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"WW III? No thanks...!" On-Line Library

What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Where Are the Women?

by Katha Pollitt
October 22, 2001

Are there any people on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan?
As if poverty, hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee 
crisis weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't 
go to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their 
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they lift 
the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The Taliban's crazier 
requirements have some of the obsessive particularity of the Nazis' 
statutes against the Jews: no high heels (that lust-inducing click-click!)
, no white socks (white is the color of the flag), windows must be painted
over so that no male passerby can see the dreaded female form lurking in 
the house. (This particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to
an outbreak of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack
of sunlight.)

Until September 11, this situation received only modest attention in the 
West - much less than the destruction of the giant Buddha statues of 
Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of "moral relativism" and a
"postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the notion that the plight of 
Afghan women is a matter of culture and tradition, and not for Westerners 
to judge, was widespread across the political spectrum.

Now, finally, the world is paying attention to the Taliban, whose days may
indeed be numbered now that their foreign supporters - Saudi Arabia, the 
United Arab Emirates, Pakistan - are backing off. The connections between 
religious fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and 
not just applicable to Islam - show me a major religion in which the 
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their dangerous 
polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central original theme). 
So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and atrocity. It's no 
accident that so many of the young men who are foot soldiers of Islamic 
fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious schools, or that Osama 
bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied Western women as symbols of
the enemy.

But if fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering 
desperate, futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of 
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women 
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education, healthcare 
and personal rights, where they have social and political and economic 
power - where they can choose what to wear, whom to marry, how to live - 
there's a powerful constituency for secularism, democracy and human rights:
What educated mother engaged in public life would want her daughter to 
be an illiterate baby machine confined to the four walls of her husband's 
house with no one to talk to but his other wives?

Women's rights are crucial for everything the West supposedly cares about:
infant mortality (one in four Afghan children dies before age 5), political
democracy, personal freedom, equality under the law - not to mention its 
own security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan, 
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much about 
how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men have the 
guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi Arabia, our ally, 
how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions on their freedom? In the
case of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance presents itself now to the West 
as women's friend. A story in the New York Times marveled at the very 
limited permission given to women in NA-held territory to study and work 
and wear a less restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the
fact that many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious 
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held power 
from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war, compiling a 
record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and other atrocities and 
leaving the population so exhausted that the Taliban's promise of law and 
order came as a relief. It's all documented on the Human Rights Watch 
website ( ).

Now more than ever, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of 
Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both the Taliban and the Northern 
Alliance as violent, lawless, misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves 
attention and support. "What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena 
Faryel, a RAWA representative currently visiting the United States, told 
me, but massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the 
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections. "We 
don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had that!" The 
women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a warlord with a 
Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by running secret 
schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting and filming Taliban
atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against fundamentalism in the
"Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta. Much as the victims of the WTC
attack need our support, so too do Afghans who are trying to bring reason 
and peace to their miserable country. To make a donation to RAWA, see .


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