Afghanistan Wars and Womenâ€™s Rights
“The United States has a new opportunity to change direction in Afghanistan. . .We believe that this time, with the leadership of President Obama . . . women and girls will not be left on the periphery, but placed in the central focus of our new policy.”
As an historian and teacher of women’s rights, a former feminist organizer, and one who considers herself leftist/progressive, I can only be horrified at an American foreign policy which is unleashing horrible violence on the men, women and children of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And since the policy is being carried out by Democratic President Barack Obama and his Democratic majority party, I can only be horrified at him, Nobel Peace Prize winner(!) or not, and at them. You think? Well apparently there are many who identify themselves as feminist and progressive who do not agree.
Take the Feminist Majority, for example. Here is a group dedicated, according to their website, to “women’s equality, reproductive health and non-violence.” [Emphasis mine.] They were founded by veteran feminist leader Eleanor Smeal in 1986, to represent the then 56% of American women who said they were feminists. They publish Ms. Magazine, and campaign for women’s health and education, global women’s equality, women’s leadership, and gender balance in politics. Ah. How do you get gender balance in politics? Apparently by being absorbed into the Democratic party to the point where your web page sings odes of praise to the magnificence of President Obama and Vice Present Biden, and of course Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—herself not exactly a shining example of promoting “non-violence.”
The melding with the Democrats has now led to the Feminist Majority becoming an advocate for Obama “ending terrorism” in Afghanistan, with, of course, a focus on human (and women’s) rights. And the Feminist Majority, along with NOW (National Organization for Women) is also campaigning for “Afghan women and girls” by supporting the passage of Senator Barbara Boxer’s Afghan Women Empowerment Act, S229, on their websites. The bill, now in committee (foreign relations), cites the lack of rights women have had under the Taliban, and then says “Despite efforts by the U.S. government . . . to improve [their] lives,” Afghan women apparently still “lack access” to most of life's necessary resources.2
It’s all very well to want to empower and improve life for and make a central focus of Afghan women. But supporting the government’s war efforts, through support of the Democratic party’s huge expansion of the Afghan war, should not be part of it. As Tom Hayden wrote last July, Afghan women will not be liberated by an “invading, bombing, imprisoning American army.” The Taliban will not change its antifeminist fundamentalism because of that army—and the U.S.-backed Kabul government has recently passed a law insisting women obey their husbands “in sexual matters.”3 So much for empowerment. Supporting that government, and expanding that war, means supporting the Democrats’ increased funding for U.S. troops. And that is going to mean more death, destruction and chaos for said Afghan women and girls.
Becoming enmeshed in the campaigns of the Democratic Party is a huge mistake. About 20 years ago, I wrote a book called Iron-Jawed Angels4 which details the dramatic campaign of the radically feminist National Woman’s Party of the early 20th century. Controversially, they modeled their political drive after the British suffragists who insisted on working against the party in power which was doing nothing for its issue: women’s suffrage. Similarly, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton eventually concluded in their earlier women’s rights campaign, that being identified with a particular political party, instead of with feminist issues, would only hurt and dilute their cause. Susan B. Anthony said in 1878 that “women should stand shoulder to shoulder against every party not fully and unequivocally committed to Equal Rights for Women.”5 Equal rights for women will not be advanced by women being subjected to bombs and occupation.
Throughout American history “third party” issue-oriented parties on the right and left, have been absorbed into the powerful vortex of the two-party system. The most extreme example would be when the farmer and labor-led Populist party, amidst much resistance by its members, succumbed to William Jennings Bryan and was sucked into the Democratic Party—which then went down to defeat at the hands of the Republicans in 1896, arguably the time when Big Business took control of our politics for good.
I experienced party takeover of feminism personally at the commemoration of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Conference, held in 1998. Most of the speakers were (female) Democratic party operatives. During one of the speeches celebrating the wonderful feminist accomplishments of the Democratic party, I foolishly made some sort of joke to the woman standing next to me about the irony of President Clinton and feminism in light of Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, etc. She was not only indignant but also somehow totally not understanding how I could utter such disloyal perfidy. The disgraceful blind loyalty of Gloria Steinem, NOW’s Patricia Ireland and Eleanor Smeal, et. al. ad nauseum, with Clinton and against any of those pesky women who were allegedly victims of Clinton’s very nonfeminist attentions, was unbelievable to me.6 But these famous feminists had all very much become Democratic party insiders. Sexual harassment? Charges of rape/assault? Why believe (all of) these unreliable women? Bill Clinton was their man. Feminist equaled Democratic Party: end of story.
As long as feminists—or “progressives”—cannot imagine an American political world which is not divided into Democrat and Republican, and now there really is no difference between the completely corporate-run two parties, their issues will be totally subsumed by the parties’ only function, which is to stay in power and maintain their own gravy train, while sustaining the money behemoth which runs America.
One important function of this corporate-run political system is to maintain and expand the American empire—for corporate gain, yes, but also for pure nationalistic greed and glory. Our reasons for being in Afghanistan do not seem to be topped by working for “human rights.” “Zoya,” an Afghan woman who is an activist with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, argues that Afghan women do suffer from the Taliban, but also from U.S. and NATO bombs; in fact the latter kill many more civilians than either Taliban or "terrorists." She says American troops must withdraw immediately, because their presence only hurts any chance for a needed radical change in the political system in Afghanistan.7
So if you say you are a feminist who wants human rights in Afghanistan, it’s time to step back from the thrill of being an insider in Washington; it’s time to step back and think about if maintaining empire, sustaining occupation, and killing thousands of civilians is really what your “human rights” campaign is all about.
1. Feminist Majority website, “Feminists Announce New Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls,” March 27, 2009.
2. Feminist Majority website, “Take Action Now to Help Afghan Women,” and National Organization for Women website, “Afghan Women and Girls Need Our Help.”
3. Hayden, Tom, “Pentagon Enlists Feminists for War Aims,” Huffington Post, July 18, 2009.
4. Ford, Linda, Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman's Party, 1912-1920, University Press of America, Lanham, MD, 1991.
5. National Woman's Party Papers, Congressional Union pamphlet, 1915, Reel 22.
6. Mink, Gwendolyn, Hostile Environment: The Political Betrayal of Sexually Harassed Women, Chapter 4, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2000.
7. “Voices from Afghanistan: Afghan Women's Activist Zoya Speaks Out on Eight Years of Occupation,” Democracy Now, October 9, 2007.