Taliban's first enemy: women

October 12, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - From time to time you see one cross the screen. A spectral heap of humanity covered head to toe. You've been told that there is a woman under the burka, but there is no way to know. There is, after all, no public face on the women of Afghanistan. Nor is there any public voice. Laughing out loud is illegal. Singing is a crime.

From the very beginning, when the Taliban victory was welcomed by some as a promise of stability, this was the prime target of their campaign against unbelievers, against modern life and against the "West."

The fundamental enemy of their fundamentalism took the female form.

The victims of their harshest internal terrorism were women, forbidden to work, banned from school, beaten for an exposed ankle, stoned for a lark. The female half of the population was placed under virtual house arrest, or if you prefer, slavery.

Now we see the Islamic fundamentalist attitudes toward women in new forms.

In the will that one terrorist left behind ordering that "women are to be neither present at the funeral nor appear themselves sometime later at my grave." In the promise that "martyrs" in this jihad will secure a place in heaven - with 72 virgins to serve them.

Is "misogyny" too weak a word? Does "patriarchy" - sprinkled so liberally in Western feminism - pale beside the real thing?

For well over a century, arguments about tradition and change have taken place over women's bodies and women's rights.

It has happened in Afghanistan ever since the 1920s, when the reformist Afghan King Amanullah called upon the queen to remove her veil before a meeting of tribal elders, helping unite a rebellion against him.

It has happened there since the 1980s, when educated Afghan women were demonized as Soviet stooges.

But it's not just Afghanistan and not just Islam that have seen women as the symbol of life spinning out of control. Lynn Freedman, a public health professor at Columbia, talks about a "family resemblance" between fundamentalisms. All of them.

If fundamentalism, she says, "can be seen as, in part, a reaction to a sense of dislocation and a sense that their own culture is under siege, often women become the symbol of that. Women out of control are a symbol of their own situation out of control."

Indeed, in every text and every tradition, from Baptist to Buddhist, we can pick and choose references to support women's equality or to prove their inferiority. "It's a misconception that fundamentalism is going back to some agreed-upon pristine tradition," says Ms. Freedman. Pick and choose we do.

Every religion - Islam included - has its own long history of women activists. At the same time, fundamentalist Christians designate the male as head of household and fundamentalist Jews ban women from the Wailing Wall.

Says human-rights activist Charlotte Bunch, "Each of the fundamentalisms has a way of wanting women to stay subordinate."

Right now there is, of course, nothing to rival the regime or the repression in Afghanistan. An Afghan women's rights group operating out of Pakistan puts it best on its Web site, www.rawa.org: "Thank you for visiting the homepage of the most oppressed women in the world." It is a sorry but accurate distinction.

So today, in what we call "the homeland," America is finally staking out women's rights as part of the moral high ground in the struggle against terrorism. But internationally, I am afraid, we still tiptoe around the subject of subjugation.

In the first shaky weeks of this war, we are making friends with the enemy of our enemy.

This Northern Alliance may allow its women to go to school and to shop in public and to ride in the back of a truck if they have permission.

But need it be said that these men are to the Taliban as the benign slaveholder is to the vicious slaveholder?

From the day that terrorist planes hit their targets, and Americans asked why, the president answered: They hate freedom. He has said more than once that we are in a struggle for freedom.

Now, catching a glimpse of the dehumanized shapes crossing the television screen, we know that freedom includes the women who form a mute and invisible backdrop to their own history.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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