The First Ladies' Club of Hypocrisy
If you believed their press comments, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, the wives, respectively, of US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, care deeply about the women of Afghanistan.
In a November 17 radio address to the nation, Laura Bush denounced the "brutal oppression of women" by the Taliban.
"Seventy percent of the Afghan people are malnourished", she said. "One in every four children won't live past the age of five because health care is not available. Women have been denied access to doctors when they're sick. Life under the Taliban is so hard and repressive, even small displays of joy are outlawed — children aren't allowed to fly kites; their mothers face beatings for laughing out loud. Women cannot work outside the home, or even leave their homes by themselves."
Cherie Blair called for moves to promote "opportunities, self-esteem and esteem in the eyes of their society" for Afghan women, denied human rights under the Taliban.
In a breathtaking display of hypocrisy, they've joined the orchestrated propaganda chorus from leading establishment figures, seeking to gain support from feminists for the war on Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has declared, "The rights of the women of Afghanistan will not be negotiable". The US State Department has launched a report, Taliban War Against Women, and has pledged to ensure universal rights for Afghan women.
British women cabinet ministers have joined Cherie Blair, pledging a commitment to women's education in forthcoming "development aid" and a role for women in any transitional administration, expected to be established under the auspices of the UN.
They've used some of the truth about the Taliban to cover up a whole lot of lies about what the war is really about. Their hypocrisy is exposed by asking a few simple questions.
Where were these feminist posers when Western and fundamentalist powers were pouring in billions of dollars during the 1980s to bring about the downfall of a government committed to the education and empowerment of women?
Where were they in the 1990s when the overthrow of the secular government by the mujaheddin was followed by a decade of civil war, as first those that now make up the Northern Alliance took power, and then the Taliban. Taliban forces initially received some support from women because of their promise to protect women — a testament to the brutality of the Northern Alliance.
The Taliban imposed their well-known reign of terror without dissent from Washington or London, when it was expected they would suit imperialism's interests. Now the Taliban is out of favour, suddenly their crimes have been noticed. The anti-feminist Northern Alliance forces are returning to power, and Blair and Bush and their kind want to convince us that this is some big victory for women.
Women active in organising for their rights in Afghanistan say otherwise.
Shalhala, a 27-year-old organiser of the women's section of the underground Afghan Revolutionary Labour Organisation, was recently interviewed by Scottish Socialist Voice editor Alan McCombes.
According to McCombes, Shalhala "believes that the choice between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance is a choice between Frankenstein and Dracula. Her area was in the past a Northern Alliance stronghold before it was captured by the Taliban. Shalhala explains that the Northern Alliance were guilty of terrible brutality against women, kidnapping them regularly and raping them. 'They are extremely cruel. One young girl — Shukria was her name — was attacked in her home by Northern Alliance leaders. They tried to rape her but she jumped from her window to escape and was killed'."
Early signs indicate that women have been sceptical that the rise of the Northern Alliance will be accompanied by real freedoms. Many women still wear their burqa out of fear of atrocities. Announcements that women will be permitted to work, the opening of access to medical care and the presence of women journalists on TV are all welcome, but are widely seen by many as cosmetic adornments which the new rulers may just as readily remove when the spotlight of international scrutiny passes.
The Bonn negotiations on a transitional administration weren't a good start for women's participation. Despite intense lobbying, independent women's rights groups were excluded, while the women who did participate were part of the Northern Alliance or the former king's delegations.
Laura Bush and Cherie Blair's horror at Afghan women's treatment by the Taliban couldn't be more selective when they are silent on the almost identical treatment of women in countries like Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi regime uses whipping and beheading as forms of punishment. It is illegal for a woman to drive a car; a woman must get permission from a male relative to travel abroad; a woman may be arrested on suspicion of prostitution if she walks with a man who is neither her husband nor a close relative; and same-sex relations are illegal.
Karen Hughes, George Bush's senior political adviser, has made the motivations for this appeal to "sisterhood" transparent, saying "If, through this initiative, women who might not have previously wanted to support the president can see him in a different light, then I hope they will see his compassion and his sincere concern for human dignity."
BY KAMALA EMANUEL
[The author is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.]
From Green Left Weekly, December 5, 2001.
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