"Respect for women... can triumph in the Middle East and beyond!" trilled the leader of the free world to the UN last week. "The repression of women [is] everywhere and always wrong!" he told the New York Times, warming to his theme that the west should attack Iraq for the sake of its women.
Just as he bombed Afghanistan to liberate the women from their burkas (or, as he would have it, to free the "women of cover"), and sent out his wife Laura to tell how Afghans are tortured for wearing nail varnish, so now Bush has taken on the previously-unknown cause of Iraqi women - actually, look at the quotes, it's women everywhere! - to justify another war. Where next? China because of its anti-girl one-child policy? India because of widow-burning outrages? Britain because of its criminally low rape conviction rate?
At home, Bush is no feminist. On his very first day in the Oval office, he cut off funding to any international family-planning organizations which offer abortion services or counseling (likely to cost the lives of thousands of women and children); this year he renamed January 22 - the anniversary of Roe vs Wade which permitted abortion on demand - as National Sanctity of Human Life Day and compared abortion to terrorism: "On September 11, we saw clearly that evil exists in this world, and that it does not value life... Now we are engaged in a fight against evil and tyranny to preserve and protect life."
However, this theft of feminist rhetoric is not new, particularly if its function is national expansion; in fact, it has a startling parallel with another generation of men who similarly cared little for the liberation of women. The Victorian male establishment, which led the great imperialistic ventures of the 19th century, fought bitterly against women's increasingly vocal feminist demands and occasional successes (a handful going to university; new laws permitting married women to own property); but at the same time, across the globe, they used the language of feminism to acquire the booty of the colonies.
The classic example of such a colonizer was Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, as described in Leila Ahmed's seminal Women and Gender in Islam. Cromer was convinced of the inferiority of Islamic religion and society, and had many critical things to say on the "mind of the Oriental". But his condemnation was most thunderous on the subject of how Islam treated women. It was Islam's degradation of women, its insistence on veiling and seclusion, which was the "fatal obstacle" to the Egyptian's "attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization," he said. The Egyptians should be "persuaded or forced" to become "civilized" by disposing of the veil.
And what did this forward-thinking, feminist-sounding veil-burner do when he got home to Britain? He founded and presided over the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage, which tried, by any means possible, to stop women getting the vote.
Colonial patriarchs like Cromer believed that middle-class Victorian mores represented the pinnacle of civilization, and set about implementing this model wherever they went - with women in their rightful, subservient place, of course. They wanted merely to replace eastern misogyny with western misogyny. But, like Bush, they stole feminist language in order to denounce the indigenous culture; and, says Ahmed, feminism thus served as a "handmaid to colonialism". "Whether in the hands of patriarchal men or feminists," she writes, "the ideas of western feminism essentially functioned to morally justify the attack on native societies and to support the notion of comprehensive superiority of Europe."
The thieves of feminist language couldn't (and can't) even be bothered to pretend that they actually care about women in the colonized or bombed countries: in Egypt, Cromer actively ensured that women's status was not improved: he raised school fees (so preventing girls' education) and discouraged the training of women doctors. And "feminist" George Bush has abandoned the women of Afghanistan: where is his concern (or Laura's, or Tony Blair's, or Cherie Blair's, who was also wheeled out by her husband) for the very many Afghan women who live in fear of the marauding mojahedin who now run the country and are in many ways as repressive as the Taliban? Where were their protests when Sima Samar, Afghanistan's women's affairs minister and one of only two women ministers in Hamid Karzai's western-installed government, was forced from her job this summer because of death threats?
This cooption of feminism without a care for the women on the ground is not without consequences - although, predictably, it is not the colonizers who suffer them. Ahmed writes: "Colonialism's use of feminism to promote the culture of the colonizers and undermine native culture has... imparted to feminism in non-western societies the taint of having served as an instrument of colonial domination, rendering it suspect in Arab eyes and vulnerable to the charge of being an ally of colonial interests."
Indeed, many Muslim women are suspicious of western-style feminism for this very reason, a fact which it is crucial for feminists in the west to understand, before they do a Cromer and insist that the removal of veils is the route to all liberation. The growing Islamicization of Arab societies and the neo-colonial impact of the war on terror has meant that, according to academic Sherin Saadallah, "secular feminism and feminism which mimics that of the west is in trouble in the Arab world".
But just because Arab women are rejecting western-style feminism, it doesn't mean they are embracing the subjugation of their sex. Muslim women deplore misogyny just as western women do, and they know that Islamic societies also oppress them; why wouldn't they? But liberation for them does not encompass destroying their identity, religion or culture, and many of them want to retain the veil.
Reflecting this, a particular brand of Muslim feminism has developed in recent years which is neither westernized and secular nor Islamist and ultra-traditional, but instead is trying to dismantle the things which enforce women's subjugation within the Islamic framework. Increasingly relevant and influential, Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi are the most significant theoretical voices.
And in the west, feminists are left with the fact that their own beliefs are being trotted out by world leaders in the name of a cause which does nothing for the women it pretends to protect. This is nothing less than an abuse of feminism, one which will further discredit the cause of western feminism in the Arab world, as well as here. When George Bush mouths feminist slogans, it is feminism which loses its power.
But such a theft is in the spirit of the times. Feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality - to sell trainers, to justify body mutilations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo. No wonder it's being used as a reason for bombing women and children too.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002