News & Politics

A Crude Awakening for Women

Whether supporting repressive regimes abroad or giving tax breaks to ExxonMobil, U.S. priorities are consistent: Oil wins over women's rights.
This article is excerpted from the summer 2006 issue of Ms. Magazine, available on newsstands now.

When the Taliban, the most anti-woman militia in Afghanistan's civil war, took over the country in 1996, it immediately forced women to leave their jobs, banned work outside the home, prohibited females from attending school and put women under house arrest, unable to go out in public unless accompanied by a close male relative and wearing a head-to-toe burqa. Women who violated Taliban decrees were beaten, imprisoned, even killed.

Despite this, the U.S. government was on the fast track to recognize this unelected, oppressive regime as Afghanistan's official government and to prop up the militia with millions of taxpayer dollars.

Why? In a word: oil.

Unocal Corp. of California (now part of Chevron), in partnership with a Saudi consortium, was competing with an Argentine company to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan to the coast of Pakistan. The U.S. government wanted to secure the project for Unocal.

The Clinton State Department announced that it would establish relations with the Taliban by sending a diplomat to Kabul, and several envoys were dispatched to woo the Taliban for the pipeline rights. State Department spokesperson Glyn Davies said the United States found "nothing objectionable" in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law. Only a concentrated effort by the Feminist Majority, NOW and allied groups around the world prevented the Taliban from being recognized as the official government of Afghanistan, and kept the United States from sanctioning the abolishment of women's most basic human rights in service of the petroleum industry.

This is perhaps the starkest example of why the politics of oil is a feminist issue. Whether supporting gender apartheid abroad, or sacrificing feeding programs for U.S. women and children so that ExxonMobil can get a tax break, or simply standing by while the company reaps record profits at the expense of poor women who must drive to work and heat their houses, U.S. priorities are consistent: Oil wins over women's rights hands down.

Many believe oil was the principal, if not the only, reason for the Iraq war. A top-secret 2001 National Security Council document, written before 9/11 and two years prior to military action in Iraq, directed staff to cooperate fully with Vice President Cheney's secretive Energy Task Force as it considered the "melding" of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: "the review of operational policies towards rogue states," such as Iraq, and "actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields." The State Department's "Oil and Energy Working Group" reached a consensus that Iraq's oil "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war."

Whether or not this blood-for-oil scenario is the whole story, the new Iraqi Constitution and laws already passed contain far stronger guarantees for major U.S. oil interests than they do for the women of Iraq. Women's rights deteriorated rapidly after the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein sold them out to religious fundamentalists in order to consolidate power. The United States had the opportunity to restore much of what was lost after the 2003 invasion. But in the period leading up to the election of the National Assembly, our government failed the women of Iraq in many ways.

The postwar constitution now declares Islam as the official religion of the state and the fundamental source of legislation. Even though the document gives a nod to equal rights for all, no laws have been passed regarding women's rights to work, equal pay, pregnancy leave or child care -- all guaranteed in the previous constitution. According to Human Rights Watch, the failure of occupation authorities to provide public security in Iraq's capital lies at the root of a widespread fear of rape and abduction among women and their families, preventing many women from working and doing business in public.

In contrast, Big Oil is well-protected in the constitution and new laws. The constitution guarantees the reform of the Iraqi economy in accordance with "modern economic principles" to "ensure … the development of the private sector"-- essentially abolishing Iraqi state dominion over its petroleum reserves. Corollary laws guarantee that foreign companies will have control over at least 64 percent of Iraq's oil, and possibly as much as 84 percent.

The black-shrouded women in Iraq are unfortunately not alone in being sacrificed to the politics of oil. Oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia get a pass on women's rights because of the black gold beneath the ground they traverse on foot, or in a car driven by someone else because they are not allowed behind the wheel. From Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to mainstream media reports, it's well-documented that the U.S. government has long been cozy, if not outright deferential, to the Saudis.

Juan Cole, a Middle East expert, sums up the U.S.-Saudi bargain this way: "Since Saudi Arabia produces something on the order of 9 million barrels a day … enormous amounts of U.S. capital are going into the Gulf. So as to not bankrupt the U.S. economy, the Saudis recycle the funds into U.S. investments. … [Former President George H.W.] Bush and Cheney were pressing the new King Abdullah [in a 2005 trip to Riyadh] to keep that sweet deal going, whereby they sell us petroleum, and then they take the money that we give them and reinvest it in the United States."

This "sweet deal" to protect light sweet crude means the United States not only turns a blind eye to the denial of basic rights to Saudi women by their own government, but has imposed Saudi-style oppression on American military women watching over oil reserves in the kingdom. U.S. servicewomen have been compelled by U.S. military policy to wear restrictive Muslim garb -- a black robe and head scarf called an abaya --and to sit in the backseat of service vehicles driven by male subordinates when off base. When one sued Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 for violating her rights, the military tried to keep the requirements in place. Congress was forced to intervene, voting unanimously to prohibit the Defense Department from requiring servicewomen to wear the abaya.

Next up on the U.S. war-plan stage is Iran -- with the second-largest pool of untapped oil in the world. Although the ostensible reason for a U.S.-led invasion of Iran will once again be weapons of mass destruction, the politics of oil are peeking out from behind the WMD curtain. If Iran realizes its alleged goal of becoming the dominant center of Middle East oil commerce through a new oil exchange (the Iranian Oil Bourse) the currency would be the euro, not the dollar. Some analysts say that if petrodollars become petroeuros it could lead to a huge drop in value for American currency, potentially putting the U.S. economy in its greatest crisis since the 1930s.

William Clark, an American security expert, says that another manufactured war or some type of covert operation is inevitable under President Bush, and that the neoconservatives are quietly planning for this second petrodollar war. Far-fetched? Maybe. But it is interesting to note that right before Iraq was invaded, Saddam had refused to accept dollars in the Oil For Food program, insisting on euros instead.

Any military action against Iran will almost certainly be delayed until after the 2006 midterm elections. Women, the population segment most economically vulnerable to skyrocketing fuel prices at home, are also the majority of U.S. voters -- and the majority of those against another potential war.

According to a poll commissioned by Ms. Magazine and reported in the summer issue, women not only want out of Iraq now, they are strongly opposed to a preemptive invasion of Iran. Women are the vanguard in a sea of change in attitudes toward the president and his handling of the war in Iraq, and it could definitely spell trouble at the polls for Republicans in November if a second war, with Iran, seems inevitable.

Meanwhile, four years after the U.S.-led war to remove the Taliban, the group is on the rise again in Afghanistan, under the nose of the U.S.-backed government. Women who criticize local rulers or who are merely active in public life as political candidates, journalists, teachers or NGO workers face increasing threats and violence. Many women are still in the burqa, afraid to take it off because of the returning Taliban and the lack of security. Violence against women and girls remains rampant, and according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, over 300 girls' schools have been burned or bombed. In five southern Afghan provinces, at least 90 percent of school-age girls do not attend classes.

And a new pipeline deal has been signed, with construction to begin this year. Of course, American companies want part of the action. The oil drumbeat goes on.
Martha Burk writes the "Money" column for Ms. Magazine and is the author of "Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in the Workplace and What Can Be Done About It."
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