Some feminists are dissing Laura Bush and the Bush administration's recent support of the Afghan women.
Gloria Steinem is taking potshots about the difference between the "rhetoric" and "reality" of advocacy and claiming that the Bush policies may amount to "gender apartheid." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls the support "hollow."
Is this jealousy over Republicans taking over their political turf or are such statements politically significant? The answer is "both."
The jealousy is glaringly apparent. A former aide to Hillary Clinton describes the ex-first lady as "bugged" that Laura Bush — who is sometimes called the "anti-Hillary" — is getting "good press," especially on the issue of Afghan women, a topic Hillary wants to homestead. What if President Bush topples the Taliban, which rose to power under her husband's administration? What if Republicans accomplish more for Afghan women than radical feminists do? Such questions are the stuff of Hillary's nightmares.
However, there is a more serious side to the feminist reaction. The left wing of feminism is desperate to own this issue. Voices like the Feminist Majority Foundation are trying to use the oppression of Afghan women in the same manner they exploit other international issues, such as the trafficking of women or working conditions in the Third World.
The first phase of this phenomenon is identifying an appalling injustice and becoming the "voice" of the victims. For this, they should be commended. But their advocacy soon becomes an ownership claim that leads them to slight or dismiss anyone else who also speaks out on behalf of the problem.
For example, in reporting on Republican support, the National Organization for Women declares, "The U.S. and allies abroad would do well to follow the lead of feminist groups, echoed ... by first lady Laura Bush." (Italics added). If anyone disputes the exclusivity of their ownership, the person is "anti-woman."
Defining the issue comes after "owning" it. Left-wing feminists are overwhelmingly white, middle- or upper-class professionals on the elite edge of society. They apply Western feminist analysis and solutions to Afghanistan. For example, feminists are demanding that women be duly represented in any post-Taliban government. This means the U.S. military should be involved in nation building around a parliamentary "ideal." Anyone who disagrees is "anti-woman."
The Third World situation is then said to reveal a universal truth about women — for example, "men exploit women." This insight is then applied back to North America to reveal parallel domestic oppression, which must be remedied through changing domestic policy. The domestic policy demands are backed up by the moral outrage inspired by the injustice abroad. Anyone who disagrees is "anti-woman."
Let's break down the progression.
First, the ownership claim. Without denying that feminists were early advocates of the Afghan women, they hardly stood alone. Organizations like Human Rights Watch rang alarm bells long before it was politically fashionable to do so. Individuals, like the black conservative columnist John Doggett, have been speaking out for years. But feminist advocates are unwilling to share the moral high ground.
Next comes the imposition of Western standards and solutions. Feminism is proud of being "multicultural" and, for some of us, the commitment goes beyond press releases. It refers to respecting the free choices of those who prefer a different culture or lifestyle than our own.
Afghan women, who embrace Islam, are telling feminists to respect multiculturalism. Their rejection of the Taliban, a fanatical aberration of their religion, is not a rejection of Islam nor an embrace of Western culture or values. Fatima Gailani, an adviser to the United Nations' talks on a post-Taliban government has tried to explain this point.
"If I go to Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on the promise to bring them secularism, they are going to tell me to go to hell," Gailani said.
Suhaila Siddiq, Afghanistan's only woman general and a heroine to a younger generation of Afghan women, is openly contemptuous of Western feminist solutions.
"The first priority should be given to education, primary school facilities, the economy, and reconstruction of the country, but the West concentrates on the burqa and whether the policies of the Taliban are better or worse than other regimes ... Let these things be decided by history," Siddiq, who also heads the Women and Children's Hospital in Kabul, has said.
Siddiq's opinion of Hillary? "She cannot defend her own rights against her husband. How can she defend the rights of my country?"
Western feminists are not listening to Afghan women. Instead, they are rushing into phase three: taking the "insights" of Afghanistan and applying them back to North America. Some attempts are downright silly. For example, in the Nov. 23 Boston Globe, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg and feminist Jacquelyn Jackson argue that bikinis are as oppressive as burqas because both garments distort women's body images. Somehow, the fact that burqas were imposed by law and bikinis are snapped up by eager consumers is trivial to these women. The idea of choice escapes their analysis.
More seriously, Eleanor Smeal, the president of Feminist Majority, draws parallels between the Taliban and domestic violence in America. In an online event Tuesday, Smeal will be addressing "the worldwide efforts to erode women's rights, particularly in the United States and in Afghanistan, by an anti-choice right-wing and linked domestic and international terrorist networks."
Smeal is advertised as drawing "connections between the anti-women's rights agenda of the right-wing movement here in the U.S. and the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan."
This is an incredibly callous use of the Afghan women in order to promote a domestic agenda. I would say "for shame," but then I would be labeled "anti-woman."
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.