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Beyond the Burqa: The Rights Women Need in Afghanistan are Basic Human Rights

13 December 2001

There was a moment in this war when the Bush administration appeared to care about nothing so much as women's liberation.

Out came First Lady, Laura Bush, to talk to the nation about the matter. Mrs. Bush became what her publicists cheered was "the first first lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address" by herself November 16, in which she denounced the "severe repression against women of Afghanistan."

Laura Bush's speech was coordinated with the release of a State Department report that condemned conditions for women and children under the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terror network.

"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," intoned Laura Bush. A few days later, she brought women's rights activists from groups like the Feminist Majority and Equality Now! along with Afghan women exiles to the White House for a photo opportunity and press conference.

Few were the media's details about just who was "liberating" Afghan women. Neither the first lady's speech nor the State Department report even mentioned the United States' allies' record on women's rights. Of the Northern Alliance leaders who were just then invading Kabul, most had a long record of misogyny.

General Rashid Dostum stands accused of raping, killing and looting around Kabul in 1992. His forces committed atrocities from 1992 to 1997 when he controlled the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. As Laura Bush spoke, Dostum was leading an assault on that city, assisted by U.S. bombing raids.

The Bush team's sudden excitement about presidential addresses and women's rights helped put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign. Now that UN sponsored talks in Bonn have come up with a plan for an interim government in Kabul that has two women in its cabinet, will the Bush team and their media sycophants live up to their professed commitment to women's liberation?

The Bushes got some credit when UN-sponsored talks in Bonn came up with a plan for an interim Afghan government that had two women in cabinet posts. There was little to no coverage of Afghan women's complaints that their representation should have been greater than 2 out of thirty.

And now here comes Bush's signature on the Afghan Relief Act. George W. signed it into law Wednesday, surrounded by "women in Muslim head coverings," and children in traditional Afghan clothes, reports AP. "The women and children of Afghanistan have suffered enough," said Bush. "This great nation will work hard to bring them hope and help." The crowd clapped and cheered.

But how seriously does Bush take women's relief? There was no money amount attached to Wednesday's bill. Nor does it adhere to the minimal demand of women's rights activists, that the giving of the aid be made conditional upon the participation of women in the granting process, and in the groups on the receiving end.

Women's rights advocates are returning this week from Brussels, fresh from an NGO-organized Afghan Women's Summit at which Afghan women from all over the world gathered to air their differences, hash out a common agenda, and begin to frame an agenda for moving their country forward.

The story they tell is quite different from the Bush family version of Women's Lib. Instead of superpower first ladies making pronouncements about wars of liberation, the women who helped organize the summit and have pledged to give the Afghan women the training they ask for, are offering grassroots know-how. Many of those involved have experience in other tough places Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, South Africa. Theirs is a bottom-up kind of narrative, quite different from the other kind.

Will it get comparable coverage? It's unlikely. U.S. media tend to prefer their historical epiphanies be delivered by celebrities. (The Afghan Women's Summit had Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler on board, which helps them no end.) Coverage of Afghanistan has singled out one totem of women's oppression: the burqa. The public has seen some, but far less, reporting on women's struggle for fundamental rights - the right to education, to healthcare, to personal safety - perhaps because of the U.S. Allies rotten record on granting women any of those.

The Afghan women who met in Brussels and the Afghan women who met with a delegation from Global Exchange in Pakistan last month, aren't talking about burqas. They're talking bricks and mortar. It's money and training they need, not sympathy. It turns out that money for development is another thing the U.S. media find boring. Easier to focus on the mysterious flip up, or down, of a veil.

These women are also talking about rights. Not just women's rights but other human rights, which are always intertwined. Women won't gain rights unless men do as well, and you can't have political rights without economic, social and sexual rights.

A seat at the table of government is a great step forward. Afghanistan's interim government has a Department of Women's Affairs. (That's a great idea. If they have one in Afghanistan, can we in the United States have one here?) But political representation is of minimal value to the Afghan women bombed in her bedroom, or starving for lack of access to food and water, in a land where the roads, the dams, and the electricity plants have been devastated, and the fields are littered with cluster bombs.

Human rights are indivisible. Now let's hear Laura Bush say that.

Laura Flanders.
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