When I talk with feminists from other countries, whether from Europe or the Third World, I am repeatedly asked: “Where are the voices of the US women’s movement against what the Bush Administration is doing globally, using the excuse of 9/11?”
While I know that many US feminists are concerned about these issues, it is clear that our voices are not being heard much–outside, or even inside, this country. The perception created by the Western media is that virtually all Americans support Bush’s militaristic threats, his “you’re with us or against us,” evil-axis rhetoric, and his unilateralist positions against global treaties from the Kyoto Protocol on the environment to the newly created International Criminal Court. When I mention activities like the weekly Women in Black vigils against US policy in the Middle East held in New York and other cities, or feminists working to change the composition of the US Congress, where only Barbara Lee spoke out against the Bush madness immediately after 9/11, they are somewhat relieved.
Yet it is clear that feminists in the United States do not have much impact on US foreign policy, which is military- and corporate-driven. Even though Bush used Afghan women’s rights to drum up support for his war, this did not lead to a sustained commitment to Afghan women. It is puzzling to many outside this country how a women’s movement that has had such profound influence on US culture and daily life could have so little effect on, or seemingly even concern for, US foreign policy and its impact on women worldwide. The consequences of this failure are disastrous for women in many countries, and they threaten the advances that the global women’s movement made in the 1990s.
Current US foreign policy makes it harder to build women’s international solidarity in a number of ways. The widespread sympathy that the world offered Americans at the time of 9/11 has given way to anti-Americanism and rage at what the US government is doing in the name of that event. On the day of the attacks, I was still in South Africa following the UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durban the week before. People expressed intense concern about what had happened, especially when they learned that I lived in New York. And this was in spite of the great frustration that most felt about the inexcusable disdain for other countries the Bush Administration had just exhibited during the world conference. But now, resentment and anger at the United States is the overriding sentiment in many other nations. Even some feminist colleagues elsewhere tell me that they are now asked how they can really work with Americans, given how little opposition to Bush’s foreign policies they see happening here.
This resentment stems in part from the fact that 9/11 is not seen as a defining moment for the rest of the world–at least not in terms of what happened that day. In many places, people have long lived with terrorism, violence and death on a scale as great or greater than 9/11. So while they agree that this was a terrible and shocking event, they consider the US obsession with it, including the assumption that it is the defining moment for everyone, to be self-indulgent and shortsighted.
Of course, September 11 has been a defining event within the United States. But how we understand it in a global context is important. First, we must recognize that our government’s responses to it were not inevitable. This event could have taken the country in other directions, including toward greater empathy with what others have suffered, toward more concern for human security and the conditions that give rise to terrorism, and toward recognition of the importance of multilateral institutions in a globally linked world. But that would have required a very different national leadership. Instead, it has become the rationale for an escalation of the regressive Bush agenda domestically and internationally, including more unrestrained exercise of US power and disregard for multilateralism. Other governments have also used the occasion to increase military spending and to erode support for human rights. In that sense, it has become a defining moment because of how it has been used. But the issues highlighted by 9/11 are not new and have been raised by many other events both before and after it.
Indeed, 9/11 has raised the profile of many of the issues feminists were already struggling with globally, such as:
§ growing global and national economic inequities produced by globalization, structural adjustment, privatization, etc.;
§ the rise of extremist expressions of religious and/or nationalist “fundamentalisms” that threaten progress on women’s rights around the world (including in the United States) in the name of various religions and cultures;
§ the escalation of racist and sexist violence and terrorism in daily life and the growth of sexual and economic exploitation and trafficking of women across the globe;
§ an increase in militarism, wars, internal conflicts and terrorism, which are affecting or targeting civilians and involving more women and children in deadly ways.
Since 9/11 has been used to curtail human rights–including freedom of expression–in the name of “national security,” it has added a greater sense of urgency to these concerns, but it has also made it more difficult to address them effectively from a feminist perspective.
Human vs. National Security
The call to redefine security in terms of human and ecological needs instead of national sovereignty and borders was advancing pre-9/11 as an alternative to the state-centered concept of “national security,” rooted in the military/security/defense domain and academically lodged in the field of international relations. For feminists this has meant raising questions about whose security “national security” defends, and addressing issues like the violence continuum that threatens women’s security daily, during war as well as so-called peacetime.
The concept of human security had also advanced through the UN–first defined in the UN Development Program’s 1994 Human Development Report and later taken up by Secretary General Kofi Annan in his Millennium Report in 2000, which spoke of security less as defending territory and more in terms of protecting people.
But efforts to promote the concept of human security–which emerged out of discussions in which women are active, from the peace movement and the debate over development–were set back by 9/11, with the subsequent resurgence of the masculine warrior discourse. The media have been dominated by male “authority” figures, providing a rude reminder that when it comes to issues of terrorism, war, defense and national security, women, and especially feminists, are still not on the map.
Yet it is women who have been the major target of fundamentalist terrorism, from Algeria to the United States, over the past several decades. And it is mostly feminists who have led the critique of this growing global problem–focusing attention not only on Islamic fundamentalism but on Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, Catholic secret societies like Opus Dei in Latin America, Hindu right-wing fundamentalists in India, and so on.
The events of 9/11 should have generated attempts to address the very real threats to women’s human rights posed by fundamentalism, terrorism and armed conflict in many guises. Instead, the occasion was used to demonize the Islamic Other and to justify further militarization of society and curtailment of civil liberties. Growing militarization, often with US support and arms, has brought an increase in military spending in many other regions, from India and Pakistan to Israel, Colombia and the Philippines. Meanwhile, the Western donor countries’ pledges to support economic development at the UN International Conference on Financing for Development in March 2002 fell far short of what would be needed to even begin to fulfill the millennium promises made in 2000 for advancing human security.
Thus, while human security is a promising concept, it is far from being embraced as a replacement for the national security paradigm to which governments remain attached and have made vast commitments.
September 11 and Human Rights
The excuse of 9/11 has been used not only to curtail human rights in the United States–which some here are challenging–but also around the world. The human rights system is in trouble when the US government pulls out of global agreements like the ABM treaty, aggressively works to undermine new instruments like the International Criminal Court and says it is not bound by international commitments made by previous administrations, such as the Beijing Women’s Conference Platform–parts of which its delegation renounced at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2002. All international treaties and human rights conventions depend on the assumption that a country is bound by previous agreements and cannot simply jettison them with every change of administration. This erosion of respect for human rights also appears in the US media, where some mainstream journalists have defended, as a necessary part of the war on terrorism, the Bush Administration’s defiance of international norms regarding political prisoners, and even suggested that the (selective) use of torture may be justified. These are the kinds of arguments put forward by governments that torture and abuse rights and are contrary to the most accepted tenets of human rights.
Indeed, the erosion of the US commitment to human rights helps legitimize the abuses of governments that have never fully accepted or claimed these standards. For while the US government has often been hypocritical in its human rights policies, open disregard for international standards goes a step further and thus strengthens fundamentalist governments and forces that seek to deny human rights in general, and the rights of women in particular.
Ironically, even as public discourse demonizes Islamic fundamentalists, the unholy alliance of the Vatican, Islamic fundamentalists and right-wing US forces is still working together when it comes to trying to defeat women’s human rights. Feminists encountered this alliance in full force at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and at the World Conference on Women at Beijing (1995), as well as during the five-year reviews of those events in 1999 and 2000. One need only look at the allies of the Bush Administration at the UN children’s summit in May 2002–such as the Holy See, Sudan, Libya, Iraq and other gulf states–to understand that this alliance is still functioning globally. We need to closely track the connections among various antifeminist “fundamentalist” forces, not only at the UN but in other arenas as well, such as in the making of world health policies, or even in the passage of anti-women’s rights national legislation in countries where outside forces have played a key role.
A high-profile example of how the Bush Administration is seeking to weaken the UN’s role in protecting human rights was its effort to insure that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, would not get a second term. She was among the first to frame her response to 9/11 from the perspective of international law, by suggesting that these acts of terrorism be prosecuted internationally as crimes against humanity rather than used as a call to war, but she was quickly sidelined. Because of this, along with her efforts to make the World Conference Against Racism a success in spite of the US contempt for it, the Bush Administration adamantly opposed her reappointment. This opposition dovetailed with that of a number of other governments unhappy with her attention to their human rights abuses. Robinson is only one of the UN officials the Bush Administration has targeted in its efforts to purge the institution of its critics and anyone else promoting policies not to its liking.
The Bush Administration’s policies post-9/11 have provided cover for other governments, such as China, Pakistan, Russia and Egypt, to jettison even a rhetorical commitment to certain human rights in the name of fighting terrorism or providing for national security, or for some countries even in Europe it has been an opportunity simply to label issues like racism and violence against women as lower-priority concerns. This has a particular impact on women because it reverses the broadening of the human rights paradigm, which had begun to encompass issues like violence against women and to focus more on socioeconomic rights in the 1980s and ’90s.
Women’s rights advocates are still seen as the new kids on the human rights block. Feminists only recently won the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, and that is now jeopardized even before those rights have been fully accepted and mechanisms for their protection institutionalized. The need to articulate a feminist approach to global security that insures human rights and human security, and recognizes their interrelationship, is therefore more urgent than ever.
Challenges Ahead for Global Feminism
Women have transformed many aspects of life over the past forty years, and we all live differently because of it. Looking at the world in 2002, however, we have to ask what went wrong: Why have feminists not had a greater impact on global issues? How can we more effectively address current challenges like an increasingly militarized daily life, the rise in the political use of fundamentalism in every religion and region, and the widening economic gap between the haves and have-nots?
Often what American feminists must do to help women elsewhere is not to focus on their governments but to work to change ours so that US policies and corporate forces based here stop harming women elsewhere. To do this, we need to engage in more serious discussion that crosses both the local/global and the activist/academic divides. If we look at women’s movements over the past thirty to forty years, their strength has been in very rooted and diverse local bases of action as well as in the development of highly specific research and theory. There has also been rich global dialogue and networking among women across national lines over the past two decades. But in the United States these discourses rarely intersect.
Because the local/national/domestic and the global/international are mostly seen as separate spheres, we often have trouble determining what local actions will have the greatest impact globally. Thus, for example, there has been little interest here in using international human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to advance domestic issues. There is a tendency not to see the international arena as adding anything to causes at home. But just as women’s global networking and international solidarity have helped sustain feminist activists who are isolated in their home countries, US feminists can benefit from the support of women elsewhere, which we will need if we are to challenge what is now openly defended as the American Empire.
Women’s activism in the United States must be both local and global to succeed. We must grapple with the dynamic tension between the universality and specificity of our work. Only through such a process can feminists address not only the needs of each situation but also the larger global structures creating many of these conflicts. Then we can move toward an affirmative vision of peace with human rights and human security at its core, rather than continue to clean up after the endless succession of male-determined crises and conflicts. This is our challenge.