Abstract

This article explores some of the ways in which, in the early years of the united Pakistan experiment, elite educated Muslim East Bengali women experienced and narrated their relationship to the new Pakistan nation as they navigated the international stage as citizens of a new sovereign Muslim-majority state. In the context of the nascent Cold War and the Pakistani state’s efforts to develop its own relationship with the United States, one that was distinct from that of India and yet motivated almost entirely by concerns about the greater military might of this large neighbor, Pakistani women from both wings were quickly pulled into the orbit of US- and Soviet-sponsored women’s organizations targeting women around the world. In this article, the author focuses on the relationship between Pakistani and US women in the 1950s that emerges from the memoirs, biographies, and writings of Bengali Pakistani women active in this period, as well as from the archives—housed in Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection—of one of the first formal US women’s groups to establish contact with East Bengali women leaders: the New York-based Committee of Correspondence.

In November 1949, the teenager Mushfequa Rahman (later, Mahmud), then living in Chittagong in East Bengal, the eastern wing of Pakistan, reminisced about the August 1947 birth of Pakistan in an article in the magazine Begum. The veteran journalist Muhammad Nasiruddin had founded Begum mere weeks before partition and the independence of Pakistan and India, envisioning it as an illustrated Bengali-language weekly magazine devoted entirely to women’s issues and concerns. Begum was still based in Calcutta in what was now the Indian state of West Bengal when Rahman published her piece, but in 1950 it would move to the East Bengali capital of Dacca, on the heels of many of its Muslim writers who emigrated to what they saw as a new homeland for South Asia’s Muslims (Akhtar 2012: 114; Gupta 2009).

In her essay Rahman described the birth of independent Pakistan as the day on which “we cast off the shackles of servitude” and emerged as “azaad [free] inhabitants of an azaad Pakistan.” She recalled that the moment of independence at the stroke of midnight had been preceded by five minutes of “blackout” in her neighborhood to mark the end of almost two centuries of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. Although, in her words, she was just a schoolgirl at the time and “didn’t understand anything about politics,” she was overcome by the excitement, joy, and enormous pride she felt that day, as well as by her somber recollection of the many who had sacrificed so that she might now partake in this new national freedom. She remembered how she was unable to sleep the rest of that night. All she could think about was how, where once her compatriots had felt the need to lower their heads in shame when meeting foreigners from independent nations, today “we had been liberated from that humiliation and now we will be able to hold our head up high and walk alongside the rest of the world as we move forward.” These thoughts occupied her until dawn broke and it was time to attend a ceremony of the hoisting of the new flag (Begum 2006, 1:53–54; Shehabuddin 2021: 169).

Given the history of South Asia over the following seven decades—and, indeed, the power of the nationalist historiographies of the region and popular memories of that era—such enthusiasm for Pakistan on the part of an East Bengali might elicit some surprise today. Tensions had already erupted between the two wings of the new nation by the time Rahman submitted her article. In March 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had led the movement for Pakistan and then become its governor-general, had informed a crowd of a half-million people in Dacca that Urdu, spoken by a small fraction of even West Pakistan’s population, would be the country’s state language. Bengalis, a numerical majority in united Pakistan, had vociferously protested, energizing the bhasha andolan or “language movement” that had been simmering quietly for several months. East Pakistani protests against cultural, political, and economic inequalities perpetrated by the West Pakistani–dominated central regime in the coming years, and the regime’s violent repression of these protests, would culminate in 1971 in East Pakistan’s declaration of independence and the creation of yet another new South Asian state, Bangladesh.

Rather than assume Bengali resentment toward West Pakistan and the inevitability of Bangladesh’s birth from the moment of partition in 1947, I explore in this article some of the ways in which, in the early years of the united Pakistan experiment, elite educated Muslim East Bengali women experienced and narrated their relationship to the new Pakistan nation as they navigated the international stage as citizens of a new sovereign Muslim-majority state. The Pakistan period or Pakistan amal, as Bangladeshis refer to it today, coincided with the beginning of the Cold War and with the Pakistani state’s efforts to develop its own relationship with the United States, one that was distinct from that of India and yet motivated almost entirely by concerns about the greater military might of this large neighbor. Soon anointed as a strategic US ally, the Pakistani state also engaged in often repressive efforts to unify its population. It was in this larger context that Pakistani women from both wings, even as they worked to define their own agendas for change, were quickly pulled into the orbit of US- and Soviet-sponsored women’s organizations targeting women around the world. As I show elsewhere, US women would visit East Pakistan throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as journalists, consultants (for example, for the new home economics college), Peace Corps volunteers, and as representatives of women’s groups, and they would also sponsor visits by Pakistani women to the United States (Shehabuddin 2021). In this essay, I focus on the relationship between Pakistani and US women in the 1950s that emerges from the writings of Bengali Pakistani women active in this period as well as the archives, housed in Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection, of one of the first formal US women’s groups to establish contact with East Bengali women leaders, the New York–based Committee of Correspondence (hereafter, CoC). Generously funded from the very beginning by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—though not all committee members would learn of this until a 1967 exposé—the committee’s primary concern was the cultural and political threat it perceived from the Soviet Bloc (Laville 2002; Wilford 2009).

This project contributes to the rich and growing body of scholarship on Muslim women’s agency and activism. While work on Muslim women’s piety and religious practice over the past two decades has posed important challenges to older narrow Western liberal feminist ideas about what constitutes power and agency (e.g., Deeb 2006; Mahmood 2005; Jamal 2013), I’m interested here in non-religious forms of public activism and engagement with politics in a particular historical period by women who identified as Muslim—and as Bengali and Pakistani. The Bengali Muslim women of East Pakistan whose memoirs and letters inform this article were well-educated and well-traveled. They also saw themselves as empowered citizens and nation builders at a time of hope and postcolonial possibility. They were generally of an elite class background that was similar to that of the American women with whom they interacted, and like them, they were enmeshed in a variety of familial, professional, national, and international concerns that were often connected to but also extended beyond their religious identity. The juxtaposition of these Bengali and US women serves to complicate the Otherness that is often attached to Muslim women to the exclusion of power, history, politics, and economics, and to such an extent that their “Muslimness” overshadows all other aspects of their lives.

This essay also provides broader historical and geographical context against which to understand current forms of imperial and colonial feminism as well as transnational solidarities and networks. Specifically, it contributes to the emerging literature on transnational feminism between accounts of the “international first wave” (the mobilization around women’s suffrage around the world in the early twentieth century) and the many transnational organizations that emerged in the Global South in the late twentieth century. Bringing the different contexts of East Pakistan, West Pakistan, and the United States into one transnational analytical frame allows me to contribute to the growing field of gendered histories of the Cold War, and to do so from the vantage point of the Third World and its interactions with the superpowers (McMahon 1994; de Haan 2010; de Haan 2012; Rotter 2013; Armstrong 2016).

By examining women’s activism in both Pakistan and the United States, I am able to find moments of exchange and collaboration that pose a contrast to the European civilizing mission impetus of the formal colonial period as well as to more recent US and European anti-Muslim foreign and domestic policy. At the same time, given clear asymmetries of power, such collaborations cannot be reduced to notions of global sisterhood that gained currency in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Pakistan amal, power asymmetries characterized relations not only between women in the United States and Pakistan, but also between women in East and West Pakistan, urban and rural women within Pakistan, and those with access to formal education and the English language and those without.

Historians of the US women’s movement have challenged popular memories and older scholarly depictions of the early post–World War II years as marked by stagnation in the US women’s movement, an era of “doldrums” between the winning of women’s suffrage in 1920 and the rise of the so-called second wave of feminism in the 1960s. But despite recent work on the activism and public presence of large numbers of US women in the postwar years, there remains a need for attention to their active engagements with women from what came to be called Third World countries and to the local histories and specificities of the women from these newly decolonizing contexts (Rupp and Taylor 1987; Meyerowitz 1993; Leslie 2011; Laville 2013; Pieper-Mooney and Lanza 2013; McGregor 2016; Kim 2019). Long before the Danish economist Ester Boserup’s groundbreaking Women’s Role in Economic Development (1970) directed policymakers in donor nations to pay serious attention to women’s distinct needs in development planning, elite Muslim East Pakistani women who visited the United States or the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s expressed interest in the idea of “modernization” and voiced their openness to lessons from these wealthier countries that they deemed useful to help build their own new nation. In addition, the Muslim Bengali women visitors’ assessments of US society provide an important contrast to the well-circulated essay by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb about his stay in Greeley, Colorado, in 1949, which is often taken as the iconic Muslim representation of the United States in that period (Calvert 2000).

Rallying to “Counteract Communist Propaganda”

In April 1952, ten patrician women (of whom nine were white, one Black) gathered at the Women’s University Club in New York to discuss, “What steps should be taken to rally the women of the free world to counteract communist propaganda?” (Committee of Correspondence [CoC] “Minutes,” April 16, 1952; Laville 2002: 24, 172). Rose Peabody Parsons (usually referred to as Mrs. William Barclay Parsons in the committee’s documents) had convened this first meeting of a group that initially called itself the Anonymous Committee. The women present had prior experience with major organizations such as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Girl Scouts, and the National Council of Negro Women. Parsons herself had worked with the Red Cross in both world wars and held leadership positions in the International Council of Women and its American affiliate, the National Council of Women. In 1946, she had founded Women United for the United Nations (WUUN), a coalition of US-based women’s nongovernmental organizations that supported the newly established United Nations and its efforts toward peace (CoC “Asian Workshop, 1957”). WUUN survived the hostile McCarthyist scrutiny by pitching itself as a liberal voluntary educational organization that did not contradict the era’s feminine ideal of domesticity, in sharp distinction and, indeed, outright opposition, to radical, action-oriented organizations such as World Organization of Mothers of All Nations, American Women for Peace, or the recently shuttered US Congress of American Women (Laville 2002; Weigand 2002; de Forest 2005; Gore 2011; Armstrong 2019).

Parsons brought this “safe” liberal internationalist approach to the new committee, which chose the name Committee of Correspondence at its August 1952 meeting. According to the minutes from that meeting, this was “the name given in Colonial days to committees in various colonies which kept each other informed of measures they were taking to cope with their mutual problems” with the hope that “our committee might some day be corresponding with similar committees in other parts [of] the free world.” Thus the mid-twentieth century committee set out to counter Communist ideas through direct and personal correspondence with women around the world (CoC “Minutes,” August 22, 1952; Laville 2002). Committee member Anna Lord Strauss, who had recently served as president of the National League of Women Voters, assured everyone that, based on her inquiries, no other group was doing similar work (CoC “Minutes,” May 20, 1952).

Bolstered by an anonymous donation of $25,000 in early 1953, the committee began to plan its future activities with great enthusiasm. It decided that its upcoming “newsletters should be pegged to the three forthcoming Communist events,” among them International Women’s Day (March 8); International Children’s Day (June 1); and the World Congress of Women, the conference of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), to be held in Copenhagen in June (CoC “Minutes,” January 27, 1953). It also confirmed that its objective was to “establish mutual friendship and trust among women throughout the world who believe that a free society can minister to the news of mankind spiritually, intellectually and materially better than any other form of society.” It would “establish channels of direct communication with responsible women leaders abroad” through not only letters, but also news bulletins and other forms of information “which give a forceful presentation of the above beliefs” and encourage these correspondents to keep the committee apprised of the “effectiveness of adverse propaganda in their communities” and suggest ways to “neutralize this propaganda” (Hester 1953: 2). The introductory letter that would be sent to “foreign contacts” would “give our friends the tools with which they can combat anti-American propaganda.” The committee members insisted, predictably, that the information they themselves shared would be “factual . . . , not propaganda” (CoC “Minutes,” February 24, 1953).

In April 1953, the Committee sent a news bulletin, a questionnaire, and a letter introducing itself to some 750 overseas contacts. The inaugural news bulletin focused on “The Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Growth of the World’s Children,” in anticipation of the Soviet Bloc’s celebration of International Children’s Day. The bulletin included not only US statements and efforts on behalf of American children, but also reports on the topic from the United Nations, a conference in Bombay, India, and—strategically—a Czechoslovakian child expert who clearly disapproved of Communist regimes’ plans for families (CoC News Bulletin, April 1953). Ruzena Palentova, who was described in the bulletin as an “internationally known expert in the field of Child Welfare,” had served as first deputy mayor of Prague until the Communists took over. Her recent lectures in the United States, such as one at a parent-teacher association meeting at Wandell School in Saddle River, New Jersey, were sponsored by the Crusade for Freedom, which also operated Radio Free Europe as part of its efforts to “encourage and enlighten the captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain” (Sunday News, February 15, 1953: 5). In the committee’s bulletin, Palentova wrote of plans by “the Communist State” to shatter the “traditionally strong family ties in Czechoslovakia” and “disrupt family life by forcing the mother to work outside the home,” thereby rendering the children vulnerable to being molded “into the pattern of well-disciplined little robots” to serve the Soviet system. This, according to the bulletin, was in sharp contrast to the approach to families in the Free World, as represented by the Bombay conference, which stressed the need “to preserve and strengthen family life, since a happy home life is essential to the greatest growth and development of every child” (CoC News Bulletin, April 1953; Laville 2002: 177–78).

The committee then turned its attention to composing a new letter that it hoped to send the following month to as many as “1000 women abroad” with the clear objective of taking “the wind out of the sail” of the upcoming Copenhagen congress (CoC “Minutes,” April 28, 1953). Ultimately sent to 770 women in 72 countries and 100 US-based organizations, the committee’s May 6 letter set out to provide “accurate information as to the sponsorship, aims and purpose of that congress,” through a history of the leadership and activities of the left-leaning WIDF (CoC May 6 letter; Van Voris 1989: 7). At a late May meeting, Anne Hester was pleased to report that “the response” to the letter had been “excellent”—for example, the largest newspaper in Chile had translated and published the letter and the Committee for Free Asia had reported that it was “put . . . to good use” (CoC “Minutes,” May 26, 1953).

The committee’s vice-chair Dorothy Bauman attended the WIDF congress in Copenhagen and shared her observations on her return to New York. Bauman was one of the most widely traveled members of the committee: as a journalist she had covered the first free elections in Italy and the war in Greece (both in 1948) and more recently, in 1952, had traveled “in eighteen countries in Europe and the Middle East in four and one-half months.” She was very well connected, not only to women like Rose Parsons but also to the State Department which, following her 1952 tour, sought her recommendations, as she later recalled, on “how the United States could respond to the Soviet effort to enlist women in their cause all over the world” (Bauman 1974: 137). Bauman herself had been responsible for facilitating the “anonymous” $25,000 donation from the CIA. In the summer of 1953, she spent almost seven weeks in Europe, where she encountered great concern over the “totalitarian techniques of Senator McCarthy and the trial of the Rosenbergs.” She attributed the concern to “misinformation or lack of information” and Communist efforts, but conceded, at least when she wrote her memoirs two decades later, that even non-Communists “believed justice had been miscarried.” She was surprised to find growing anti-Americanism in friendly or neutral cities like Paris and Geneva (Bauman 1974: 143). She reported to the committee that the WIDF congress in Copenhagen, held June 5–10, was “impressive” and “dramatically staged” and that the “Congress pledged itself to infiltrate women’s organizations . . . in the free countries.” She was particularly struck by the “considerably lower” average age of the women at the congress—thirty-nine—than of women involved in US organizations. From Copenhagen, she had traveled on to Berlin and was there for the outbreak of a massive uprising of East German citizens against the Socialist Unity Party on June 17. Ever committed to her larger agenda, she “regretted that the West had not exploited the propaganda opportunities presented by the revolt” (CoC “Minutes,” June 30, 1953: 3).

In August 1953, the committee’s executive director, Anne Hester, proposed a change in strategy. She was concerned that anti-Americanism, hostility, and “resentment in Asia, South America and the Middle East,” as well as in Europe, arose as much from “US foreign policy—economy, social or political” as from Communist propaganda. She called therefore on the committee to “contribute to the restoration of confidence in the US, the leader of the free world.” This new direction would lead the committee to produce articles with titles such as “Typical Days in the Lives of Five American Women” to combat prevalent international—and Hollywood—portrayals of American women as “selfish idlers” (CoC News Bulletin, February 1955; Laville 2002: 178).

The committee also decided to address the issue of race relations in the United States in its bulletin. Anna Lord Strauss recalled how, on a 1949 Round the World tour with America’s Town Meeting of the Air while she was still president of the League of Women Voters, their team had repeatedly faced the same question from audiences across Asia: “In country after country, we heard the same theme song. It wasn’t so much that communism would bring greater satisfaction to the people. It was that in the United States, which boasted of its freedom and many advantages, how was it there was discriminations against the Negroes, that lynchings still occurred” (Laville and Lucas 1996: 570). In Karachi, Pakistan, a question about “the Negro problem” had come up at a meeting of the women of the Town Meeting group with leaders of the newly founded All Pakistan Women’s Association. Edith S. Sampson, who in 1950 would become the first Black US delegate to the United Nations, had responded by sharing her own story, concluding that “America is making great progress in solving this problem; we have a long way to go yet, but my nieces are having an easier time than I had in getting an education. I am proud to be an American” (Decker 1950: 196–197).

The committee decided to devote its October 1953 bulletin to the question of “The Negro in the United States of America” as a response to the “many inquiries received” on this topic. Accompanied by a cover letter from lawyer Eunice Carter, the committee’s sole Black member, it included excerpts from reports and speeches of several Black leaders of the time who, in the 1950s, actively supported the US government’s limited efforts toward racial equality, such as Lester B. Granger, Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ralph Bunche, and Edith S. Sampson. Conspicuously absent were Black leaders such as Eslanda and Paul Robeson who had been blacklisted for their outspoken criticism of the US government’s progress on civil rights and their open support for anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia (CoC News Bulletin, October 1953; Von Eschen 1997; Duberman 2005; Ransby 2014).

A Congress “For Equality, for Happiness, for Peace”

The 1953 WIDF World Congress of Women in Copenhagen that Bauman attended attracted nearly two thousand women from sixty-seven countries, among them peasants, teachers, office workers, journalists, artists, members of parliament, “housewives,” and “mothers of families some of them with 10 or 12 children.” Among those unable to attend were Koreans who, with the Korean War still underway, were “suffer[ing] from the immense grief brought by the American aggression, and because they are courageously fighting for peace and the happiness of the new generation.” The support enjoyed by the WIDF was reflected in a successful resolution proposed by the Indian delegation “emphasising . . . the incontestable authority of the WIDF in the international women’s movement and the confidence which the women of the world have in it” (WIDF 1953: 3–4, 266).

The Pakistani delegate to the congress was the renowned leftist Punjabi women’s rights activist Tahira Mazhar Ali. Following the 1947 partition, she had served on committees to establish peace between India and Pakistan and founded the Democratic Women’s Association, which was affiliated with the Communist Party of Pakistan of which she was an active member. In 1971, the Pakistani state would label her a traitor because she was among the few West Pakistanis to protest against its violent military action in East Pakistan following the eastern wing’s declaration of independence (Jalil 2015; Malik 2013: 523; Mohsin 2015).

In her speech in Copenhagen, Ali forcefully denounced the “twin evils of feudalism and foreign control” and expressed her apprehension regarding US interests in her country and of the “danger” of Pakistan becoming “embroiled in the western powers’ plans for World War III.” She continued: “There is talk of food gifts and loans, and simultaneously of bases and manpower supplies in the drive to make ‘Asians fight Asians,’ and there is talk of Pakistan’s participation in the Middle East Defense organisation—an organisation intended to make Pakistan defenceless against the foreign exploiters and their local agents.” She concluded, “The women of Pakistan will resist any attempt to use Pakistan as a power in the warmongers’ game, like all women all over the world” (WIDF 1953: 207–8). Tahira Mazhar Ali’s fears were soon realized. Less than a year after the WIDF congress, Pakistan’s leaders became formally “embroiled” in Western treaties and machinations. In 1954, Pakistan and the United States signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement and in 1955, Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact alongside Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Great Britain.

A Tale of Two Wings

Pakistan was not even a decade old when the Committee of Correspondence began sending letters to women around the world. Although Pakistan was founded in 1947 ostensibly as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, some thirty million Muslims remained in India and as many non-Muslims in Pakistan. Moreover, the populations in the two wings of the new country, separated by over a thousand miles across northern India, shared little beyond being predominantly Muslim. As the US political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau observed in those early years, “It is as if after the Civil War Louisiana and Maryland had decided to form a state of their own with the capital in Baton Rouge. In fact, it is worse than that” (Morgenthau 1962: 261). East Bengal’s clear demographic advantage, as well as its history of progressive, even radical, politics worried the central government then based in Karachi, West Pakistan (Toor 2011). The government’s efforts to forge a nation out of geographically divided and culturally and linguistically diverse peoples, with such misguided policies as the proposal to impose Urdu as the national language, had already led to protests and, in February 1952, several deaths in Dacca.

The committee seemed unaware of these tensions between the two wings. The largest organization for women in Pakistan—and the committee’s main contact—was the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), founded in February 1949 by Raana Liaquat Ali, the wife of then–Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Its headquarters were in Karachi with provincial headquarters in Lahore, West Pakistan, and Dacca, East Pakistan. As was also the case with women’s organizations founded in Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere in this period, APWA had strong government backing and most of its members were female relatives of the predominantly male civil servants and politicians (Chipp 1970; Ansari 2009; Jalal 1991). Given the glaring imbalance in the distribution of high-ranking positions in the civil service (and military) in favor of West Pakistanis, this meant that most leadership positions in APWA went to West Pakistani women. Not surprisingly, the committee’s carefully maintained lists of correspondents (with their addressees, occupations, activities, and history of travel to the United States) reveal that most of its correspondence was directed to women leaders in West Pakistan or to West Pakistani women based in East Pakistan. It is telling that when APWA hosted Eleanor Roosevelt for a weeklong visit in February 1952, she spent only seven hours in East Bengal (Shehabuddin 2014).

In its early years, APWA received generous support from the Committee for Free Asia, which was renamed the Asia Foundation in 1954, with its goal to “support peace, independence, personal liberty, and social progress in Asia, and to foster mutual respect and understanding between Asia and the West.” The foundation’s board comprised the Pulitzer Prize–winning author James Michener, the university presidents of Stanford; the University of California, Los Angeles; Columbia; and Brown; and several business and foreign policy leaders. It set up offices in Lahore, Karachi, and Dacca (Asia Foundation 2014; Blum 1956). Throughout the 1950s, the Asia Foundation funded the travel of Pakistanis to attend different training workshops and conferences, including the Committee of Correspondence’s first international workshop in 1956, “The Responsibilities of Freedom,” directed primarily at correspondents from Asian countries. The “selection process” for workshop participants followed “careful criteria” and, in the matter of South Asia, reflected a concern with parity between India and Pakistan that proved paramount. The committee invited two correspondents each from India and Pakistan to the 1956 workshop. Both the Pakistanis invited, however, were from West Pakistan. Whether to redress this injustice or simply by accident, the committee invited three guests from East Pakistan and one from West Pakistan to its second Asian Workshop in 1957 (CoC “Asian Workshop, 1956”; CoC “Asian Workshop, 1957”).

Pakistan through US Eyes

At this time, Pakistan was beginning to emerge as a friendly, even potentially “modern” country in US eyes. An August 1951 Time Magazine article had identified Turkey and Pakistan as the only two Muslim-majority countries where Islam might be able “to adapt itself to the changes that must come” and the then–Pakistani premier Liaquat Ali Khan (who would be assassinated in October 1951) as “probably the ablest Moslem political leader in office today” (Time, August 13, 1951: 33). News of the February 1952 killings in Dacca did make it to several regional US newspapers, courtesy of the United Press, but as a story about “language riots”; the New York Times devoted two short paragraphs to the crisis on page 2.

Some well-circulated mid-twentieth-century US representations of Bengal continued in the tradition of earlier nineteenth-century British depictions. British colonial officials, while appreciative of Bengal’s great riches, had seen its people, to quote Thomas Macaulay ([1830] 1910: 39), as “enervated by a soft climate and accustomed to peaceful employments.” Bengalis, he wrote,

bore the same relation to other Asiatics which the Asiatics generally bear to the bold and energetic children of Europe. . . . Whatever the Bengalee does he does languidly. His favourite pursuits are sedentary. He shrinks from bodily exertion; and, though voluble in dispute, and singularly pertinacious in the war of chicane, he seldom engages in a personal conflict, and scarcely ever enlists as a soldier. . . . There never, perhaps, existed a people so thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke.

In an article in the November 1952 issue of National Geographic Magazine on Pakistan’s “first five busy years,” authors and photographers Jean and Franc Shor wrote of “the muggy stillness of the East Bengal jungles” and of its rice paddies and jute fields (Shor and Shor 1952: 637). In March 1955, the Shors devoted an entire article to East Pakistan, this time under the title “East Pakistan Drives Back the Jungle: A Land of Elephant Roundups, Bengal Tigers, and a Bamboo Economy Takes Big Strides toward Becoming a Modern Nation.” They wrote too of the East Pakistanis’ “somewhat casual attitude toward work” (Shor and Shor 1955: 426). Alongside these fairly Orientalist and predictable invocations of elephants, Bengal tigers, snake charmers, and a poor work ethic, the Shors acknowledged the significance of East Pakistan’s exports to “Pakistan’s national solvency,” mentioned the “jeeps, airplanes, rafts, dugout canoes and river steamers” they traveled on, and underscored the “high priority” given to women’s education by the government and US aid programs (Shor and Shor 1955: 399, 402). They concluded that as citizens of an independent country, and therefore no longer colonial subjects, Bengalis were finding “inspiration” powerful enough to change attitudes toward work—and to lead East Pakistan “out of the jungle” (Shor and Shor 1955: 426). Against this backdrop of continued Western Orientalizing of Pakistan and Pakistanis (specifically East Pakistanis), the communications between the privileged women of Pakistan and of the Committee of Correspondence offer a glimpse into a different kind of relationship.

An Exchange of Ideas

The committee kept close track of replies to its mailings by country. The highest response rates were from Canada and Western Europe. By the time of the August 1953 report, six responses had arrived from Pakistan, representing 23 percent of letters mailed to that country. One early letter on file from East Pakistan was from Syeda Jahan Ara Karim. The committee’s December 1953 news bulletin, focused on “Education for Peace: Through the International Exchange of Persons,” reproduced the following excerpt from her letter in a section titled “Comments from our Correspondents”:

I have been to your country for higher studies in economy at Columbia University. . . . I was very much impressed with the educational system. . . . The ideas and friendly treatment I received in the USA . . . are working deep in my mind. I have been thinking of maintaining . . . relationships . . . with the women of America. I believe this will help in the betterment of our relationships with the USA and therefore the development of the peace throughout the world. (CoC News Bulletin, December 1953: 4)

Karim had recently returned from the United States with a masters in economics and was then a professor at Eden Girls’ College in Dacca (Lamia Karim, pers. comm., January 2, 2021). She was also general secretary of the East Pakistan branch of APWA, which she described in her letter as having “similar aims and views” to the committee. She saw value in corresponding with the committee for the information the news bulletins might provide on the “progress made by women of other countries” since she “firmly believe[d]” that it was only through the “exchange of ideas” that “we can clarify misunderstandings prevailing among us and bring peace in this world” (CoC “Pakistan: Correspondence, General”).

In all the excerpts selected for the bulletin, the focus was on the correspondents’ views regarding the United States rather than regarding their own countries. A correspondent from South Africa who had visited recently after a gap of ten years claimed to have observed improvements in “race tension” in the United States while one from India wrote how she, while in the United States, had initially struggled against local customs but enjoyed herself much more after she resolved to “try to understand why Americans did things the way they did” (CoC News Bulletin, December 1953: 4).

Printed below these excerpts were US women’s comments on the exchange program, in which they shared how their travels had revealed to them their prior ignorance and prejudice about other parts of the world. Peripatetic committee member Dorothy Bauman described how her travels to the Arab world had helped disabuse her of her old ideas about “the romantic colors of the Arabian Nights and other fiction.” She had discovered, for example, how the 1921 Rudolf Valentino film “The Sheik misrepresent[ed] life in those areas as much as many of our own films misrepresent American life to others.” Gladys Gilkey Calkins, then vice president of the World’s YWCA, wrote of her visit to Equatorial Africa: “I went . . . expecting to find only jungles and primitive, illiterate people. I came back with the realization that I had seen a new civilization emerging.” Eleanor Roosevelt, for her part, noted how her own travels had “enriched her understanding of other countries and other peoples,” and how visitors “from the Middle East and India have told me frequently that they were impressed by the friendliness of the people they met in the United States” (CoC News Bulletin, December 1953: 4).

Shamsun Nahar Mahmud of Dacca, East Pakistan, received her first letter from the Committee of Correspondence in the fall of 1953. She didn’t know how this Mrs. Parsons had learned of her or tracked down her address in order to write to her. In her October 1953 reply to Parsons, Mahmud pointedly asked her as much, after politely thanking her for her letter and the committee’s news bulletins, and assuring her that she would be “very glad to be in close touch in future with your Committee.” Mahmud also made clear that she herself had attended numerous international meetings focused on women’s issues and concerns and understood not only “the similarity of our problems throughout the world,” but “also the importance of [a] united effort to solve them.” She wrote too of her own long experience in “the field of social welfare” and of her curiosity regarding women’s efforts in other countries. Rose Parsons responded a few weeks later, explaining that Mrs. Rickard, “a personal friend of our Executive Director” had suggested Mahmud’s name. Ada Thomas Rickard, who had passed on Mahmud’s name to Executive Director Anne Hester, was then living in Karachi, West Pakistan, with her husband Samuel H. Rickard of the Committee for Free Asia (CoC “Pakistan: Correspondence, General”; Washington Post, May 21, 1998: B8). Personal connections and networks such as these, of course, proved crucial to the creation of the Committee of Correspondence as well as its efforts to connect with women around the world between 1952 and 1969.

“A Truly ‘Hardship Post’”

Committee of Correspondence members—and their friends and supporters—regularly traveled to different parts of the world to learn about the work of current correspondents and to recruit new ones. Elizabeth Halsey, for example, visited Dacca, East Pakistan, in June 1955. She was a consultant for the Carrie Chapman Catt Memorial Fund, a research and educational fund established by the League of Women Voters. Halsey reported that she arrived “prepared for the worst,” having heard from colleagues that East Pakistan was “a truly ‘hardship post,’” due to its “highly developed insect life” as well as its “lack of contact with other countries” and low literacy rate, all of which contributed to “slow progress.” In letters from her subsequent stop in Colombo, she admitted that it was “perhaps a little disappointing” to have then found herself in a fine hotel in Dacca, the new Hotel Shahbagh, with “private baths, hot and cold running water, and perfectly palatable food,” not to mention “taxis, hundreds of bicycle drawn rickshaws and dial telephones.” She had arrived in June rather than early May because she had been advised to avoid the month of Ramadan, marked by fasting and reduced social activity when “men go much oftener to the temples [sic], and women stay quietly at home” (Halsey 1955).

Halsey’s time in Dacca also forced her to revisit long-standing misconceptions about veiling and seclusion. Although she insisted that purdah—the practice of seclusion and modest dress—still posed an obstacle to women’s desires to improve their condition, the institution was “no mysterious, bejeweled enslavement of women held behind locked doors awaiting their master’s pleasure.” Purdah women, she wrote, came from all walks of life, “from beggars to wives and daughters of government officials. Their average of charm, beauty, enjoyment of life is about the same as those of any other group of women anywhere.” She found the Dacca University students she met to be “very much like our own college girls without undue shyness, or the repressions still so common to their mothers.” She met women leaders like Shamsun Nahar Mahmud and visited the recently established Dacca Ladies’ Club, which had received funding from the Asia Foundation for the construction of its new clubhouse. Other educated women she met included “a PhD from Yale and . . . the only nuclear physicist in Pakistan,” which would have been Dr. Amina Rahman (Halsey 1955; Pakistan Affairs1951: 8)

Halsey tried on several occasions to initiate a discussion about purdah, but found the Dacca women activists uninterested. It was not a priority for them and articles from this time in Begum also downplayed the salience of purdah as an obstacle for women. These elite Bengali women were, Halsey noted, far more concerned with the issue of polygamy. Just months earlier, the prime minister’s second marriage had re-energized the national women’s campaign against polygamy and, despite the resentment toward the West Pakistani–dominated central government’s policies, Bengali women activists had started working with their West Pakistan counterparts to curb Muslim men’s license to take multiple wives (Halsey 1955; Shehabuddin 2021: 183–186).

From her conversations, Halsey also quickly understood the emerging sense of bitterness among Bengalis regarding their relationship with West Pakistan. Just eight years after independence, they already felt that East Pakistan was like a “step-child,” denied the “same consideration, privileges” accorded the western wing (Halsey 1955; Shehabuddin 2021: 183).

US committee members attended follow-up workshops organized by the women they had brought to the United States. For instance, the Asian delegates to the 1956 Asian Workshop organized their own workshops throughout South and Southeast Asia in late 1957 and committee member Anna Lord Strauss attended every one of the fifteen workshops held that fall. In a letter to her colleagues in New York from Dacca, dated October 9, 1957, Strauss remarked, “One great advantage of East Pakistan is that both in the center and in the villages there is a desire to learn, less apathy than in some other countries. This despite the fact that many women are still in purdah and go out only when covered from head to foot in a burkah notwithstanding the humid heat” (CoC “Member Files: Strauss, Anna Lord, 1953–66”).

Like many of her fellow committee members, Strauss had long believed that the United States had a responsibility to provide global leadership on women’s issues. The granddaughter of abolitionist and suffrage movement leader Lucretia Mott, Strauss had served as president of the League of Women Voters and as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations before joining the Committee of Correspondence. Significantly, while she was president of the League of Women Voters the organization established the Carrie Chapman Catt Memorial Fund, envisioned, in the words of a fundraiser, as no less than what “might be called a ‘little Marshall Plan’ in the field of political education for women all over the world.” Such efforts were deemed particularly vital to combat the manner in which women were “being bombarded with propaganda on the left side,” and to encourage them instead to turn “to the U.S. to learn the political know-how” (Leslie 2011: 295).

The Asian Workshop of 1956

The US visit of thirteen Asian women in April–May 1956 was the committee’s first major program beyond written correspondence. Between 1956 and 1963, the committee would bring in over 130 international visitors for eight annual workshops. Committee member Elizabeth Wadsworth would later describe the workshops as forums for generating and sharing ideas, as an opportunity to “give people information they could take home with them and use” (Van Voris 1989: 15).

The first workshop was designed precisely to tackle “the battle of ideologies under way in much of Asia” and, to quote a New York Times article on that month-long workshop, “to strengthen leadership among women in the non-Communist world” (Teltsch 1956). Committee members had decided that “the first invitations should go entirely to Asian lands, and to civic leaders whose influence could reach Asia’s 750,000,000 women.” Of course, the visitors had their own motivations for undertaking the long journey. While there were differences among them, they generally sought out what interested them most and made their own inferences from what they were formally shown by the committee. As Raksha Saran, a high-ranking activist from India, put it: “We in Asia are sensitive about aid given in a patronizing way or aid given with strings attached.” Both the Pakistani guests spoke of their particular interest in the important role played by American women volunteers in a variety of settings (Teltsch 1956).

The West Pakistani physician Zarina Fazelbhoy later recalled that they had had the opportunity to meet human rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Graham (who, among other things, had served as UN mediator in the Kashmir dispute), and Dorothy Height (civil rights activist and longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women). Although they did not meet Martin Luther King Jr. himself, “We had one of his helpers come and talk to us about civil rights.” In an interview conducted decades later, Fazelbhoy expressed appreciation that this visit, her first to the United States, had not been as “an ordinary tourist,” but rather “through the eyes of a group like this.” She also valued the access their hosts provided to a variety of “social welfare and medical agencies—for the blind, the deaf, the old people, family planning, the whole works.” She reminisced too about the contrast in the colors favored by the American and foreign guests, the former looking “so drab in their black suits” (upgrading merely to navy blue once spring arrived) while the latter were attired in “flashing silks, turquoise blue, peacock blue saris” (CoC “Oral Histories—Transcripts and Biographical Material, 1987–88”).

Tazeen Faridi, Zarina Fazelbhoy’s fellow West Pakistani delegate to the first workshop, would go on to assume a top leadership position in APWA and remain a steadfast proponent of intercultural exchanges. In a booklet she published in 1960 on the changing role of Pakistani women, for example, she argued: “There still remains a great gap in communication with women in other lands. We can still do so much to get to know each other better. One is often amazed by the questions put to one abroad!” (Faridi 1960).

International workshop participants reported also on their impressions of American society. Some, for instance, expressed surprise that most American women, “even university graduates,” devoted themselves to their home and family after marriage. The Ghanaian journalist Edith Wuver and the Indian journalist Kamla Mankekar, who would attend the April 1961 workshop, would both comment at length on the extent of racial prejudice in the United States. Mankekar was particularly surprised “to find a people, going out of their way to buy the friendship of the world, so narrow-minded in their own country” (Van Voris 1989: 12, 21–22).

A Study of US Women’s Lives

Shamsun Nahar Mahmud arrived in the United States for her own visit several months after the Asian Workshop of spring 1956, as a participant in the Foreign Leader Program of the International Educational Exchange Service at the US State Department. The American Council on Education’s biographical sheet in preparation for her visit was shared with the Committee of Correspondence. The sheet described her as “one of the first Muslim women graduates of undivided Bengal” with a “brilliant academic career” and “one of the pioneers of women’s education and emancipation movement among the Muslims of undivided Bengal.” It listed in detail the numerous positions she had held before and since partition, noted her long history of writing and publishing, and described her “knowledge of English” as “good.” At the time of her visit, Mahmud held the post of president of the East Pakistan branch of APWA as well as leadership positions in several organizations and institutions (American Council on Education 1956). Mahmud’s carefully planned US itinerary reflected attention to her areas of interest. Over the course of almost three months, between August 19 and November 10, 1956, she traveled widely and made some twenty stops throughout the country (Mahmud 2001: 140). In a July 1957 letter to the Committee of Correspondence, she reported that she had found the “coast to coast tour . . . very enjoyable and instructive” and would “never forget the kindness with which I was received everywhere in your wonderful country” (CoC “Pakistan: Correspondence, General”).

In her journal, Mahmud described being particularly struck by how hard and productively US women worked, both inside and outside the home. She lamented how so many of the women in “our country,” by comparison, remained confined to household tasks, trapped in a cycle of cooking and cleaning. She thought the higher education system in the United States to be superior to that of Great Britain in terms of access. While only a chosen few could attend university in Britain, she sensed that in the United States it was quite normal for everyone, men and women, to at least strive to study beyond high school. In reality, of course, the more than two million veterans that had attended college and university—courtesy of the original GI Bill that expired that same year—had been overwhelmingly white and included relatively few African Americans (Katznelson 2006).

Mahmud recognized the obstacles that US women had had to overcome not so long ago in order to attain the opportunities they now enjoyed and what she identified as equality with men in all spheres of life. She recalled her awed reaction to her experience of walking down the street in Hartford, Connecticut, just as the workday came to an end: the street was lined with banks and “flocks” of women poured out onto the street in such large numbers that it made it difficult for her to pass.

Even as college students, Mahmud marveled, American women worked and earned an income. She mentioned one Mr. Bietz she met, a widower whose daughter earned $600 working as a typist and stenographer during her vacation, and the many female students who worked in restaurants and cafeterias. The high regard accorded to all forms of work was clear, according to Mahmud, in the easy manner in which the women could switch from being a waitress to joining friends for a meal in that same establishment. This lack of rigid distinction and hierarchy between people doing different jobs was reinforced by the lack of difference in clothing that she observed among women of different socioeconomic backgrounds on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Mahmud admitted that, before her visit, she had harbored the misconception that all US women involved in social welfare work were paid employees. She was surprised to discover in the many social welfare organizations she visited that innumerable volunteers, women and men, worked alongside the small salaried staff. She wrote of elderly women she saw in Red Cross offices, devoting hours to sewing in support of relief efforts, and younger women who took on driving shifts for Red Cross vehicles. She understood Americans’ enthusiasm to help out in any capacity as a reflection of their deep love for their country. She remarked too that the position and rank of a woman’s husband seemed to have little bearing on her position in her organization—in contrast perhaps to the situation with leadership positions in APWA. As an example, she pointed to one Mrs. Cooke who had been recently elected president of the League of Women Voters in Cincinnati even though her husband was an “ordinary” employee at Proctor and Gamble. Mahmud understood from her conversations with other league members that it was Cooke’s own hard work and personality that had led to her rise to her present position.

Mahmud remarked that American women had been especially drawn to married life after the end of the Second World War, with many getting married while still in college, and that universities had had to respond by providing housing for married students. She noticed that while most families had no more than two children in the recent past, there was greater interest after the war in having three. The divorce rate remained high because, according to US men and women she spoke with, once a woman started to earn an income, she was less likely to put up with any bad behavior from her husband. Mahmud quickly added, however, that she saw no discord whatsoever among the couples she met. Also, she noted approvingly, since only the very wealthy in the United States could afford domestic help, no matter what a woman’s responsibilities outside the home, she did not shirk her work at home. Of course, technological advances had made household work in the United States significantly easier. Rather than needing to stand over a stove all day to prepare the daily meals, the woman could have the food ready in “two minutes.” That was why, Mahmud reported an American woman explaining to her, “we can work so much outside the home.” Mahmud noted that the San Francisco Red Cross Society offered parenting classes to fathers, so that they would not be completely uninformed if ever called upon to assume responsibility (Mahmud 2001: 149–50).

Nonetheless, Mahmud reported, older US women she spoke with complained that younger women would do well to devote a little more energy and time to their children and household responsibilities. They suggested that it was precisely because US women had been confined to the home for so long that, now that they had their independence, they had lost all interest in household work. When Mahmud informed them that in her country, it was believed that bearing children and molding their characters was still the primary duty of women, even if they were highly educated, they warmly congratulated her.

Mahmud’s interest in what she described as the particularly Western problem of juvenile delinquency led her to spend several hours observing proceedings at the San Francisco Juvenile Court on Woodside Avenue. While she certainly saw a relationship between juvenile delinquency and the fact that both parents worked outside the home, she did not think the problem was women working outside the home—as the American juvenile court judge claimed. Rather, Mahmud believed that the problem lay in the fact that, unlike places like Bengal, US society lacked the large extended families and the many relatives who could step in to help raise the children of working parents (Mahmud 2001: 150–51).

In an interview with a local newspaper during her five-day visit to Oxford, Ohio, Mahmud spoke of how pleased she was with her American tour, “despite the still wide differences in our way of living.” Although in Pakistan, “we feel that a woman’s first responsibility is her home and family . . . we are beginning to feel more and more that every person should be doing something of community service.” She particularly appreciated how nursery schools had made it possible for US mothers to undertake “community service without slighting their responsibilities at home.” She explained how “many people in my country felt that I should visit a country whose background and customs are more like ours, but I have seen many things here which we can adapt.” She was also “quite impressed” with the questions the young children posed to her during her visits to schools in Oxford and elsewhere and their level of knowledge about her own background: “They not only asked about our form of government, but they followed up with correct comments on what other countries had similar governments. Many for them could point directly to Pakistan on the map—even to its separate parts, which I found quite pleasing!” (Howard 1956).

Toward the end of her visit, with the tumult of the 1956 presidential election over, Mahmud spent a few days in New York where she met with members of the Committee of Correspondence. She also received an invitation to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. They had first met in February 1952 during Roosevelt’s brief visit to East Pakistan. Mahmud reported that her extended stay in the United States had only confirmed her previous sense that Roosevelt was a true representative of American women. Time and again, throughout the country, men and women alike shared with Mahmud their deep respect and admiration for the former first lady and human rights leader. Many even seemed quite open to her running for president (Mahmud 2001: 147–49).

As she assessed what she had learned from her tour of the United States, Mahmud lamented that her own country lacked the facilities necessary to impart civic training to its younger citizens on the order of what she had observed in elementary schools across the United States. Upon visiting several elementary and middle schools, she had noted the early responsibilities students took on—as school safety patrollers who assisted other students to cross intersections or as class librarian—as well as the nature of the training they received in civic practices, through student government, for example.

At the same time, she conceded that there were significant differences in the social structures of the two countries. After all, the close-knit and affectionate nature of families in her country meant that children were protected from the many dangers and temptations within reach of American children. Americans had spoken openly to her of how they looked on with envy at the good fortune of families in her society. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages of both American and Pakistani societies, she concluded, “In building our state and nation, we will accept from foreign countries only that which is good for us. If we are careful on this point, we will be able to steer clear of many dangers. Many of their problems will not even be able to raise their heads in our society” (Mahmud 2001: 152–54).

Before the Demonization of Muslims

There is little doubt that Cold War concerns—the need to maintain stability and support for the United States in the developing world and keep Communism at bay—influenced the US individuals and organizations, scholars, foundations, and policymakers who engaged in a range of efforts to connect with women in the Third World. Modernization ideology clearly permeated all aspects of the US-Pakistan relationship in this period, from support for the military government down to the Peace Corps volunteers sent to Pakistan in 1961, the very first year that the corps was launched. And yet, the material presented in this article allows us a more nuanced perspective on that era, complicating both the traditional narratives of that period as well as the histories of imperial/colonial feminism and anti-Muslim racism.

US efforts targeting Bengali women in the early Cold War period were significantly different from the civilizing mission discourse of the colonial era. The goal was no longer to destroy the local culture—through religious conversion or imperial secularization—in order to save local women. In these early postwar years, the United States sought to distance itself from the old European colonial powers by celebrating the new sovereignty of the recently decolonized states and courting the leaders of Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to persuade them to join the US fight against Communism. An April 1952 New York Times Magazine article titled “Peace May Be in Moslem Hands” captured well the new strategic significance of these Muslim countries in European and US eyes: “The attitude of the Moslem countries toward the West might easily determine the future of every American, Britisher or Frenchman” (Landau 1952; Jacobs 2006).

In their own contributions to these US outreach efforts, members of the Committee of Correspondence (and associated organizations such as the League of Women Voters and Carrie Chapman Catt Memorial Fund) were careful in how they approached their work with foreign correspondents. Committee members were hopeful and optimistic about their ability to change the lives of the women around the world and to lure them away from Communism by presenting them with the example of their own privileged lives and opportunities. This required them, unsurprisingly, to downplay racist attitudes and institutions, including Jim Crow, as well as the fair amount of gender discrimination that structured US society.

Remarkably, Islam and Muslim identity did not appear in US writings about Pakistani women as a problem to be overcome. US organizations and policymakers saw Islam as no greater an obstacle to modernization than any other “traditional” worldview. In other words, in the 1950s and 1960s, they considered Muslims just as capable of being “modernized” as any other people in the Third World. They did not see Muslims as uniquely backward, or Muslim women as singularly oppressed. This would begin to change in the 1970s when second-wave feminism in the US would coincide with growing anti-Muslim sentiment in both the government and the general population, following the oil embargo of the early 1970s, the emergence of a voting bloc of Muslim countries at the United Nations on the question of Palestine and Zionism in 1975, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (Said 1997: 5–6; Aydin 2017: 210–11; Shehabuddin 2021).

Bengali East Pakistani leaders like Shamsun Nahar Mahmud, for their part, were clearly eager to learn about US society and institutions, but their detailed descriptions of life in America reveal a lack of either defensiveness or a sense of inferiority. In these early years of the Pakistan amal, they were still basking in the pride of liberation from the “humiliation” of colonial rule. They approached the United States and US women, to again quote the words of the young Mushfequa Rahman, holding “our head up high” and with aspirations of “walk[ing] alongside the rest of the world as we move forward.” On their visits to the United States, these confident representatives of a new sovereign nation admired much of what they saw and reflected carefully on what might work in their own society and what would not. Mahmud’s own records of her US trip confirm what urban educated women in East Pakistan had already long been articulating in the pages of Begum and elsewhere regarding what they considered to be obstacles to their own desires to study, work, and lead meaningful lives, and about their strategies to effect change. They found US-style day cares very attractive, but they also understood that the extended family structure in Pakistan made them less urgent a priority there. Similarly, while it was important for women to work outside the home and contribute to nation-building, it did not follow that they needed to uncover their heads to do so (Begum 2006).

Finally, revisiting this period allows us to appreciate how the nature of Muslim women’s activism has been shaped by local and global political contexts as well as by changing Western ideas about Muslim women. Much of the politically urgent writing on imperial feminism by postcolonial feminist scholars following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan argued, and assumed, that the West has always viewed Muslim women as oppressed by Islam. I’ve tried to show here that this was not the case in the 1950s. That is, because Muslims were not the main enemy (yet) in US eyes, US policymakers and organizations who engaged in public diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s did not see the religion of Islam, or its teachings and practices, as a particular obstacle to modernization nor did they regard Muslim women as oppressed specifically by Islam. The early years of the Cold War period were marked, undoubtedly, by US racism and condescension toward the populations of Asia and Africa—but, significantly, not by the distinct and overt anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism of the late– and the post–Cold War eras. This created a space for Muslim women in countries like Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan to mobilize to change the Muslim Personal laws that governed them (regardless of their personal relationship to Islam) without the constraints of the double bind that many Muslim women find themselves in today, in an age of anti-Muslim attacks often couched in feminist discourse.

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