January 24, 2006
(Revised 1/24/06. 7:56 am PST)
When somewhere in the world there is a girl at risk, where would we be without soldiers of the Lord?
Maybe it’s the stereotype that this continent is populated mostly by the simple or backward. Maybe it’s the notion that, in the face of great need, all help is altruistic. Whatever it is, Laura Bush just finished a three country African tour without much critical attention at all. The notable exception was an irritated response by Mrs. Bush to a few questions concerning whether the Administration overemphasizes abstinence as an AIDS prevention strategy (the funding for which is disproportionately directed toward faith-based groups.)
If you followed the trip, you would have seen a mostly pink or white-clad Mrs. Bush make her way through Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana as a virtual patron saint of womanhood. (Example 1, 2, 3, 4). One person who did manage to frame Mrs. Bush’s visual agenda was historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, whose research specialty is American First Ladies. In an ABC profile of the mission, Mr. Anthony observed: “[T]there’s a B plot that’s been going on with Laura Bush that maybe people haven’t been noticing.” The article continues, “By highlighting inequality among women living in traditionally male-dominated cultures, [Mrs. Bush] has created … a kind of ‘international feminism’.”
What the professor fails to add is that “feminism” is employed in the service of masking a fundamentalist agenda. The photos from Mrs. Bush’s visit to Saint-Mary’s Catholic Hospital in Nigeria are indicative. In delivering antiretroviral drugs under the Administration’s “design your own” AIDS program (called PEPFAR), the Bush’s get to decide exactly who receives the (big Pharma, not generic) drugs, and under what terms. As such, this image expresses the perfect ambiguity — and duplicity. If the perceptual tendency is to reads these habits as dual nursing and religious uniforms, the White House plays on the former to downplay the latter.
After being convinced by her photo album that Africa is solely comprised of ministering women (or women being ministered to), this picture popped up in the White House cue. It shows Mrs. Bush meeting with Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Presidential villa in Abuja. And I thought the handlers got left at home! Oh well. After the National Geographic treatment, it’s almost reassuring to realize it’s just politics after all.
(image 1: Shealah Craighead/White House. January 18, 2006. Gwagwalada, Nigeria. whitehouse.gov. image 2: Shealah Craighead/White House. January 18, 2006. Abuja, Nigeria. whitehouse.gov.)