What Women Want

Feminists Agonize Over War in Afghanistan

A year ago, when women's rights and peace advocate Hibaaq Osman was giving a speech at the United Nations, she cited only one cause for which the use of military force might be justified: to oust the oppressive Taliban regime from Afghanistan. Now that the bloody effort is under way, however, Osman, who heads the Center for Strategic Initiatives in Washington, feels differently.

"I said it, but I was just making a point," a distraught Osman recalls. "This predicament is a test for feminists. We have seen our worst nightmare—women being dehumanized and shot in public—and it makes us more radical. It makes us angry enough to entertain the idea of war. But do I support war?" Osman pauses to consider her own country, Somalia, with its brutal history, before bursting out with an emotional "No. No. No. War is not OK under any circumstances," and then concluding, "The whole thing simply breaks my heart."

The four-week-old military attack on Afghanistan is proving to be an excruciating dilemma for feminists. In heart-wrenching conversations and e-mail exchanges across the city and the globe, feminists find themselves split over how to handle possibly the most misogynistic regime in history. Many are deeply uncomfortable with the specter of a wealthy nation bombing a poor and already ravaged one—a discomfort that is only deepened by the knowledge that more women than men die as a result of most wars. And as national loyalties are stoked by current events, feminists are further strained to reconcile their patriotism with the desire to reach out to women throughout the globe.

Sunita Mehta and Fahima Danishgar, founders of Women for Afghan Women: 'We are us and we are them."
Photograph by Bryce Lankard
Sunita Mehta and Fahima Danishgar, founders of Women for Afghan Women: 'We are us and we are them."

Perhaps most frustrating has been the world's failure to heed feminists' urgent warnings about the Taliban, which they've been decrying since it took power in 1996. Under the fundamentalist militia's rule, women have been publicly executed for such "crimes" as traveling with men who are not their relatives and being suspected of adultery. The government has banned women from work, education, and examination by male doctors. Women have even been forbidden from making noise when they walk (the sound draws men's attention, according to Taliban rulers).

Back in 1997, the Feminist Majority's Eleanor Smeal was among the first to sound alarms about the ghastly treatment of Afghan women, urging the U.S. against diplomatic recognition of the Taliban and to halt construction of a pipeline through Afghanistan that would have supplied millions in profits to the regime. The pipeline project was eventually stopped, but others of the group's suggestions, including a U.S. designation of the Taliban as an international terrorist organization, have yet to be carried out.

Perhaps it's no surprise that some feminists, including Smeal, now feel the backward and violent regime deserves whatever it gets. The rare overlap between feminist and military interests made for particularly warm relations in the greenroom at an NBC station in Los Angeles when Smeal met up with three generals who were about to appear on Chris Matthews's Hardball. "They went off about the role of women in this effort and how imperative it was that women were now in every level of the air force and navy," says Smeal, who found herself cheered by the idea of women flying F-16s. "It's a different kind of war," she says, echoing the president's assessment of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Indeed, the gender gap in support for this U.S. military effort is unusually small. Historically, female support for war has lagged between 10 and 15 percent behind men's, according to Joshua Goldstein, author of War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. But in a recent survey released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 79 percent of women, compared to 86 percent of men, said they support the ongoing military intervention, a near parity Goldstein believes may be explained by the fact that the Taliban is anathema to women.

Still, many women are unwilling to translate their opposition to the Taliban into support for war. The U.S. air strikes against the country and the recent addition of ground troops—which, depending on the estimate, have together resulted in anywhere from a few dozen to almost a thousand civilian casualties—clash with long-held feminist sensibilities. Some worry that bombing will further endanger Afghanistan's already brutalized women, who account for 70 percent of Afghanistan's refugees.

Feminists also have a pragmatic argument: that missiles and soldiers won't topple the Taliban. "I continue to wish with all my heart for the regime to be overthrown; I just don't think the U.S. military can do it," says author Susan Sontag, whose September 18 article in The New Yorker set the tone for criticism of U.S. military policy. The choice "isn't bombs or nothing," says Sontag, who doesn't consider herself a pacifist. "The world is a complicated place. We can put pressure on our allies and offer bribes and rewards."

The peace position was also taken by the Worldwide Sisterhood Against Terrorism and War, an organization of about 80 feminists that includes women from Central Asia as well as such U.S. notables as Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and Susan Sarandon. In a petition headlined "Not in Our Name," the group declared, "We will not support the bombing or U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for it would only punish suffering people and increase the hatred on which terrorists feed."

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