- U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women's Human Rights by Kelly J. Shannon
Kelly J. Shannon's well written and concise account explores how and why the American public and later the United States government came to care about the human rights of Muslim women. She shows that concern about Muslim women's rights has intersected with US foreign policy in meaningful ways over the last forty years, yet no historical work has previously examined this aspect.
In particular, with U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women's Human Rights, Shannon demonstrates the link between the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the "human rights revolution" of previous years. Her work studies how Americans concerned about the abrogation of women's rights in Iran worked to make women there "less alien" to the US public.1 Shannon shows how activists engaged in a process of "symbolic politics," to use Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink's term, by representing Iranian women in the US.2 Such an effort, through which distant victims are made immediate, has been central to effective human rights advocacy.
As the chapters progress, Shannon investigates a second intersection of revolutions—that of the rise of the international women's movement with the human rights movement. There has been limited scholarship on the United Nations Decade for Women (1975 to 1985), and Shannon's book shows why many scholars may benefit from greater examination of the role of the United Nations in shaping attention to human rights internationally. In Shannon's analysis, the decade was essential: "Without the United Nations Decade for Women, it is unlikely that the growing American attention to Muslim women's rights following the Iranian Revolution would have moved beyond the public sphere and into policy."3
Breaking with the traditional methodology of histories of US foreign relations, Shannon uses limited documents from presidential libraries or the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States series. In part this is because, as she highlights with the Carter years, the documentary record is silent on the issue [End Page 967] of Muslim women's human rights. Furthermore, Shannon undoubtedly faced issues of inaccessible records given the recent period in which she was working. But, it also reflects a different appraisal of the sources most significant to her analysis. Shannon frames each chapter with a cultural phenomenon of the time, such as Betty Mahmoody's memoir Not Without My Daughter and Nawal el Saadawi's book The Hidden Face of Eve. Here, like Mark Philip Bradley's recent work The World Reimagined, she seeks to show how cultural production influenced those in the United States to care about violations of women's rights in the Muslim world. Her approach reveals how human rights issues permeated and resonated in US culture and public life.
Importantly, in Shannon's evaluation of how films, memoirs, and novels influenced US awareness of and concern about violations of Muslim women's rights, she highlights how many influential cultural works were written or created by Muslim women. They claimed human rights for themselves and rebutted critiques circulating at the time that human rights were merely a foreign ploy to impose a new form of Western imperialism. Their work was significant because, as Shannon shows, Western women too often focused on the veil, which distorted their understanding of Muslim women's concerns. In other methodological innovations, she illustrates how scholarship by historians Judith Tucker and Nikki Keddie as well as anthropologist Lois Beck shaped United States attitudes regarding women's rights.4 In her analysis of US reactions to the "gender apartheid" in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War, Shannon makes excellent use of Department of Army oral history interviews with women who served there. She has also done considerable analysis of the US media coverage in the years after the Iranian Revolution and found that it characterized Islamic fundamentalism as "a threat both to U.S. interests and to women's human rights."5
Shannon shows that she is well versed in Orientalist...