On an April morning 10 years ago, I set out to speak at the Indiana General Assembly. I was a graduate student then, green and greedy for any sort of opportunity that would lift me above all of the other sharp and competitive students in the political-science department at Indiana University. The invitation fit that bill grandly, even though I’d been given only some vague guidelines regarding the topic of my speech. I learned soon enough when I was greeted warmly by the very nice state representative who had asked me to come. “Just speak for a few minutes about your work on honor killings,” she whispered with a smile. The venue was not the Assembly itself, but a luncheon for the Women’s Caucus of the Indiana House of Representatives.
I did speak about honor killings that afternoon, after I received a tour of the Statehouse, stood beneath the hushed and high rotunda, and had my picture taken with my host, the two of us standing by the flag behind the podium. I spoke about the work my small organization of expat Pakistani-American women was doing on the issue, of the cruelty of the crime and the helplessness of the victims. It was the first time I had spoken on the issue for a mainly white and exclusively American audience—and a largely conservative one. There was raucous applause when I was done. A resolution officially commending my work on honor killings in South Asia was passed. I received it in the mail and had it framed.
Ten years later, I can barely look at it. A miserable mix of remorse, guilt, and shame follows when I force myself to do so or to recount the moment it commemorates. I realize now that the resolution had very little to do with me. Instead, my presence as a Pakistani woman served to confirm a group of other women—predominantly white women—in their role as saviors of brown women and, by extension, harsh critics of that supposedly woman-hating religion, Islam. These were still the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the former of which had been described by then–first lady Laura Bush as a “fight for the rights and dignity of women.” This argument appealed not just to conservatives but to liberals, some of whom were persuaded that an American war really could liberate these women, who seemed unable to liberate themselves. Few things helped to fuel war and Islamophobia more successfully in those days than the stories of women being killed by the men who’d fathered them or married them or were related to them, and whose murderous acts went unpunished in a society that sanctioned them. I was a representative of those women and that society filled with lesser feminists, brown or black or Muslim, the foil against which American feminists (or, for those who quibble with the label, empowered American women) continued to define themselves. Even just listening to me speak—on a topic selected to fit this role—was an act of benevolence bestowed on a lesser sister, my testimony against the brutality of my own people creating the stark contrast against which their own superiority shone and glistened.
A lot has happened in America in the 10 years since, and very little of it has been good. The brown Muslim woman and her desperate condition has served as an excuse to rain down even more bombs on even more countries than the United States was bombing in 2007. Women like Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have claimed credit for “liberating” these women, parading a select few of them onstage at galas or conventions featuring agendas defined entirely by white feminists, liberal and conservative. Their role is the same as mine was on that April morning, their proclaimed bravery exactly equal to their willingness to serve as informers against their native lands, to condemn the backwardness of their home countries. As the scholar Mohja Kahf has explained, the roles available to them are victim, escapee, or pawn. Under Trump, the role of Muslim women has evolved yet again, but this time to support a war at home.