U. S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women's Human Rights

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Kelly J. Shannon
Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , November
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many scholars have noted that, after 9/11, US discourses surrounding Islam focused on saving Muslim women from Muslim men (see the work of Shabana Mir, Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind, Lila Abu-Lughod, and others). This framework, they argued, overlooked the agency of Muslim women themselves and obscured the role of US militarism in bolstering organizations like the Taliban. It also ignored the ways that poverty, as much as any patriarchal interpretation of Islam, limited the options of poor Muslim women. 

While much work on this topic starts with the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Kelly J. Shannon argues for an earlier beginning in U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s Human Rights. She traces a gradual centering of Muslim women in American imaginations from the 1970s onward. Shannon argues that the effort to “save Muslim women” from the Taliban in 2001 was not (merely) as an opportunistic ploy of the Bush administration; rather, it was the outcome of a “rights revolution” in the United States and efforts by feminists—both in the US and internationally—to center women’s rights as human rights (2). Shannon explores five significant moments prior to 2001 where Muslim women’s rights galvanized American publics: the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis; the rise of transnational feminist organizations; coverage of Saudi women’s rights (or lack thereof) during the first Gulf War; feminist engagements with and media depictions of female genital mutilation; and feminist activism under the Clinton administration. Significantly, Shannon asserts that this rights-centered “conversation about Muslim women was...not an American monologue, nor was it driven simply by Orientalist logic. Universal human rights and women’s rights frameworks competed with Orientalism, imperialism, and Islamophobia as Americans sought to understand the place of women in Islamic societies” (10, emphasis mine).

Shannon readily demonstrates the impact that “cultural assumptions about Muslim women” have had on US policy (8). She also clearly centers women as “both objects and creators” of that foreign policy (9). Shannon highlights how women, both inside and outside the US, made women’s lives worthy of attention. She also shows how women from Muslim-majority societies participated in these conversations. They led new transnational organizations focused on women's rights. They also made themselves heard at international summits dominated by non-Muslim women. These transnational interactions and arguments are a fascinating element of Shannon’s work. 

I have two concerns with Shannon’s argument. First, I am not convinced by her attempt to cordon off human rights discourse as distinct from Orientalism and Islamophobia. At times, Shannon clearly attempts to parse this distinction. For example, in chapter five she analyzes the arguments of various transnational feminist actors about female genital mutilation. She surveys how some blamed patriarchy, some Islam, and some combination of the two. Yet I still wish Shannon had devoted more space to this conceptual work. Human rights discourse does seem to have functioned in the ways Shannon described. It has made Muslim women “legible as victims” (101) of patriarchal powers that fail to meet universalist norms. But this does not seem necessarily distinct from a kind of neo-Orientalism or Islamophobia. As Joseph Massad argues in Islam and Liberalism (2015), reading Muslim women as victims of Islam was a core trope of even early feminist movements. In the last decade, the language of women's rights has clearly been intertwined with anti-Muslim sentiments. Organizations and actors now use this discourse to enact blatantly anti-Muslim agendas (see, for example, Juliane Hammer’s 2013 analysis of gendered Islamophobia, “(Muslim) Women’s Bodies, Islamophobia, and American Politics”). This most recent period is largely outside Shannon’s survey; yet these dynamics too seem to be an outcome of the discourses Shannon discusses and merit attention as such. 

Second, women for whom Islam is a positive category are relatively absent from the history Shannon surveys. Shannon does often cite the words and writings of Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi. That connection makes eminent sense for this book’s argument and is instructive. But Islam is hardly the most important signifier of el Saadawi’s intellectual genealogy. Prominent women-led and Islam-focused NGOs do of course exist and some are led by American Muslim women (another group that appears only fleetingly in Shannon’s analysis). Do these absences suggest something about the kinds of organizations—and their commitments—that participated in the human rights discourse Shannon surveys? 

Some of these gaps I see in Shannon’s argument are likely due to the focus of Shannon’s work. Her project is to examine historically where and how discourses about women’s rights have impacted US foreign policy, not to survey human rights discourse in its entire relationship to Muslim intellectuals and communities. My critiques, then, are attempts to engage Shannon in a conversation—perhaps the one she intended to have, and perhaps one that is overlapping. Her coverage of this gradual centering of women’s rights is systematic and jargon-free, making the book eminently teachable. There is much in Shannon’s research worthy of attention despite—or perhaps due to—the questions it raises.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathleen M. Foody is Associate Professor of International Studies at the College of Charleston.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kelly J. Shannon teaches history at Florida Atlantic University.


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