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Real Women's Liberation

From the October 25, 2004 issue: It's happening in Afghanistan, and U.S. feminists don't care.

Oct 25, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 07 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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HERE'S A CHUNK of President Bush's standard stump speech: "Think about what happened in Afghanistan. It wasn't all that long ago that the Taliban ran that country. Young girls couldn't even go to school. They were not only harboring terrorists, they had this dark ideology of hate. And people showed up in droves to vote. Freedom is powerful. People have gone from darkness to light because of liberty. The first voter in the Afghan presidential election was a 19-year-old woman."

And here's Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women: "In only three-and-a-half years, George W. Bush and the right-wing leadership in Congress have undermined and eroded more than four decades of advancements for women. . . . We are declaring a State of Emergency for women's rights and calling upon all of our allies and supporters to get involved in the election process to put an end to the relentless attacks on women."

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, the Taliban regime was the gold standard for horrifying treatment of women. The burqa became the symbol of female oppression. It was invoked by women's rights activists of various stripes worldwide as the worst of the worst. The writer Azar Nafisi quotes a woman functionary of the straitlaced Iranian regime as saying, "Look at Somalia or Afghanistan. Compared to them, we live like queens."

In 2001, NOW regularly issued "Action Alerts" on the plight of Afghan women. One of them reported that "when the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul in September 1996, it issued an edict that stripped women and girls of their rights, holding the Afghan people hostage under a brutal system of gender apartheid. . . . Women were prohibited from being seen or heard. The windows of their homes were painted, and they could not appear in public unless wearing the full-body covering, the burqa. Women were beaten for showing a bit of ankle or wearing noisy shoes."

Fast forward to October 9, 2004, when about 4 million women voted for the first time ever in Afghanistan. A statement on the election from the United Nations' Division for the Advancement of Women begins by noting that "insufficient information is available on the actual participation of women on election day," but does wanly concede that "this first election has been an important process to increase women's participation in the political life of their country." Exhibiting the usual U.N. preference for progress on paper, the statement closes by noting with approval that Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women last year.

The folks over at NOW seem even less enthusiastic about the progress in Afghanistan. The NOW "Issues" page headed "Women in Afghanistan" hasn't been updated for two-and-a-half years. And there is no mention of the Afghan election on the main pages of the NOW website. Calls requesting a statement went unreturned.

In contrast, the Feminist Majority Foundation has been regularly updating its Afghanistan pages. Notably absent, however, is any praise for the Bush administration's role in bringing suffrage to Afghan women. Even the U.N.'s bland boilerplate seems like cheerleading compared with the Feminist Majority's assessment of the situation: U.S. figures on female voter registration and participation are "greater than previous UN estimates," and therefore suspect. Not to worry, though--"the Feminist Majority is closely following the election process and is now trying to get the real story of what is happening on the ground." Reports from "on the ground" confirm their suspicions, namely that "there are areas of the country where not a single woman has registered."

This assertion is likely true, of course--Afghanistan is far from a utopia--but the Feminist Majority's unwillingness to give even a nod to the American role reveals just how single-mindedly committed they are to beating Bush. While the situation "on the ground" in Afghanistan is grave, the Feminist Majority focuses considerably more effort on reminding Americans that it's not all sunshine and roses here in the United States. The foundation has chosen to do so by distributing slogan-imprinted neon pink ballpoint pens. The pens urge women to "vote as if your life depends on it. It does." When lives are literally threatened in Afghanistan, the play on words intended for American women rings hollow.

Among groups that have focused on the situation of women in Afghanistan in the past, Human Rights Watch is an honorable exception to the hear-no-good, see-no-good, speak-no-good approach being taken by most of their colleagues.

In the last two months, Human Rights Watch has issued two comprehensive reports, one entirely about the challenges facing women in Afghanistan's emerging democracy. Both reports open with praise for the recent "notable improvements for women and girls" in Afghanistan. And the one on democracy avoids the temptation to blame the United States alone for Afghanistan's continuing problems, though it finds plenty to complain of. "In 2001," it says, "improving the rights of Afghan women was at the top of the international agenda; in 2004, despite many well-intentioned programs for women, women's human rights appear to be more of an afterthought." The report concludes with recommendations for Afghan president Hamid Karzai, NATO, the U.N., the United States, and international donors.

It is true, of course, that women are still suffering in many parts of Afghanistan under the rule of religiously conservative warlords with whom the United States teamed up to defeat the Taliban. As the report notes, "Whatever the motives or aspirations of the international community, these men did not fight the Taliban over women's rights." Neither, when it comes right down to it, did George Bush. But the president is committed to seeing the democracy experiment in Afghanistan through. He held his nose and made common cause with some unsavory characters in order to do what he thought justice demanded; and he's affected innumerable Afghan women's lives for the good.

Too bad those who profess to care most about the rights of women can't bring themselves to follow his example.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.