Neo-authoritarian feminism: Theorizing The Syrian Government’s co-optation of feminist Discourse

By Katty Alhayek
Submitted to Session P5019 (Protest, Repression, and Cooptation Before and After the Arab Uprisings, 2017 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Building on the work of postcolonial and transnational feminist scholars including Lila Abu-Lughod, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Nicola Pratt, and Edith Szanto, I argue that the US and UK’s cooptation of de-historicized feminist discourses to justify the “war on terror”—and specifically the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—set a pattern now being followed by the Syrian government which is representing the al-Assad regime’s actions in the current conflict in Syria as saving Syrian women from terrorism. These neo-authoritarian “feminist” cultural appeals are being used to construct a Manichean image of the Syrian government’s war against the opposition, and to occlude historical knowledge essential to understanding the complex reality of the conflict, and the actual interests of women caught up in the war. I illustrate this case by means of interpretive textual analysis of online primary data consisting of official interviews, appearances, and state conferences of high profile women officials from the Syrian government. Like how Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush were the cultural symbols of the US’s and the UK’s war on terror, I show the ways in which Asma al-Assad’s image is constructed as the cultural symbol of Syrian government’s war against the opposition. Beyond this specific case, I claim that what I have called neo-authoritarian feminism is distinct from traditional state feminism, emerging with the war on terror over the past 16 years. The construction of neo-authoritarian feminism, as represented by the Syrian case, is shaped by the interactions between local and international oppressive policies in which both Western “racial states” and Middle Eastern authoritarian states learn from each other what are the most effective repressive measures to employ against whom they perceive as the “other.”