Beware the siren song
Women's liberation & Afghanistan
By Minnie Bruce Pratt
As U.S. bombing and troop presence has intensified in
Afghanistan, the mainstream media have issued a barrage of
articles, photographs, opinion pieces and interviews claiming
this war will liberate Afghan women. They present it as a
"collateral benefit," that the war will reverse the Taliban's
cruel oppression of women and even give women a chance to get
political rights under a new government.
Government officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney,
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State
Colin Powell have addressed the same subject in news
conferences, briefings and interviews.
Most dramatically, "First Lady" Laura Bush was in front of
the microphone on Nov. 17, instead of her husband, for the
president's usual Saturday radio address, so she could testify
about the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban.
This media blitz has been orchestrated through the
governmental Coalition Information Center, set up to counter
any criticism of the U.S. war. The campaign is coordinated by
spin-doctors like public relations industry legend Charlotte
Beers, former chair of giant ad agency J. Walter Thompson. Four
of the key "gatekeepers" of this campaign are women, including
chief Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke and Mary Matlin,
chief political adviser to Vice President Cheney.
Matlin said of these women's commitment to advocating for
the war: "I think we probably bring--and I don't mean this to
sound sexist--but we probably have more of a subconscious
outrage at these issues...This is something that crosses my
mind every day: a third of these women in pre-Taliban days were
doctors, lawyers and teachers. You can't help but be outraged."
(New York Times, Nov. 11)
The real outrage
What pre-Taliban days is she talking about? The outrage is
ours if we look at the real history of women's liberation in
Afghanistan. Yes, terrible things have been done to women under
the Taliban rule. But how did the Taliban come into existence?
And what was the role of the United States?
In 1978 a revolution created a secular government in
Afghanistan that tried to liberate the workers and peasants
from the grip of feudal landlords. The secular government was
based on a young socialist movement, the Progressive Democratic
Party of Afghanistan. The revolutionaries cancelled mortgage
debts of laborers and tenants; these debts had been inherited
over generations so that feudal warlords held land workers as
virtual serfs. And they promoted the welfare and liberation of
This revolutionary government immediately moved to improve
the terrible conditions women had endured. It set up literacy
programs especially for women, whose illiteracy rate was 96
percent. It trained more teachers and published textbooks in
local languages. It organized brigades of women to go into the
countryside to provide medical services and by 1985 increased
hospital beds by 80 percent.
Decrees were issued abolishing the bride price so women
could be free to choose their marriages and prohibiting the
punishment of women for losing their virginity before marriage.
Women were able to train and then work as doctors, teachers and
Did the U.S. government know of these things? These facts
about the Afghan revolution can be found in a book published by
the U.S. Department of the Army entitled, "Afghanistan--a
Country Study for 1986."
Yet it was this enlightened government that U.S. President
Jimmy Carter set out to overthrow by organizing a massive
counter-revolutionary army of religious fundamentalists in
1979. This CIA-orchestrated and funded war forced the Afghan
government to call for Soviet military assistance. What
followed was a bitter conflict that lasted more than a decade
and eventually overthrew the progressive regime. More years of
war followed as the Taliban, the Northern Alliance and other
factions, all of which drew their power from the feudal
landlord class, fought for supremacy. (Workers World, Oct. 10,
The CIA facilitated the formation of Osama bin Laden's
organization back in the 1980s to attack the progressive
government in Afghanistan. As vice president, George Bush Sr.
oversaw the operation. Subsequently, bin Laden's troops
murdered teachers, doctors and nurses, disfigured women who
took off the veil, and shot down civilian airliners with
U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles. (Workers World, Oct. 4)
What the U.S. does care about
Now Bush and the generals claim to care about the rights of
women living in the counter-revolution they financed and
engineered. But the U.S. has consistently disregarded the
plight and status of women in Afghanistan. The White House and
Pentagon knew the reactionary position of the U.S.-financed and
trained fundamentalist groups towards women. But this was
immaterial to the goal of the U.S. government to support the
interests of oil corporations that have been trying to get a
pipeline through Afghanistan for about 10 years.
In a May 26, 1997, New York Times article, John F. Burns
wrote: "While deploring the Taliban's policies on women and the
adoption of a penal code that provides for the amputation of
thieves' hands and the stoning to death of adulterers, the
United States has sometimes acted as though a Taliban
government might serve its interests.
"The Clinton administration has taken the view that a
Taliban victory would end a war that has killed 1.5 million
Afghans; would act as a counterweight to Iran, whose Shiite
Muslim leadership is fiercely opposed to the Sunni Muslims of
the Taliban, and would offer the possibility of new trade
routes that could weaken Russian and Iranian influence in the
"For example, a proposal by the Unocal Corporation of
California for a $2.5 billion pipeline that would link the gas
fields of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan has
attracted strong support in Washington, though human rights
groups are likely to object to the plan. ... The Afghan
project, strongly endorsed by the Taliban, is part of a broader
concept under which the vast mineral resources of the former
Soviet republics would be moved to markets along routes that
would offer these countries a new autonomy from Moscow."
In May 1998, Time magazine reported that the CIA had "set up
a secret task force to monitor the region's politics and gauge
its wealth. Covert CIA officers, some well-trained petroleum
engineers, had traveled through southern Russia and the Caspian
region to sniff out potential oil reserves. When the
policymakers heard the agency's report, [Secretary of State
Madeleine] Albright concluded that 'working to mold the area's
future was one of the most exciting things we can do.'"
'Free to beg'
As U.S. Marines dig in and direct air attacks near Kandahar,
the U.S. continues to try to mold the future of Afghan istan,
Central Asia and the Middle East--but not out of concern for
the future of women. On the first day of this war, U.S. bombs
struck a Kabul hospital and killed 13 women in a gynecological
Now, after weeks of bombing, U.S. newspapers enthuse that
Afghan women "are uncovering their faces, looking for jobs,
walking happily with female friends on the street."
Yet, at the same time, Bush administration officials admit
that they will not publicly insist women be included in talks
about a post-Taliban coalition government. In fact, in the Bonn
meeting scheduled by the U.S. and allies to arrange
Afghanistan's future, only three token women have been
included: the widow of a mujahedeen commander killed fighting
against the former secular socialist government, and two
backers of the long-deposed king. (New York Times, Nov. 26)
As the women of Afghanistan emerge into the horrifying
destruction and chaos unleashed by U.S. bombing, what kind of
freedom and what kind of rights will be theirs? A Nov. 19 New
York Times article entitled "Behind the Burka" concluded by
focusing on a 56-year-old woman with no schooling, eight
children and a dead husband.
The last line of the article sums up her "liberated" future
under imperialist subjugation: "Now, at last, she is free to
Stop the war!
And that is a future this Afghan woman shares with many
women in the United States--women on welfare who soon will be
"free to beg" under the so-called Welfare Reform Act.
Passed during the Clinton administration, it basically
eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children and set up a
strict limit on the time length of benefits. The cut-off date
of Dec. 1 is now fast approaching for thousands of already
impoverished women. Some will be evicted in the middle of
freezing winter. Others will be forced to place their children
in foster care. Still others will be denied the most basic
health care and reproductive services for themselves and their
And the astronomical economic cost of the U.S. war on
Afghanistan will take an even greater toll on the poor in this
country--especially women and children.
The war against Afghanistan has never been about the
liberation of women, not even as a "collateral benefit." It is
about imperialist domination for capitalist profit. Opposition
to this war, and this economic system, is the only thing that
will help bring about the full liberation of women.
Minnie Bruce Pratt, an anti-racist activist and lesbian
author, is a
long-time leader in the struggle for women's
Reprinted from the Dec. 6, 2001, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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