What Women Want

Feminists Agonize Over War in Afghanistan

While the wording leaves open the possibility of support for UN-sponsored military intervention—an option many find more palatable than U.S. and British forces acting independently—reaching consensus even on that phrasing took days of rapid-fire e-mails and skillful negotiation. Questions about the future of Afghanistan have been even thornier.

Sunita Mehta and Fahima Danishgar, who recently cofounded Women for Afghan Women—the first grassroots group for women from Afghanistan and its neighbors living in New York—were among the dozens of feminists who gathered for a post-September 11 meeting at the Manhattan apartment of Eve Ensler. But, coming from the region—Mehta is Indian and Danishgar, 23, left Afghanistan at age nine—they found they had less of an us-versus-them perspective than many Americans reacting to the recent terrorist attacks.

"We are us and we are them," says Mehta. "We came in feeling very close to the land that was going to be bombed." That closeness—and a superior knowledge of history and politics that comes with it—allowed her to temper the more utopian dreams of Western feminists. While some at the meeting seriously suggested that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan should rule the country, for instance, Mehta pointed out that the 2000-member RAWA is "a small, Maoist organization." It would be nice if women could be in charge, she says, "but we don't have the luxury of dreaming big dreams right now."

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."

Indeed, the women of Afghanistan—for whom makeup, forbidden by the Taliban, is a symbol of liberation—have different priorities from their Western counterparts. RAWA, whose members have documented Taliban atrocities through slits in their Taliban-mandated robes, has thrown its own political support behind the exiled Afghan king. And although many Westerners have focused on that robe, the burqa, as an emblem of women's oppression, Afghan women don't always see it that way. "Some women choose to wear it. It can be a symbol of respect" for tradition, says Danishgar, whose own mother sometimes wore a burqa.

The burqa has been a touchy subject before, particularly when Oprah Winfrey lifted one off an Afghan woman in a performance of Ensler's Vagina Monologues, instead of letting the woman perform the symbolic liberation herself. For some, the gesture reeked of Western arrogance, even though the talk-show star has been credited with raising awareness of the Taliban in the TV-watching core of our country by having RAWA members on her show. (RAWA's Web site, www.rawa.org—a fascinating cross-cultural women's effort that features digital video of Afghan women being executed—welcomes Oprah viewers specifically.)

Osman, who wears a head scarf and robes, sees the East-West tension as rooted in religion. "I love my Western feminists," she says, "but I'm just finding out how ignorant they are." Osman, a Muslim, offers a definition of feminist many Western women might share: "a woman who is very comfortable with who she is and believes the sky is the limit." Still, she says, "Every now and then I hear 'What is it with Islam that makes your men this way?' And I think to myself, 'What is it with Christianity that makes your men this way?' "

No doubt, many Americans are feeling somewhat smug about our heroic, enlightened men just now. Ironically, though, the crisis seems to be inspiring a reversion to traditional gender roles. While the press dubbed first lady Laura Bush the "comforter-in-chief," Peggy Noonan giddily declared that "men are back." "I'm speaking of masculine men," the former Reagan aide wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things."

Of course, men have never really gone away. The power structure remains overwhelmingly male—a fact that was highlighted by the never ending emergency press conferences featuring wall-to-wall men. Indeed, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is one of only four women among 19 cabinet-level officials. Roughly one in seven members of Congress is female. All of the 23 committee chairs in the House of Representatives are male, as are all of the Senate's 22 chairs. And a mere six out of 189 ambassadors to the UN are female.

The numbers are, not surprisingly, more skewed when it comes to conflict. "After childbirth, war making has possibly been the most segregated of activities along gender lines," says Felicity Hill, director of the UN office of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Perhaps that doesn't have to be true. Last year, the UN passed a resolution calling for women's participation in decision making about war and peace. Nevertheless, "war remains the domain of men," says Hill. "Women's voices are missing from decisions on priorities in peace processes."

These days, it's hard for anyone to stray from the political mainstream, and harder still for women. Like many others on the left, Canadian activist Sunera Thobani accused the U.S. of "unleashing prolific levels of violence all over the world," but unlike many other lefties, Thobani was subject to the Canadian equivalent of citizen's arrest and, intriguingly, sent porn by her critics. The Canadian secretary of state for the status of women, Hedy Fry, almost lost her job for just listening to Thobani's speech.

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