Feminists tried to warn us, but we weren't listening to her

October 07, 2001|By SUSAN REIMER

Eleanor Smeal was the president of the National Organization for Women during my formative years as a feminist, and for women my age she is iconic.

But I must confess that when she raised the banner of her Feminist Majority Foundation in defense of oppressed women of Afghanistan, I rolled my eyes the way one might at an eccentric aunt who is on the rant again.

Did feminists really have to reach halfway around the world and into the core of an unknown culture to find a cause? Wasn't there plenty to be done in our own back yard?

To my shame and horror, the events of Sept. 11 have validated the predictions of feminism's Cassandra.

Smeal has been saying since 1996 that "women are the canaries in the coal mine of the Middle East."

Tragedy of immense proportion has proved her assertion - repeated and repeatedly ignored - that the brutal repression of women, the civilizing force in a society, is the first symptom of a dangerous movement that will never be content within its own borders.

"We knew it was bad and we knew it was spreading," Smeal says now. "I feel like we failed to make the case. We tried, and we helped a little. I guess it takes something like this for people to realize how small the world really is."

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the repression of women has been imposed at gunpoint.

Afghan women - not simply believers in Islam - are forbidden to work, to go to school or to leave the house unless accompanied by a close male relative. The windows of their houses are painted black, and they are covered from head to toe in shrouds.

They cannot be treated by male doctors, and since women doctors and nurses are not permitted to work, women and girl children are dying from treatable illnesses. An Afghan woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes, relief workers estimate.

Women who violate these rules are beaten or executed. And this is spreading to Pakistan, Turkey and Algiers -where women were once 50 percent of the work force and even heads of state.

Writing in The New Republic magazine last week, Harvard professor David Landes and Boston College professor Richard Landes endorse Smeal's point that women are not simply collateral damage in a religious war. It is not about the West's support of Israel, they contend, it is about the West's liberation of women." ... these are not mere cultural differences. They are evidence of Islam's purity and the West's corruption, and part of an apocalyptic struggle for universal salvation through Muslim domination. The stakes are cosmic, ultimate; and the duty of all Muslims is not only to reject the adversary but also to destroy him," they wrote.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Feminist Majority is not content to say "I told you so." Smeal and Mavis Leno, wife of the Tonight Show host and leader of petition drives and fund-raising on behalf of Afghan women, have suddenly been given a seat at the table. Smeal is determined to be there when the gun smoke has cleared.

"The fate of Afghan women is not a side issue," says Smeal, to be negotiated away or neglected when, and if, the work of rooting out terrorism is done.

She believes only a democratically elected government with full rights and participation for women can stabilize that region of the world.

"It is not simply a cultural issue. No culture can survive when half of its people are under house arrest," she says.

"No culture can survive when sunlight does not fall on half of its people."

For more information, call 1-888-wewomen or go to www.feminist.org or www.helpafghanwomen.com.

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