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Media ignores the brutal record of the Northern Alliance
Is the U.S. fighting for women's liberation?

December 7, 2001 | Page 8

MANY VOICES--from pro-war Republicans to mainstream feminists--are applauding the U.S. war in Afghanistan for supposedly putting an end to the horrible conditions that women suffered under the Taliban government. But have Afghan women been liberated?

ELIZABETH SCHULTE explains why Washington's rhetoric about freeing women from oppression is a cover for an unjust and barbaric war.

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"THE SCENES of joy in the streets of Kabul evoke nothing less than the images of Paris liberated from the Nazis. Women taking to the streets to bask in the Afghan sun, free at last to show their faces. Children gathering to fly kites, a once forbidden pastime. Old people dancing to music, banned for many years. The liberation of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban is a watershed event that could reverberate for years. The warm embrace by ordinary people of the freedom to do ordinary things is a major victory for Western humanist values. This victory of values, in the long run, may count for far more than the hunt for Osama bin Laden."

THIS IS how Business Week magazine--its front cover featuring an unveiled Afghan woman beneath the word "Liberation"-- described the fall of the Taliban government last month.

They must not have asked Abdul Abdullah for his opinion. Abdul's cousin Aziz Khan and his wife Fatma fled their home near Herat when fighting erupted between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces. On their way toward the Iranian border, Khan and his wife were stopped with 20 other families at a checkpoint set up by anti-Taliban warlords. The men were herded into the hills and shot. The women were taken away.

Abdul doesn't know Fatma's fate. But given the appalling record of rape among Northern Alliance soldiers, he can guess. "I know they let most of the women go, but they kept the young and pretty ones," he told a reporter.

Stories like these expose the lie that Afghans have been "liberated" by the U.S. government's brutal new allies.

Western news reports regularly feature pictures of women appearing in public without a veil. "What the photos do not show is the women putting [the veils] back on again moments later," one reporter for Britain's Guardian wrote. "For the fact remains that the Alliance feels the same way about women as the Taliban did--they are chattel, to be tolerated but kept out of real life."

In fact, the Observer newspaper reported that the Taliban's retreat from Kabul had unleashed a wave of so-called "honor crimes"--in which relatives kill or maim young men and women for violating the strict Islamic code governing relationships.

This should be no surprise. The warlords of the Northern Alliance have a miserable record of human rights abuses, especially against women.

One has only to ask Afghan women who remember when the warlords reigned before the Taliban came to power in 1996. "They're just as bad as the Taliban, and in some ways worse," explained Tahmeena Fayral, of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, during a recent U.S. speaking tour. "They looted museums and hospitals and schools, and sold what they found. They raped women and even children. They committed the worst crimes in Afghan history."

The U.S. government didn't let these well-established facts get in the way of backing the Northern Alliance--just as it ignored the Taliban's vicious repression of women when it was courting the regime in the mid-1990s.

And any talk about the U.S. going to war for women's liberation will come as a surprise to women in Saudi Arabia, which imposes Taliban-style restrictions as well.

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THE U.S. media's interest in what life is like for Afghan women is sudden. Under the hard-line version of Islam followed by both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance warlords, women must dress in the head-to-toe shroud of the burqa, for fear of public beating or death.

They aren't allowed to leave home unaccompanied by their husbands or other male family members and are banned from school and work. And underlying this is the grinding poverty that cripples the entire population of Afghanistan.

The many widows in a country brutalized by 23 years of war often resort to begging or prostitution to survive. Some 1,700 out of 100,000 Afghan women die during childbirth--the highest rate in the world. Life expectancy for women is about 45 years.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International have tried for years to get the word out about the plight of Afghan women, but the mainstream media showed no interest. Now, because of Bush's war, the issue is splashed across the cover of Time magazine.

Even Laura Bush got into the act. "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes," she said in her own radio address last week. "They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment…The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

No one should forget who spoke these fine-sounding words. They should be seen for what they are--a cynical rationalization for a U.S. war that has already murdered thousands of civilians, many of them women.

That's why it's infuriating to see many liberals, and even radicals, backing Bush's campaign--in the name of liberating women. For example, the liberal group Feminist Majority has asked members to circulate a petition thanking Bush and his administration for its commitment to restoring the rights of Afghan women. "We have real momentum now in the drive to restore the rights of women," Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal told Congress last week.

Are they talking about the same administration that, immediately on taking power last January, imposed a gag order on international family planning organizations from mentioning the word "abortion"--in one stroke of the pen relegating millions of women to poverty?

And a few radicals are having second thoughts. Susan George, vice president of the French-based global justice group ATTAC, said recently that, though she opposed the U.S. bombing campaign, the media pictures of women celebrating in Kabul made her question her stand.

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SHE SHOULD remember what she knows full well about the U.S. government's long record of promoting injustice around the globe.

The U.S. military's own wartime abuses of women are well documented. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers earned the title of "double veterans" when they raped civilian women before murdering them. Accounts of the 1968 My Lai massacre describe an orgy of gang rape--followed by soldiers mowing down at least 400 people, most of them women and children.

The U.S. military's culture of brutality against women is alive and well today, with several recent cases of U.S. soldiers stationed in Okinawa, Japan, raping local teenagers. And this isn't to mention the rapes of women in the U.S. military by fellow soldiers.

Conditions for Afghan women are far worse than for women in the U.S. But to hold up the U.S. government--especially under the Bush administration--as a champion of women's rights is offensive.

Bush has the nerve denounce Islamic "fanatics" even after he appointed anti-abortion fanatics John Ashcroft as attorney general and Tommy Thompson as head of Health and Human Services. And when Bush needed advice about life-saving stem cell research, he turned to anti-woman evangelist Billy Graham for guidance.

No one who wants Afghan women to achieve real freedom should support the U.S. government's war. The decades-long intervention by the U.S. and other Western powers is to blame for the grinding poverty of Afghanistan and the vicious rule of tyrants and warlords--the perfect breeding ground for the cruel oppression of women.

They haven't suddenly become interested in liberation now. We have to expose the real aims of this U.S. war for "liberation"--before they "liberate" other countries.

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