did bring up the issue of women’s human rights in the Islamic world, it did so as a cynical ploy to reinforce Islamophobia and garner support for its escalating cold war with Iran.
The incoming Biden administration must learn from this history and look to the 1990s for inspiration, when the United States first incorporated women’s human rights into its foreign policy. All issues that affect humans are women’s issues, so it should return to the gender mainstreaming of the Bill Clinton administration to consider how its foreign policies will affect women and human rights more broadly.
The incoming Biden administration must learn from this history and look to the 1990s for inspiration, when the United States first incorporated women’s human rights into its foreign policy.
First, the Biden administration must restore American credibility by taking human rights seriously at home and abroad. It must affirm its commitment to the broad array of human rights outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments, as well as embrace social, cultural, and economic rights alongside the civil and political rights that Americans historically tend to prioritize. It must end the “Muslim ban” and Islamophobic profiling practices, and it must win the trust of the American Muslim community by working in partnership with them. Abroad, it should end the use of drone strikes, lift the sanctions that have prevented Iranians from receiving desperately needed COVID-19 aid, condemn human rights abuses committed by U.S. allies in places like Yemen, and act with the global community to stop China’s persecution of its Muslim Uighur minority. Without demonstrating genuine respect for human rights, the administration will only appear hypocritical to people in the Islamic world.
Second, Biden must put women’s rights back at the center of U.S. policy, again both at home and abroad. It must not single out Muslims as uniquely oppressive of women but rather recognize and work to combat the pernicious effects of patriarchy and misogyny everywhere, including and especially within the United States. Americans are not paragons of enlightenment. If Americans are not willing to do the hard work of dismantling patriarchy at home, there is no hope of the United States being credible on women’s issues internationally. Among other actions, the administration must restart the agencies dedicated to women’s rights in the State Department and staff them with feminist experts, including Muslim women.
Third, just as the Clinton administration and as Secretary Clinton did, the Biden administration must avoid using an imperialist approach to women’s rights policy. It must adopt an intersectional framework that takes into account all of the structures of power that work against women’s equality globally. It must also work closely with women’s rights activists from global Islamic societies and let them set the agenda. Change cannot be imposed by outsiders. Only women's rights activists from Islamic countries know best what challenges they face and what resources they need to succeed in their efforts to create equitable, just societies.
Only women's rights activists from Islamic countries know best what challenges they face and what resources they need to succeed in their efforts to create equitable, just societies.
Women have long been at the forefront of democracy and social justice movements across the Islamic world, like Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. They have been doing the hard work on the ground, with or without American support. The Biden Administration should listen to these women, learn from them, and quietly provide them with foreign aid and political support when appropriate. As the United States often did during the Clinton years, it must put its money where its mouth is when it comes to women’s human rights. And it must respect indigenous activists’ wishes when asked not to intervene. Although it must demonstrate genuine commitment to women’s equality, the United States should often follow Muslim women, not take the lead.
Such an approach will not be a magic bullet. It will take years, perhaps generations, of patience, commitment, and international solidarity for women everywhere to achieve equality and equity. Yet the goal is worthwhile. Women’s education, political freedoms, freedom from fear and violence, and other rights benefit not only women, but also their families and societies. Women’s equality enhances pluralism, democracy, and prosperity, and it is very much in the U.S. national interest. To be sure, women’s human rights can be—and at times have been—used as a tool of American imperialism in Islamic countries, but policies that aim to expand and defend women’s human rights worldwide do not have to be imperialist. The Biden administration just needs to approach the issue carefully. By learning from history and acting in good faith, Biden can simultaneously advance the cause of women’s human rights and build a stronger, more trusting partnership with global Muslim societies.