Beware the siren song: Women’s liberation and Afghanistan

This article originally appeared in Workers World, Dec. 6, 2001.

Women village defense forces carry AK-47s during a ceremony in Kabul to mark the 10th anniversary of the communist revolution in Afghanistan, April 26, 1988.

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, 2001)    

The real outrage    

Which 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 the new government promoted the welfare and liberation of women. 

The 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%. 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 had increased hospital beds by 80%. 

Decrees were issued, both 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 lawyers.  

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 counterrevolutionary army of religious fundamentalists in 1979. A CIA-orchestrated 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, 1996)

The CIA had facilitated the formation of Osama bin Laden’s organization in the 1980s to attack the progressive government in Afghanistan. As U.S. 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 they shot down civilian airliners with U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles. (Workers World, Oct. 4, 1996)     

What the U.S. does care about   

Now Bush and the generals claim to care about the rights of women living in the counterrevolution 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 toward 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 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 region.      

“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 the CIA had “set up a secret task force to monitor the region’s politics and gauge its wealth. Covert CIA officers, some of them 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 Afghanistan, 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 hospital.      

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, 2001)

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 New York Times article, entitled “Behind the Burka,” focused on a 56-year-old woman with no schooling, eight children and a dead husband. (Nov. 19, 2001)    

The last line of the article sums up her “liberated” future under imperialist subjugation: “Now, at last, she is free to beg.”      

Stop the war!    

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 essentially 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 children. 

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.” The war 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 is an anti-racist activist, lesbian author and longtime leader in the struggle for women’s liberation.

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