Thoughts on Liberation While Seeing Pictures of Afghan Women Without Burkhas

By Mary Lou Greenberg

Revolutionary Worker #1140, February 24, 2002, posted at

I never thought I'd hear it. But there was George W. Bush himself, talking about how the U.S. had liberated Afghan women! Was this the same man whose administration gave a $43 million aid package to the Taliban just four months before September 11? The same man who even today protects his strategic allies in Saudi Arabia-a regime where backward practices and laws virtually identical to those of the Taliban still hold sway?

And was this the man who, in one of his first acts as president, denied funding to health clinics and agencies around the world if they so much as mentioned abortion? The man who thereby denied millions of women the right to control their own reproduction and their own lives, and directly contributed to the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of women around the world every year by pregnancy - and childbirth-related causes?

Let me get this straight. On the one hand, George Bush pals around with right-wing Christian fascist patriarchs who believe that women's role in society should be serving (and servicing) men, incubating babies, and holding the family together. Patriarchs who would and, when they have the chance, do enforce this with coercion, brutality and terror. And now, suddenly, this same George Bush claims to have liberated women from right-wing Muslim feudal patriarchs whose regime actually accomplished what his Bible-thumping pals still only dream about.

The hypocrisy is enough to make you sick.

"But hypocrisy isn't the issue," some say-including some women's rights advocates who justify the U.S. war against Afghanistan. Look at the "practical effects," they say; look at those news photos of women's smiling faces, faces seen in public for the first time since the Taliban came to power and brutally forced women to cover themselves head to toe in burkhas whenever they stepped outside their home. And look at the young women, eager and laughing, lining up to enroll in university classes now that the Taliban are gone.

I, too, smiled to see those pictures. I could feel the exhilaration of the women who tore off the burkha and showed their faces-and their urgent desire for emancipation from the crushing oppression they have suffered.

But is the war bringing liberation-for real? And is it really true that imperialist hypocrisy "isn't the issue"?

In fact, the question of hypocrisy really is to the point. The hypocrisy involved does tell you something about how the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth view women. More important, it tells you how much they can be trusted with women's lives-which is, not at all. The only principle that George Bush and the other rulers of the U.S. have is "empire first," and in their world this principle will always trump the rights of women. During the 1980s and 1990s, it served their empire to support forces in Afghanistan who threw acid in the faces of women college students. In the mid-1990s, it served their interests, and the interests of their allies in Pakistan, to support the rise to power of the Taliban. Consistently it served their interests to support forces in Afghanistan who attacked and murdered anyone who advocated a program of liberation for women. And today it serves their interests to drape themselves in the banner of women's equality-to win support for their goals of dominating the countries of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Like I said earlier-it's enough to make you nauseous.

"Practical Results"

But let's take up the challenge of those feminists who support Bush and leave aside the question of hypocrisy; let's look-really look-at the "practical effects" of the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Let's look at the heartbreaking pictures of the children, murdered and maimed by U.S. bombs. Let's look at the photos of the suffocating disease-ridden refugee camps and the lines of women, men and children hoping to get enough food to survive another day. Let's listen to the voices of progressive and revolutionary women and men from Afghanistan and all of South Asia-who have condemned this invasion.

Let's look as well at the photos of weeping Palestinian women squatting on the rubble of what had once been their homes, bulldozed into ruins by vengeful Zionist occupiers who have been emboldened by the U.S. "war on terrorism." Let us also glance to the border of India and Pakistan, where troops stand at the ready for war, also in the name of "defeating terrorism." Let's do all this, and as we do let's keep in mind that Afghanistan is only the "first theater," as Bush called it, of a war that he projects to last at least a generation and encompass most of the world.

These are the very "practical" results of U.S. imperialism running amok in the world.

And let's look at the real situation of women now that the Taliban no longer rules. Before the fall of the Taliban there were many pictures in the U.S. press of women in burkhas begging on the streets for food to feed themselves and their children. Yes, perhaps now women in the cities can beg with their faces uncovered-but wouldn't it be better not to have to beg at all!

And the reality is that the burkhas are far from off. For one thing, and progressive Afghani women have pointed this out, the burkhas which both symbolize and enforce the subjugation of Afghan women are not a recent invention of the Taliban. Taliban rule brought extreme nightmarish oppression for women. But the burkhas are bound up with the centuries-old oppressive feudal structure in rural Afghanistan, where the overwhelming majority of women live under the rule of warlords and patriarchs-the very warlords and patriarchs now being armed and relied upon by the new, made-in-USA regime. Indeed, the very pillar of this new regime is none other than the Northern Alliance, a group of thugs whose record of mass rape against women was so outrageous that the Taliban themselves rode to power as the avengers, if not the liberators, of women!

What about the future of these women? Western commentators have remarked how good it will be when Afghanistan is "opened up" and women are able to work in the factories of Western corporations-they will only need pennies a day, said Nicholas Kristoff in The New York Times, and that means incentives for industry as well as food for workers! Ah, yes, liberation to make the goods that bring riches for a few and that will barely keep hunger from the door of the new wage slaves. Another very "practical" effect of U.S. victory.

But the commentators dare not-at least now-speak of the other ways that imperialism "opens up" women of the oppressed nations. No, for that we have to look to Thailand, where impoverished children are sold into prostitution for the perverted "pleasure" of foreign businessmen; or Okinawa, where we keep hearing of U.S. marines raping Okinawan teenagers; or the entire former "east bloc," where women literally by the millions have been forced into sexual slavery in the bars and brothels of Western Europe and North America. This too, no doubt, will be one of the "practical results" of the U.S. victory in Afghanistan.

Who To Rely On?

"Yes, but," the new-found champions of the U.S. military say, "is not today's situation, even with all the problems and inequities, better for Afghan women than before?" U.S. imperialism found it convenient to play the "woman card" as one way to try to justify its war. And for now, and perhaps for as long as it is in imperialism's interest to do so, this may loosen some of the most terrible restrictions of the Taliban for some sections of women-mainly urban women of educated, professional families. But so long as U.S. imperialism calls the shots as it does in Afghanistan, these chains can again be tightened to their full, almost unbearable pressure. As long as regimes that rest on oppressive relations remain in power, the new freedoms-limited as they are-can be taken back.

In defending women's clinics from Christian fascists in this country, I've argued that it's folly-and very dangerous-to rely on government laws and law enforcement to protect our right to abortion. The laws protecting abortion rights were passed in the face of an upsurge and mass movement of rebellious women. Now, when it is no longer politically expedient for the ruling class to defend those rights, we see them carved away. Yet many-unfortunately, most-people in the women's movement still think that we have to rely on the politicians and police to protect those rights. And so we have the "practical result" of that notion before us today: our rights whittled back year after year; our abortion providers bombed and murdered (a bit of "terrorism" that doesn't seem to bother George W. Bush); and our movement on the defensive before a bunch of troglodytes. I've argued, and I'll continue to argue, that we need to rely on ourselves-we need to take matters into our own hands-if we are to win and defend anything at all, and certainly if we are to emancipate women altogether!

Similarly, the problem in Afghanistan is NOT that the U.S. pulled out in the early '90s and somehow some bad people snuck into power and began to oppress women. (There were bad people, but they came into power riding U.S. tanks and spending American dollars.) Nor is the solution to bring the U.S. yet more deeply or permanently into Afghanistan.

The problem is that as yet there has not been a force to emerge in Afghanistan with sufficient strength to arm the women of Afghanistan to fight for their own emancipation as part of fighting for the liberation of their society from all the constraints of imperialism. The bright spot for Afghanistan is that there are people and political forces who are working in just that direction and if we truly value the lives and initiative of women, we should support those political forces...and not the imperialists with whom they will surely come into conflict.

"Results" That Serve Liberation, Not Oppression

Rather than pinning our hopes and wasting our energies on futile, degrading appeals to the ruling class, everyone who wants to see women-and the whole world-free needs to build concrete, practical resistance to what the U.S. is doing-the horrors the U.S. is claiming to do in our name. We need to support the struggles of progressive and, especially, revolutionary forces throughout the world against feudalism, imperialism and all reaction. If we do not do this, if we do not build a powerful movement so strong that it can't be hidden from the people of the world, then we will actually strengthen the hand of the fundamentalists of whatever stripe who present themselves as the only "alternative" to U.S. oppression and domination.

At this time especially when the U.S. is launching, in their own words, a "war year," to support or applaud what the U.S. has done (even if "just a little bit") strengthens the U.S. in its efforts to dominate the planet. And strengthening the U.S. makes it more difficult for our sisters-as well as brothers-in Afghanistan and in every country to resist and free themselves. What is needed is firm repudiation of and massive opposition to the whole hideous machine that is being turned on the people of the world.

As RCP Chairman Bob Avakian recently wrote about the need for a powerful anti-war movement: "Imagine the inspiration it will provide and the potential realignment it will contribute to-with ordinary people worldwide finding common cause against the oppressors and bullies of the world, first and above all the rulers of America-who, it will be more and more clear, do not speak and act in the interest, or in the name of large, and growing, numbers of American people themselves..."

We cannot do less.

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