What if Hillary Clinton, not Laura Bush, had taken to the airwaves during her husband's first year in office and become the first First Lady to deliver the entire weekly presidential radio address–about women's rights, no less? Dragon lady! Castrating feminist man-hating bitch! All together now: Who Elected Her? The Republicans would have started impeachment proceedings that very day. In fact, the down-to-earth and nonthreatening Laura Bush spoke so eloquently in support of Afghan women's rights I actually found myself not wanting to believe the Democratic Party accusation that this was a cynical attempt to appeal to women and narrow the eleven-point gender gap that bedeviled Bush in the 2000 election–not that a shortage of votes turned out to matter, but that's another story. Perhaps Mrs. Bush–and Cherie Blair, who gave a similar speech on November 19–was sending a message to the sorry collection of warlords and criminals, power-grabbers and back-stabbers vying for power in the new Afghanistan: This time around, women must have a seat at the table. As I write, Afghan women are swinging into action, with a major conference planned for early December in Brussels to insist on equality and political power in their post-Taliban nation.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the defeat of the Taliban also marked the end of the cultural-relativist pooh-poohing of women's rights? Only a few weeks ago, a Bush Administration spokesperson was refusing to promise that women would play a role in a new Afghan government: "We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them." A week before it began, no women had been mentioned as participants in the UN-sponsored Bonn conference to plan for a postwar Afghanistan. As it turned out, there are three among the twenty-eight delegates: two in the delegation of the former King and one in that of the Northern Alliance, plus at least two more attending as advisers. Whether it means anything, who knows–of the four factions gathered in Bonn, only the Northern Alliance controls any actual territory, and its record with regard to women's rights and dignity is nothing to cheer about. While some alliance leaders speak encouragingly of girls' education and women's right to work, early signs are mixed: In Kabul, women can once more freely walk the streets, but the newly reopened movie theater is off-limits and a women's rights march was halted by authorities; in late November, according to the Los Angeles Times, women were banned from voting for mayor in Herat, whose de facto ruler, Ismail Khan, has presented himself as sympathetic to women's rights.
Still, whatever government takes shape in Afghanistan will probably be better for women than the Taliban–how could it be worse?–as long as the country does not degenerate into civil war, as happened the last time the Northern Alliance was in power. But let's not kid ourselves: This war is not about freeing women from government-mandated burqas, or teaching girls to read, or improving Afghan women's ghastly maternal mortality rate of 17 in 1,000 births–the second highest in the world. Those things may happen as a byproduct of realpolitik, or they may not. But if women's rights and well-being were aims of US Afghan policy, the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations would never have financed the mujahedeen, whose neanderthal treatment of women, including throwing acid at unveiled women, was well documented from the start; the Clinton Administration would not have initially accepted the Taliban even after they closed the girls' schools in Herat; and the current Bush Administration would have inundated the millions of Afghan women and girls in Pakistan's refugee camps with teachers, nurses, doctors and food.
As other commentators have pointed out, if Laura Bush wants to make women's rights a US foreign policy goal, she's got her work cut out for her. Saudi Arabia, our best friend, is positively Talibanesque: Women are rigidly segregated by law, cannot drive, cannot travel without written permission from a male relative; top-to-toe veiling is mandated by law and enforced by a brutal religious police force. In a particularly insulting twist, US women soldiers stationed there are compelled to wear the veil and refrain from driving when off base; so far the Bush Administration has refused to act on soldiers' objections to these conditions.
One can go on and on about the situation of women in Muslim countries–unable to vote in Kuwait; genitally mutilated in Egypt and Sudan; flogged, jailed, murdered with impunity and even stoned to death for sexual infractions in a number of countries–and Muslim women everywhere are fighting back (for a serious, nonsensationalist approach, check out the website of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, www.wluml.org). But the Islamic world is hardly the only place where women are denied their human rights: How would you like to have to get a divorce in an Israeli rabbinical court or need an abortion in Chile, where it's illegal even to save your life? The United States makes no bones about using its economic and political might against illegal drugs–in fact, the Administration rewarded the Taliban for banning opium production by making a $43 million donation to the World Food Program and humanitarian NGOs (not, as is usually reported, to the Taliban proper). If it cared to do so, the United States could back the global women's movement with the same zeal.
Instead, it does the opposite. In order to curry favor with conservative Catholics at home, Laura Bush's husband has shown callous disregard for women's rights and health abroad: He reinstated the Mexico City policy, which bars family-planning groups receiving US funds from discussing abortion; he sent anti-choice delegations to wreck the consensus at international conferences on children's rights and public health; he tried to nominate John Klink, former adviser to the Holy See, to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which would have thrown the United States behind the Pope's call to deny emergency contraception to raped women in refugee camps.
That the Taliban are gone is cause for joy. A world that cared about women's rights would never have let them come to power in the first place.