What Women Want

Feminists Agonize Over War in Afghanistan

The response to Susan Sontag's New Yorker piece neared witch-hunt pitch. The New York Post suggested that Sontag be drawn and quartered. A scrawled sign recently posted in Manhattan's Old Town bar referred to the author as "an old battle-axe." And a piece in The New Republic began, "What do Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?" (The desire to dismantle America, it turns out.)

While Sontag sees the reaction mostly in political terms, she also sees a gender-related biliousness she likened to that aimed at Hillary Clinton. "It has to do with the very deep anxiety and fear and dislike of a woman who seems to be very smart and powerful," Sontag said of the Hillary hatred. Smart women "arouse huge feelings of resentment and dislike on the part of a lot of people," added Sontag. "Why should I think I'm exempt?"

The public clobbering is yet another reminder that despite having a common enemy, the U.S. government and feminists are not necessarily friends. "Everything is being manipulated to get what the U.S. wants, which isn't primarily women's rights," says Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, a New York-based women's group. "The U.S. military did not intervene to remove the Taliban because of anything to do with women."

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."

That divergence of interests is becoming clearer as the U.S. considers including "moderate Taliban forces" in a future coalition government and joins forces with countries where female genital mutilation is widespread (Egypt) and women are forbidden from driving cars (Saudi Arabia). Our rising political partners, the Northern Alliance, are particularly horrendous to women. The group's No. 2 political leader, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, reportedly believes so strongly in the inferiority of women he doesn't even speak to them. And Ahmed Shah Massood, the recently assassinated Northern Alliance leader, partook in campaigns of systematic rape that predated Taliban rule.

"The only difference between the crimes they committed and the Taliban is that the Taliban officially announced the restrictions on women," says a RAWA member who does not reveal her name. "The Northern Alliance committed many, many crimes against women—rapes, forced marriages. Women were afraid of going outside when they were in control," she continues, referring to the period between 1992 and 1996, before the Taliban seized power.

Back then, RAWA, which was founded in 1977, had already been trying to call attention to women's plight for years, though few were listening. The RAWA representative worries that her country's next government might be as woman hating as its predecessors. Perhaps it's a cultural difference, but the Feminist Majority's Smeal is optimistic that this calamity will finally change things for women. "Next time women speak about international issues, they'll listen," she says hopefully. "Our credibility will have gone up."


Research: Whitney Kassel, Sarah Park

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