There is no question that the oppression suffered by women under Afghanistan's Taliban government is intolerable. But as feminist voices gain volume in the complex political climate surrounding the United States war on terrorism, it is important to remember why the U.S. is engaged in this fight.
The proximate cause of the current conflict is the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 — not the oppression of Afghan women. The stated goals of the war are to punish those responsible for the hijackings and to prevent further terrorist attacks — not to achieve equality for women in Afghanistan. If the American military is used as a vehicle of social justice — whether the cause is racial equality, gay rights, or equity for women — the world will be at perpetual war.
And if feminist conditions are placed upon the peace negotiations, it will be disastrous. At worst, the cultural differences inherent in such conditions would doom peace talks to failure. At best, such conditions would place an immense burden on the already Herculean job of creating a lasting peace between Afghan tribes and factions with very different notions of women in society.
But though using the American military to enforce social causes such as feminism — even if the causes are good ones — is counter to the objectives of the military and U.S. diplomacy — this is what the most prominent feminist organizations are attempting to do by demanding that the U.S. configure a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan to ensure full participation for women.
As a matter of law, Afghan women are denied the right of free association, access to medical care and education, the right to an unbiased trial...the list of crimes against women scrolls on. But most feminist voices are now insisting upon more than protecting Afghan women from harm. They are demanding equality of representation in power. For example, the left-wing Feminist Majority is circulating a petition that reads, in part, "We must help ensure that Afghan women's rights are restored and women are at the center of the rebuilding of the country."
The National Organization for Women has posted an Action Alert which reads, "We need your help to demand that the U.S. include Afghan women Leaders ..." in the post-war government and "at the table" in the peace negotiations. NOW asks supporters to phone and send e-mails to President Bush, Secretary of State Powell, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Biden and U.N. Secretary General Annan.
The Washington-based Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, along with other feminist groups, is asking not only the U.S. but also the United Nations to make recognition of women's rights a precondition for peace. They have already delivered a rough draft peace plan to the U.N.
This is not a call to fund refugee camps, schools or hospitals — humanitarian measures with no necessary political overtones. The demand that Afghan women be fully represented in the peace negotiations and post-war government is a blatantly political demand for equality for women.
To their credit, NOW and the Feminist Majority have publicized the horrors of the Taliban. To their shame, they are now trying to use the war and U.S. foreign policy as a tool to impose a social agenda upon Afghanistan and, perhaps, upon some allies as well. An increasing amount of criticism is being directed specifically toward Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Such demands might be dismissed as wartime opportunism by a special interest group if Senators were not listening and nodding their heads in approval.
On October 15th, the Feminist Majority proudly announced that Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had won passage of an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill that included Afghan women in the establishment of a new Afghan government. Boxer reportedly called the war on terrorism, "an opportunity to return women to their rightful place in Afghan society."
Under Boxer's amendment, the U.S. government's foreign policy would be used to impose a "social good" on a foreign nation. The American military would be used as leverage to force a non-western culture to abandon its attitudes and some of its religious practices regarding women.
Feminists are being hypocritical. On the "700 Club" television show of Sept. 13, Rev. Jerry Falwell declared that feminists and gays bore some responsibility for the terrorist events of Sept. 11. The backlash was swift. On Sept. 14, the Feminist Majority excoriated Falwell for attaching his own agenda to the tragedy.
Now it's the feminists who are viewing the war as an opportunity.
Consider one example. Afghanistan's powerful Northern Alliance — the military and political opponents of the Taliban — has been openly critical of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the group that has emerged as the main voice of Afghan women. NA representatives have accused RAWA of being a communist front. Whether the accusation is accurate or not, it illustrates the difficulties "feminist" demands would create at a peace table.
For arguing that the war is not a feminist issue, I will be branded as "anti-woman." What I am really trying to do is separate humanitarian issues from political ones in order to help women. A lasting peace is the prerequisite for improving the lives of every human being in Afghanistan. It is in that peace where Afghan women will almost certainly make remarkable advances. The global attention and money now directed at their cause almost guarantees this progress. It can occur through diplomacy, global pressure, the funding of women's rights agencies. But any "advance" for Afghan women that occurs due to a fear of U.S. or U.N. military action is unlikely to last.
Equality for women should not be put on the peace table for negotiation because it is not part of the war and could be an obstacle to peace; and it is an enduring peace that is the key to restoring human rights to women in Afghanistan.
McElroy is the editor of Ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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