Missionary Rhetoric: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness

When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist dystopia set in a world run by a totalitarian theocracy, she said that she hadn’t “invented anything,” but taken her inspiration from fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, among other things.

In the context of the war on Afghanistan, Mary Adams wrote in World Literature Today that there is a need to “reread The Handmaid’s Tale after the Taliban:”

For those of us who read The Handmaid Tale as pure science fiction, let’s read it again. Instead of visualizing Offred, a white woman whose face is obscured by blinders, let us imagine a Middle Eastern woman hidden by the burka. As Offred plays a secret game of Scrabble, let’s remember the women who risked their lives by teaching Afghan girls. When Gilead kills its rebels, let’s be reminded of the senseless cruelties in Afghanistan and beyond.

While the cruelties Adams pointed obviously exist and need to be combated, her missionary rhetoric presents itself as a wake-up call—an appeal to the reader to “imagine a Middle Eastern woman hidden by the burka” and do something about saving her. It urges the reader to take a moment to remember all the “senseless cruelties” in the dark worlds beyond “our world,” where senseless cruelties apparently don’t exist.

The whole notion is summed up by the phrase “Afghanistan and Beyond,” which sounds like the title of a travel book penned by an intrepid war journalist/adventurer/neo-Orientalist. In fact it is actually the title of a book, subtitled “Reflections on the Future of Warfare.”

Adams continues:

If we were not frightened by this book, if it remained “powerless to scare,” that is a fault of our own. We failed to think outside our comfortable borders. We failed to imagine a world unlike our own. We failed to recognize the hegemonic force of complacency. Atwood succeeded beyond our comprehension, and for that her novel deserves renewed interest.

In her article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Lila Abu-Lughod pointed out the dangers of seeking to save others, “with the superiority it implies and the violence it would entail.”  Through confident assertions about worlds “unlike our own,” Adam’s words uncannily echo parts of Our Moslem Sisters, A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness, a missionary book published 1906. Author Annie Van Sommer writes “an indictment and an appeal [...] to Christian womanhood to right these wrongs and enlighten this darkness by sacrifice and service [...] to seek and save the suffering sinful needy women of Islam.”

While Van Sommer pointed out “you cannot know how great the need unless you are told; you will never go and find them until you hear their cry,” Adams speaks about the danger of complacency, urging people to reread The Handmaid’s Tale again and imagine all the oppressed “Middle Eastern” women in burqas, living an actual dystopia.

Despite the current shifts in foreign policy, the Afghanistan and Beyond mentality remains entrenched. Increasingly, Iraq is presented in terms of the rebirth of the nation, as in this Newsweek article. “It may not be ‘mission accomplished’ – but it’s a start,” suggests the problem was never with the idea of Bush’s mission (spreading ”freedom” through war), but with the over-hasty declaration of its accomplishment.

The rhetoric may be quieter, but the mission of spreading salvation (in whatever form) abroad is still couched in terms of “saving.” There is still “a world unlike our own” out there.

  • http://www.blogistan.co.uk/blog/ Yusuf Smith

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum

    I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale and anyone who compares the situation of Muslim women, even in Afghanistan, to it clearly hasn’t read it very closely (and I couldn’t drag myself all the way through it, by the way). The story is a cross between The Chrysalids by John Wyndham and 1984 by Orwell, essentially a picture of a post-Apocalyptic police state. Besides the church ruling the state, the state of “Gilead” was using what seemed to be a minority of healthy women (the Handmaids) to allow powerful men to reproduce, because most women’s fertility had been ruined by environmental factors.

    Like the religious justifications for killing “mutants” in The Chrysalids, the book demonstrates how religion can be perverted to suit the interests of the state, but none of that has anything to do with Afghanistan.

  • Humayra

    I agree that the “save Muslim women” rhetoric is (1) unbelievably tiresome and (2) dangerous, especially when it is entangled with military intervention (as it usually is nowadays).

    And, we don’t have to look abroad to find women like Offred; they exist in highly conservative religious communities in North America of various denominations/religions.

    But I wish that there was more concern in the Muslim communities in North America that I know, with actively opposing those who peddle interpretations of Islam which discourage secular and/or advanced education for women, pressure teenagers into early marriage, isolate women at home, rationalize polygamy, and so forth. I also wish that I could know that from this day forward, I will never again have to hear a North American imam or scholar defending/rationalizing/justifying a man “tapping” his wife with a miswak.

    If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride….

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com JihadPunk77

    she lost me at the “Middle Eastern” part. If people are willing to acknowledge that Afghans are not Middle Eastern, then we can talk.

  • Zahra (with a Z)

    Thanks for the take-down of this tiresome and disturbingly widespread rhetoric. I like the way you brought in the missionary from the early 1900s to show us how very little has changed, even though now the “true faith” is a particular brand of secularism. (For one thing, the missionaries still don’t know how to read a map, or distinguish between the very different regions and nations of their “heathendom.”)

    I have read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety, and while I find it a powerful novel, it’s very much a product of it times, the 1980s, and the idea Atwood drew in part on the Iranian Revolution makes sense historically but also makes me cringe.

    But Adams seems to have missed a major point of the novel, which is its “it can happen here” theme, where “here” is the self-declared liberal northeast of the US. Atwood very deliberately wrote a novel about a fundamentalist state in North America, arguing that totalitarian dangers to women’s rights exist in her own culture, not only those different and distant from it.

    Way to miss the point, Adams.

    Second, that book heavily critiques feminists who join with conservatives on particular issues, thinking they’re forwarding women’s rights, when in fact the erosion of liberal tolerance endangers them. In her novel, feminists crusading against pornography, by restricting free speech, paved the way for the totalitarian state that radically restricted women. (This is one of the things that makes the book so very 1980s and dated. But if you’ve read other Atwood, you know she’s always more interested in critiquing women for their complicity in sexist systems than she is the men who benefit from them.)

    Adams sounds like a new version of this, joining with a neo-imperialist movement and claiming to be working for women while in fact further oppressing them–not least by speaking for them instead of listening.

    I suspect she chose The Handmaid’s Tale in part because Offred, like most Atwood heroines, is fundamentally passive and unable to change her situation–and that’s how she wants to see these “Afghan/Middle Eastern” women. (Obviously, Offred was intended as a cautionary figure–”once things get this bad it’ll be too late!”)

    She could have picked Sarah Hall’s excellent and similar story,The Carhullan Army (titled Daughters of the North in the US), which speaks to the current moment much more powerfully. But she didn’t, because in Hall’s version oppressed women in the post-apocalyptic UK band together and fight back with violent tactics. They don’t need saving. (Hall is making a point about how and why terrorism happens, and that it’s not inherent to certain cultures.)

    My point is that Adams picked this book from many other possibilities, and selectively misread it, in order to find only what she wanted to see.

  • http://tasnimqutait.blogspot.com Tasnim

    What The Handmaid has to do with Afghanistan, as far as I can see, is that Adams liked the correlation between blinkers and the burka, and chose to describe the novel as a text which will better help the Western reader “understand the plight of Afghan/Middle Eastern women.” The fact that two regions can be geopolitically scrambled through changing definitions of “the Middle East” just adds to my list of greivances against this catch-all, Eurocentric term.

    I absolutely agree, Adams not only missed the book’s point, but managed to reverse political satire into an ego-boosting message. Yes The Handmaid is kind of dated, but one part of it that I think remains relevant is the way it denies the reader the possibility of imagining a world with “comfortable borders” where life is exactly how it should be, and thus all other worlds “unlike our own” should be brought within those borders.

    As Humayra pointed out, we have to combat that same delusion within our own communities if we’re ever going to achieve a fairer and freer society. The way some of those imams talk you’d think utopia was guaranteed by blind obedience, especially from women. The irony though is that the whole premise of ”Save the Muslim Woman” rhetoric precludes action from within Muslim communities. It’s about rescuing from the outside. And if you try to discuss both problems at the same time you’re inevitably addressing the question of Muslim women from a retroactive, defensive position. Basically, this kind of rhetoric makes the situation worse on every possible level.

  • Tasnim

    What The Handmaid has to do with Afghanistan, as far as I can see, is that Adams liked the correlation between blinkers and the burka, and chose to describe the novel as a text which will better help the Western reader “understand the plight of Afghan/Middle Eastern women.” The fact that two regions can be geopolitically scrambled through changing definitions of the Middle East just adds to my list of greivances against the catch-all, Eurocentric term.

    I absolutely agree, Adams not only missed the book’s point, but managed to reverse its political satire into an ego-boosting message. Yes The Handmaid is kind of dated, but one part of it that I think remains relevant is the way it denies the reader the possibility of imagining a world with comfortable borders where life is exactly how it should be and thus all other worlds “unlike our own” should be brought within those borders.

    As Humayra pointed out, we have to combat that same delusion within our own communities if we’re ever going to achieve a fairer and freer society. The way some of the imams talk you’d think utopia was guaranteed by blind obedience, especially from women.

    The irony though is that the whole premise of “Save the Muslim Woman” rhetoric precludes action from within Muslim communities. It’s about rescuing from the outside. And if you try to discuss both at the same time you’re inevitably addressing the question of Muslim women from a retroactive, defensive position.

  • Antonia

    Good article, but one small addendum: Annie Van Sommer was a co-editor of “Our Moslem Sisters,” and she did author the first chapter, but the first quote in the article is actually from the introduction written by her fellow co-editor (and husband, I believe) Samuel M. Zwemer. There used to be a very Muslim-phobic website that had PDF versions of this piece as well as his other works about Islam (which are equally if not more disturbing), but I can’t find it to post here (which is actually a good thing, since the website’s intention was the exact opposite of this one’s). While I’m sure Van Sommer bought into the same rhetoric, I think it’s important to note how much of the criticisms leveled at Muslim societies regarding their treatment of women came from privileged white men who denied women in their own countries many rights. Several of the accounts in this book (including those on Iran) were also written by male missionaries who had very limited contact with the women they were ostensibly writing about.


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