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 (www.hrw.org).
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 www.rawa.org.
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I got more negative comment on my last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than on anything I’ve ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical, public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way–it’s urging readers to send young “Miss Pollitt” flags c/o The Nation–she will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red, white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy one for herself. (See this issue’s Letters column for some of the mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old Glory’s stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net) displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.