Feminists Agonize Over War in Afghanistan
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A year ago, when women's rights and peace advocate Hibaaq Osman was giving a speech at the United Nations, she cited only one cause for which the use of military force might be justified: to oust the oppressive Taliban regime from Afghanistan. Now that the bloody effort is under way, however, Osman, who heads the Center for Strategic Initiatives in Washington, feels differently.
"I said it, but I was just making a point," a distraught Osman recalls. "This predicament is a test for feminists. We have seen our worst nightmare -- women being dehumanized and shot in public -- and it makes us more radical. It makes us angry enough to entertain the idea of war. But do I support war?" Osman pauses to consider her own country, Somalia, with its brutal history, before bursting out with an emotional "No. No. No. War is not OK under any circumstances," and then concluding, "The whole thing simply breaks my heart."
The four-week-old military attack on Afghanistan is proving to be an excruciating dilemma for feminists. In heart-wrenching conversations and e-mail exchanges across the city and the globe, feminists find themselves split over how to handle possibly the most misogynistic regime in history. Many are deeply uncomfortable with the specter of a wealthy nation bombing a poor and already ravaged one -- a discomfort that is only deepened by the knowledge that more women than men die as a result of most wars. And as national loyalties are stoked by current events, feminists are further strained to reconcile their patriotism with the desire to reach out to women throughout the globe.
Perhaps most frustrating has been the world's failure to heed feminists' urgent warnings about the Taliban, which they've been decrying since it took power in 1996. Under the fundamentalist militia's rule, women have been publicly executed for such "crimes" as traveling with men who are not their relatives and being suspected of adultery. The government has banned women from work, education, and examination by male doctors. Women have even been forbidden from making noise when they walk (the sound draws men's attention, according to Taliban rulers).
Back in 1997, the Feminist Majority's Eleanor Smeal was among the first to sound alarms about the ghastly treatment of Afghan women, urging the U.S. against diplomatic recognition of the Taliban and to halt construction of a pipeline through Afghanistan that would have supplied millions in profits to the regime. The pipeline project was eventually stopped, but others of the group's suggestions, including a U.S. designation of the Taliban as an international terrorist organization, have yet to be carried out.
Perhaps it's no surprise that some feminists, including Smeal, now feel the backward and violent regime deserves whatever it gets. The rare overlap between feminist and military interests made for particularly warm relations in the greenroom at an NBC station in Los Angeles when Smeal met up with three generals who were about to appear on Chris Matthews's Hardball. "They went off about the role of women in this effort and how imperative it was that women were now in every level of the air force and navy," says Smeal, who found herself cheered by the idea of women flying F-16s. "It's a different kind of war," she says, echoing the president's assessment of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Indeed, the gender gap in support for this U.S. military effort is unusually small. Historically, female support for war has lagged between 10 and 15 percent behind men's, according to Joshua Goldstein, author of War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. But in a recent survey released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 79 percent of women, compared to 86 percent of men, said they support the ongoing military intervention, a near parity Goldstein believes may be explained by the fact that the Taliban is anathema to women.
Still, many women are unwilling to translate their opposition to the Taliban into support for war. The U.S. air strikes against the country and the recent addition of ground troops -- which, depending on the estimate, have together resulted in anywhere from a few dozen to almost a thousand civilian casualties -- clash with long-held feminist sensibilities. Some worry that bombing will further endanger Afghanistan's already brutalized women, who account for 70 percent of Afghanistan's refugees.
Feminists also have a pragmatic argument: that missiles and soldiers won't topple the Taliban. "I continue to wish with all my heart for the regime to be overthrown; I just don't think the U.S. military can do it," says author Susan Sontag, whose September 18 article in The New Yorker set the tone for criticism of U.S. military policy. The choice "isn't bombs or nothing," says Sontag, who doesn't consider herself a pacifist. "The world is a complicated place. We can put pressure on our allies and offer bribes and rewards."
The peace position was also taken by the Worldwide Sisterhood Against Terrorism and War, an organization of about 80 feminists that includes women from Central Asia as well as such U.S. notables as Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and Susan Sarandon. In a petition headlined "Not in Our Name," the group declared, "We will not support the bombing or U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for it would only punish suffering people and increase the hatred on which terrorists feed."
While the wording leaves open the possibility of support for UN-sponsored military intervention -- an option many find more palatable than U.S. and British forces acting independently -- reaching consensus even on that phrasing took days of rapid-fire e-mails and skillful negotiation. Questions about the future of Afghanistan have been even thornier.
Sunita Mehta and Fahima Danishgar, who recently cofounded Women for Afghan Women -- the first grassroots group for women from Afghanistan and its neighbors living in New York -- were among the dozens of feminists who gathered for a post-September 11 meeting at the Manhattan apartment of Eve Ensler. But, coming from the region -- Mehta is Indian and Danishgar, 23, left Afghanistan at age nine -- they found they had less of an us-versus-them perspective than many Americans reacting to the recent terrorist attacks.
"We are us and we are them," says Mehta. "We came in feeling very close to the land that was going to be bombed." That closeness -- and a superior knowledge of history and politics that comes with it -- allowed her to temper the more utopian dreams of Western feminists. While some at the meeting seriously suggested that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan should rule the country, for instance, Mehta pointed out that the 2000-member RAWA is "a small, Maoist organization." It would be nice if women could be in charge, she says, "but we don't have the luxury of dreaming big dreams right now."
Indeed, the women of Afghanistan -- for whom makeup, forbidden by the Taliban, is a symbol of liberatio -- have different priorities from their Western counterparts. RAWA, whose members have documented Taliban atrocities through slits in their Taliban-mandated robes, has thrown its own political support behind the exiled Afghan king. And although many Westerners have focused on that robe, the burqa, as an emblem of women's oppression, Afghan women don't always see it that way. "Some women choose to wear it. It can be a symbol of respect" for tradition, says Danishgar, whose own mother sometimes wore a burqa.
The burqa has been a touchy subject before, particularly when Oprah Winfrey lifted one off an Afghan woman in a performance of Ensler's Vagina Monologues, instead of letting the woman perform the symbolic liberation herself. For some, the gesture reeked of Western arrogance, even though the talk-show star has been credited with raising awareness of the Taliban in the TV-watching core of our country by having RAWA members on her show. (RAWA's Web site, www.rawa.org -- a fascinating cross-cultural women's effort that features digital video of Afghan women being executed -- welcomes Oprah viewers specifically.)
Osman, who wears a head scarf and robes, sees the East-West tension as rooted in religion. "I love my Western feminists," she says, "but I'm just finding out how ignorant they are." Osman, a Muslim, offers a definition of feminist many Western women might share: "A woman who is very comfortable with who she is and believes the sky is the limit." Still, she says, "Every now and then I hear 'What is it with Islam that makes your men this way?' And I think to myself, 'What is it with Christianity that makes your men this way?'"
No doubt, many Americans are feeling somewhat smug about our heroic, enlightened men just now. Ironically, though, the crisis seems to be inspiring a reversion to traditional gender roles. While the press dubbed first lady Laura Bush the "comforter-in-chief," Peggy Noonan giddily declared that "men are back." "I'm speaking of masculine men," the former Reagan aide wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things."
Of course, men have never really gone away. The power structure remains overwhelmingly male -- a fact that was highlighted by the never ending emergency press conferences featuring wall-to-wall men. Indeed, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is one of only four women among 19 cabinet-level officials. Roughly one in seven members of Congress is female. All of the 23 committee chairs in the House of Representatives are male, as are all of the Senate's 22 chairs. And a mere six out of 189 ambassadors to the UN are female.
The numbers are, not surprisingly, more skewed when it comes to conflict. "After childbirth, war making has possibly been the most segregated of activities along gender lines," says Felicity Hill, director of the UN office of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Perhaps that doesn't have to be true. Last year, the UN passed a resolution calling for women's participation in decision making about war and peace. Nevertheless, "war remains the domain of men," says Hill. "Women's voices are missing from decisions on priorities in peace processes."
These days, it's hard for anyone to stray from the political mainstream, and harder still for women. Like many others on the left, Canadian activist Sunera Thobani accused the U.S. of "unleashing prolific levels of violence all over the world," but unlike many other lefties, Thobani was subject to the Canadian equivalent of citizen's arrest and, intriguingly, sent porn by her critics. The Canadian secretary of state for the status of women, Hedy Fry, almost lost her job for just listening to Thobani's speech.
The response to Susan Sontag's New Yorker piece neared witch-hunt pitch. The New York Post suggested that Sontag be drawn and quartered. A scrawled sign recently posted in Manhattan's Old Town bar referred to the author as "an old battle-axe." And a piece in The New Republic began, "What do Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?" (The desire to dismantle America, it turns out.)
While Sontag sees the reaction mostly in political terms, she also sees a gender-related biliousness she likened to that aimed at Hillary Clinton. "It has to do with the very deep anxiety and fear and dislike of a woman who seems to be very smart and powerful," Sontag said of the Hillary hatred. Smart women "arouse huge feelings of resentment and dislike on the part of a lot of people," added Sontag. "Why should I think I'm exempt?"
The public clobbering is yet another reminder that despite having a common enemy, the U.S. government and feminists are not necessarily friends. "Everything is being manipulated to get what the U.S. wants, which isn't primarily women's rights," says Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, a New York-based women's group. "The U.S. military did not intervene to remove the Taliban because of anything to do with women."
That divergence of interests is becoming clearer as the U.S. considers including "moderate Taliban forces" in a future coalition government and joins forces with countries where female genital mutilation is widespread (Egypt) and women are forbidden from driving cars (Saudi Arabia). Our rising political partners, the Northern Alliance, are particularly horrendous to women. The group's No. 2 political leader, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, reportedly believes so strongly in the inferiority of women he doesn't even speak to them. And Ahmed Shah Massood, the recently assassinated Northern Alliance leader, partook in campaigns of systematic rape that predated Taliban rule.
"The only difference between the crimes they committed and the Taliban is that the Taliban officially announced the restrictions on women," says a RAWA member who does not reveal her name. "The Northern Alliance committed many, many crimes against women -- rapes, forced marriages. Women were afraid of going outside when they were in control," she continues, referring to the period between 1992 and 1996, before the Taliban seized power.
Back then, RAWA, which was founded in 1977, had already been trying to call attention to women's plight for years, though few were listening. The RAWA representative worries that her country's next government might be as woman hating as its predecessors. Perhaps it's a cultural difference, but the Feminist Majority's Smeal is optimistic that this calamity will finally change things for women. "Next time women speak about international issues, they'll listen," she says hopefully. "Our credibility will have gone up."
Sharon Lerner is a contributing writer for the Village Voice. Additional research for this article was conducted by Whitney Kassel and Sarah Park.