Feminist Analysis and the Crisis

Cynthia Peters

(This is a
slightly corrected version of the article published in the 12/01 issue of Z.)

Cynthia Enloe, feminist scholar and author of
several books and articles about women and the military, suggested that it is
useful to ask, "Where are the women?" A casual observer of recent events might
be justified in responding: There aren’t any. Or at least not too many.

True, there is Condoleeza Rice. But she is mostly
surrounded by men in suits spouting macho rhetoric about "ending states" (Under
Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz) and using cowboy metaphors to describe how
we will catch Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" (President Bush). The Taliban, of
course, is all men. As is the Northern Alliance. The terrorists are all men. All
the main players in the unfolding tragedy are men-including (at least according
to the pictures in the papers) the heroic firefighters who rushed into a burning
building to save people they did not know. Not to mention the brave men working
to get the much needed food aid into Afghanistan.

But the women are there. You just have to look
beneath the surface to find them.

In Afghanistan

Before the Taliban took control of Kabul, many
Afghan women played important roles in public life. Women constituted 40 percent
of the doctors in the capital, 50 percent of the civilian government workers,
and 70 percent of the teachers. Under the Taliban, they were not even allowed to
leave their homes unless they were accompanied by a male relative. They were
forbidden to work or go to school. Banned from the job market but forced to eke
out a living due to the death or incapacitation of their husbands, many Afghan
women turn to prostitution.

A report on the website of the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (www.rawa.org)
reminds us of the conundrum of an Afghan woman navigating public life, employing
different identities to sustain her life and avoid death: "The women who work in
a [brothel] usually carry three types of identity cards. One ID showing them as
a widow with children, is used to get aid from UN offices or Red Cross. . .
Another ID, showing them as a married woman, is used for renting houses and so
on. If Taliban arrests them for Zena (crime of sex outside marriage) they use
their third ID showing them as a single women. Being single helps them avoid
being stoned to death." They are now what Cynthia Enloe calls "womenandchildren"-
innocent victims facing U.S. bombs, sealed borders, and starvation as the air
strikes brought an end to the massive aid programs needed to help millions of
Afghans survive the harsh winter.

"I haven’t seen Osama. I don’t know Osama. Why when
things happen in the east, the west or the north of the world, do the problems
have to come here and hit straight at the people of Afghanistan?" asked Farida,
a 40-year-old widow and mother of 4 who was begging on the streets of Kabul, the
Afghan capital. "I pray to my God that as soon as America attacks the first
cruise missile hits my house and kills me and my family," the former teacher
said from behind her all-encompassing veil. She recited a long list of woes
including hunger and a lack of water and sanitation in her home, a ruined

Is this the female version of the suicide mission?

The conditions that produced steel-willed men who
choreographed their own and thousands of others’ instantaneous deaths also
produce this, the wretched and hopeless Afghan mother praying for a fiery death
for her and her children. If Farida and women like her do not die in the
bombings, she will have to fight for scraps of food and scraps of
self-determination. Starvation is a threat particularly felt by women, who have
primary responsibility for their children.

Assuming they don’t starve to death, there is
another "grave health emergency now facing Afghan women," according to the
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). "Thousands of pregnant women . . . lack
shelter, food, and medical care, and unsanitary conditions pose a serious risk
to these women and their infant children. Even before the current crisis, poor
health conditions and malnutrition made pregnancy and childbirth exceptionally
dangerous for Afghan women."

With the retreat of the Taliban, Afghan women now
face likely torment from their U.S.-supported "liberators." According to Robert
Fisk, writing in London’s the Independent, the Northern Alliance (NA) is made up
of known rapists and murderers. In the 1990s, they "looted and raped their way
through the suburbs of Kabul…. They chose girls for forced marriages [and]
murdered their families." RAWA called the Taliban’s retreat a "positive
development," but the Northern Alliance’s takeover of Kabul is "nothing but
dreadful and shocking news for about 2 million residents of Kabul whose wounds
of the years 1992-96 have not healed yet" (11/13/01).

It’s true, the Taliban’s retreat may provide an
opening for women. But while Afghan women’s newly-revealed faces are captured on
film by AP photographers, many — the innocent victims of U.S. bombs and those
dying more slowly of starvation — are still thickly veiled. Their stories are
masked by a mainstream media that is making a concerted effort to downplay
civilian casualties, according to the media watchdog, FAIR.

Despite pressures from sequential oppressive
governments, the women of Afghanistan have not been invisible. The
pro-democracy, pro-women’s rights Revolutionary Association of Women from
Afghanistan (RAWA) has worked diligently to make their plight known. Afghan
women risk the death penalty for their organizing work. Yet, according to
Kathleen Richter in a Z Magazine article, it has about 2,000 members,
half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan. RAWA runs clandestine home-based
schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan, operates underground mobile health
teams in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and organizes income-generating projects for
Afghan women. It also provides human rights organizations with reports about
violations carried out by the Taliban and other fundamentalists, and produces
educational cassettes, holds poetry and story nights, and publishes a quarterly

However victimized Afghan women are by government
and religious rules, they have cobbled together a peace and justice movement
even as they cobble together a fragile day-to-day existence. Afghan women and
men, not western rulers, contain the seeds of their own liberation. In our
approach to solving world problems-like that of apprehending the terrorists and
punishing the governments that harbor them- we might find it useful to ask,
"Where are the women?" And not just that, but, "What are they saying?"

In the United States

If there’s one thing feminism has taught us recently
in the United States it is to watch out for that word "unity." Since that’s all
we’re hearing these days ("United We Stand"; "America United," etc.), it’s worth
taking a moment to see what gets collapsed out of existence when we are all

When Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD)
bridged the gap between the major parties, saying, "We are resolved to work
together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans," some might argue
it wasn’t much of a stretch anyway. But he added, "Tonight, the president asked
for our unity…. We will do whatever is needed to protect our nation. Nothing
is more urgent."

Calls for unity and assertions that there is one set
of interests to protect in "our nation" dismiss the huge divides that exist in
this country-across race, class, gender, geography, ethnicity, sexuality, and
religion. Many social movements that have as their focus the dismantling of
institutions that generate racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia are
aggressively silenced and marginalized as everything about the "American way" is
promoted as the equivalent of freedom and democracy.

Jerry Falwell expressed the fundamentalist Christian
version of Tom Daschle’s insistence on unity when he sputtered that the
terrorist attacks were caused by "pagans, and the abortionists, and the
feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an
alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who
have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You
helped this happen’."

Because his statement was so absurd and his
finger-pointing included enough mainstream elements as to be considered
impolite, Falwell had to retract and apologize for his statement. Yet it
revealed something about what is behind the calls for unity. Falwell was wrong
that feminists and gays and lesbians caused the terrorist attacks, but he’s
right that those of us who contest institutionalized white supremacy, patriarchy
and the marketplace challenge U.S. unity and thus destabilize U.S. power.

Whether they use Falwell’s extreme words or
Daschle’s polite ones, U.S. leaders are using the terrorist attacks as an
opportunity for the United States to consolidate power, and that includes
further marginalizing the social movements that have contested the workings and
end-products of U.S. institutions.

While pagans and abortionists are not welcome, women
do have a special role to play in helping consolidate U.S. power. Although
mostly we are supposed to stay silent, we are finally hearing direct
role-modeling from Laura Bush about how we can help out during our country’s
time of need. During a recent interview with Larry King, the First Lady lamented
that "she may have lost a little of him because he gave more of himself to the
country," according to a UPI report "It’s unbelievably stressful," she
continued. "I thought today he looked a little tired."

A moment’s lament is acceptable, but only if it
quickly morphs into cheerleading. "But he’s doing great," the First Lady added.
"He’s very resolved. He’s doing very well."

"The fact is," she said at one point, "is that most
of us are safe. Nearly all of us are safe. Our children are safe in their
schools. We need to reassure them, of that.

"I know that people are getting back on planes and
flying again, which I’m glad about," she said.

She ended the interview with an encouraging note: "I
want to get across the message that that I think people need to go about their
daily lives and start feeling secure again, and certainly help make their
children feel secure as they go about their daily lives."

The wifely and motherly role during a time of crisis
is to admire our men, bravely suffer their understandable preoccupations,
reassure the children, and breathe a sigh of relief for the return of our daily
routines. We can celebrate the little things and not concern ourselves with the
bigger issues like whether our country’s policies will lead to genocide in
Afghanistan. All of which leads to the second most important thing for women to
do: Get back to shopping. Never mind that stockholders are divesting, airlines
are laying off people by the tens of thousands, and the rich are scaling back
and protecting their wealth. Never mind that millions of Americans don’t have
disposable incomes and millions more get along without the benefit of health or
life insurance. Never mind all this, it’s women’s patriotic duty to go to the
mall.              Z

Peters is the Boston coordinator of the East Timor Action Network, and a freelance writer.