There was a moment in the war against Afghanistan 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. On November 16, she became what her publicists cheered was "the first first lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address" when 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," declared 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.
"Hope Blooms for Afghan Women" was the headline over a column by op-ed editor Rhonda Chriss Lokeman of the Kansas City Star (12/9/01), which called Mrs. Bush "one part Jackie 0, two parts Rosalyn Carter." 'The first lady has moved beyond 'comforter in chief to become a forceful speaker on issues involving women and children," the Fort Worth Star Telegram editorialized (12/2/01.)
Sisterhood is powerful! Conservative pundits who'd railed against feminism for years were suddenly very taken with the notion that women should stand up for their sisters abroad. "Power to the (Female) People!" wagged the conservative Washington Times' Suzanne Fields(12/3/01).
Who's doing the "liberating"?
The media's details were dim, however, about just who was "liberating" Afghan women. Neither the first lady's speech nor the State Department report even mentioned the U.S.'s allies' record on women's rights. Most of the Northern Alliance leaders who were just then invading Kabul 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-e-Sharif—the city he was retaking, with the aid of U.S. bombing raids, at the time of Laura Bush's speech (AP, 10/25/01). The Bush team's sudden excitement about presidential addresses and women's rights, in fact, helped put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign.
Some critics tried to remind people of the Alliance's history, but they tended to get dismissed or cajoled to be more optimistic. "There are even more documented cases of women raped by members of the Northern Alliance than there are by the Taliban," Alex Arriago, director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, told the press after the first lady's address. His comments sank like a stone.
On television, CNN's Christiane Amanpour was one of several reporters in Kabul after the rout of the Taliban's forces there. At the end of a long enthusiastic report (CNN International, 11/20/11) , she mentioned the doubts that left many "liberated" women nervous: "There are some whose hope is still tinged with fear that they may not have seen the last of the Taliban." No other possible fears seem to have occurred to the star correspondent.
In the same program, when Saha Saba of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) repeated that "people are very worried," host Zain Verjee chastised her guest: "You have harshly criticized the Northern Alliance, but I just want to make a distinction here. Within the Northern Alliance there is a liberal wing...and there's a religious fundamental wing.....Today it's the liberal wing that's running the show."
Viewers who had any familiarity with the facts must have been boggled. At that very moment, the forces of Burhanuddin Rabbani were entering Kabul. It was Rabbani who first declared women banned from schools in Afghanistan. His former military commander, the much-celebrated Ahmad Shah Massoud, was held responsible by human rights groups for atrocities, including mass rapes, in Kabul in 1995 (AP, 10/25/01).
According to the British Guardian (11/30/01), German television showed Alliance soldiers beating up women, but footage like that never played in the U.S., and investigative reporting from the field was strictly Pentagon-approved and sanitized.
More than 50 percent
Laura Bush's speech came at a critical moment. The U.S. assault was at its climax and talks to plan for a future government were being rushed to start. Talk about women helped cast a positive light on the U.S./U.K. action, and at the same time send a message to the Alliance leaders that they were not unaccountable, in charge, in Kabul. Not yet.
As it turned out, the U.N.–sponsored talks did include women: three delegates representing different factions, and several more unofficial observers. Two women ended up in cabinet posts in the interim Afghan government.
Even feminist columnists were warily hopeful. "I actually found myself not wanting to believe the Democratic Party's accusation that this was a cynical attempt to appeal to women," wrote Katha Pollitt (The Nation, 12/17/01). "What a difference a war makes," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle's Ruth Rosen (12/3/01).
Harder to hear were the demands of Afghan women themselves. "Women make up more than 50 percent of the population of Afghanistan, they were demanding at least 50 percent of seats in the interim government," said Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, who at the time was visiting Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Jalalabad (Working Assets Radio, 12/12/01). "They were saying—if not 50 percent, then give us 40 or 30 or 10 percent; but not two out of 30."
Shortly after the U.N. talks in Bonn, Afghan women held their own independent meeting. The Afghan Women's Summit took place in Brussels on December 4-5, and produced a proclamation that faces an uphill battle getting anything comparable to the media coverage dedicated to the first lady's first presidential speech. For one thing, in their proclamation, the 40 leaders demanded equal rights for women, including the right to vote and equal pay, and government according to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the U.N. Convention Against Torture and other international treaties the U.S. has itself refused to ratify (www.peacewomen.org).
U.S. media tend to prefer celebrity actors to starless movements. TV, in particular, prizes celebs and photogenic, uncomplicated images of "liberation." In Afghanistan, one symbol rose above all others: the burqa. From BusinessWeek to Fox News to Time, the blue burqa became the overarching totem of women's oppression. Islamic women who choose to cover themselves in other parts of the world, including the U.S., were hard to find, but pictures of women with and without the traditional head-to-toe covering that the Taliban had made mandatory were everywhere, as if the freedom to show one's face in public were the one freedom that counts.
Time ("About Face for Afghan Women," 11/25/01) did run an in- depth report about the many obstacles facing women: "Afghan society is tribal and conservative," reported the newsweekly, and women's health and education have been set back by decades of anti-woman rule and war. Reporting on the burqa, however, far outnumbered reports on women's struggle for fundamental rights—the right to education, to health, to personal safety—perhaps because of the U.S. allies' rotten record on granting women any of those.
A shortage of syndicated feminists
To their credit, most feminist-leaning columnists wrote well about the so- called "liberation" of Kabul: from Maureen Dowd's "Afghan Women Need U.S. Help" (New York Times, 11/29/01) to Mary McGrory's "Afghan Women Ready to be Heard" (Washington Post, 12/04/01). Marie Cocco, a columnist for Newsday (12/6/01), put the issue plainly: "We're still talking about Burgas. They're talking bricks and mortar." Ellen Goodman, in "From Burgas to Abayas" (Washington Post, 10/8/01), addressed the hypocrisy of the U.S. position: against gender discrimination by the Taliban, but supportive of it as practiced by U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia.
The list of syndicated feminist-leaners, though, is short. That directly affects the chances of such views getting influential TV play. Women of any political stripe represented less than 11 percent of guests on the five major network Sunday opinion shows in 2001,the White House Project, an initiative of the Ms. Foundation, revealed in December (www.msfoundation.org). That proportion dropped below 7 percent after September 11, despite the much ballyhooed presence of women in high places in the Bush administration: Condoleeza Rice and Karen Hughes, to name but two.
And the distance from op-ed page to the newsroom is long. It's often hard for issues and questions raised by columnists to infiltrate mainstream news.
For example, when George W. Bush signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001, reporters mostly failed to assess his Act in light of what women's rights activists had to say. "Where's the money?" asked Medea Benjamin (Working Assets Radio, 12/12/01), noting that Bush's act had no money figure attached to it. "Afghan women aren't liberated. They're destitute. The U.S. spent $1 billion a month on bombing; why won't he tell us what we're going to spend on building schools and hospitals?"
Bush's Relief Act claimed to "target" aid to women's groups. Just days before, the Afghan Women's Summit organizers had released a demand that no aid be granted without the participation of women in decision making, and without a guarantee that women's NGOs be among the participants. "Women in Muslim head coverings, small children in traditional Afghan garb," and women in Congress who'd championed the law "crowded around the president as he put his signature to the bill," reported AP (12/12/01). No word about the failure of the president to respond to the clear demands of the very people he was pledging his administration to help.
The shape of the table
Washington Post reporter Jennifer Frey wrote an excellent feature on a U.S.- based Afghan woman activist, "Thinking Outside the Burqa" (11/30/01). But female experts—as opposed to female victims—and international women's organizations with experience in peace and development issues were generally given short shrift in news.
The Center for Strategic Initiatives of Women (a European- and U.S.-financed group in Washington, D.C.) is one example.
CSIW knows what it takes to "liberate" and empower women in a warlord- and proxy war—ravaged land. Along with others, CSIW pioneered a process of training and technical assistance in Somalia with very real results-25 women now sit in the Somali Parliament. As of early December, Hibaaq Ossman of CSIW says she has yet to receive a reporter's call for any of the many articles about rebuilding and liberating women postwar.
Jessica Neuwirth, the executive director of Equality Now!, was stunned when she found herself invited to participate in the White House press conference shortly after Laura Bush's radio address. But she went anyway: "The administration may have opened the door for bad reasons," she said afterwards, "but now is our opportunity to kick it down."
"The issue isn't letting women to the table, it's reshaping the table," Neuwirth told the activist group New Yorkers Say No To War. The same could be said of media coverage. It's not about inserting women into the story, but shifting the way the story's told.
The Bush administration knew how to prioritize women when they needed to, and U.S. media knew how to help. Savvy media coverage henceforth could turn a Republican ruse into a real gain for women—and men, too—but it will require reporters, editors and producers to do some atypical work.
Laura Flanders, a former FAIR staffer, is the host of Working Assets Radio on KALW in San Francisco (www.workingassets.com/radio).