White House pushes for Afghan women's rights

Bush faces pressure to ensure they have say in new government

War On Terrorism : The Nation

November 16, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With women's rights advocates calling on President Bush to ensure that any new government in Afghanistan restores and guarantees the rights of women, the White House is embarking on a new offensive to highlight the repressive treatment of women by the crumbling Taliban regime.

In remarks to schoolchildren in Crawford, Texas, yesterday, Bush spoke of his "keen desire to free the women of Afghanistan" and called the Taliban "the most repressive, backward group of people we have seen on the face of the Earth in a long period of time, including and particularly how they treat women."

In the next few days, the administration will increase its condemnation of that treatment, with Laura Bush delivering tomorrow's presidential radio address on the subject.

In the first radio address delivered solely by a first lady, according to the White House, Mrs. Bush is to say that the Taliban's vision of women does not reflect Islam and the views and practices of many Islamic nations where women enjoy important freedoms.

At the same time, the State Department is to issue a report on the Taliban focusing on the specific freedoms women held before the regime took over in 1996 and how the rulers systematically eliminated those freedoms.

Vice President Dick Cheney has added his voice, telling a BBC interviewer yesterday that women had been "seriously mistreated and abused" by the Taliban.

Bush staff to have briefings

And some of the most visible female faces of the Bush administration - presidential counselor Karen Hughes, vice presidential counselor Mary Matalin and Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke - will be holding briefings on the topic in the next days.

"Al-Qaida and the Taliban's oppression of women reflect the vision of society they want to export to the world," said James Wilkinson, deputy White House communications director. "It's important the world knows this is their vision."

This new push by the White House comes as women's rights groups are calling on Bush to demonstrate that his outrage is more than rhetoric designed to rally support for U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers, women's groups and human rights advocates are pressing the administration to ensure that the broad-based post-Taliban government it seeks will not only protect and guarantee the rights of women, but also include women.

"This is the time to move," says Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who has introduced a resolution to support Afghan women's groups and include women in any new government. "It's not enough to point to the actions of the Taliban with alarm if you don't try to do something about it. This is the time to cover your words with actions."

This week, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas sent a letter to Bush imploring him to "personally advocate" for the inclusion of Afghan women in planning the reconstruction of a post-Taliban nation and also pressed their case with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Asked whether the president would insist that any new government promote and secure women's rights and include women as its leaders, Wilkinson said: "Clearly, once the Taliban are gone, Afghanistan will need a government that protects the basic human rights of all its citizens, including women and children. The streets today are filled with women celebrating their new freedoms, freedoms they had before the Taliban and freedoms they will have again once the Taliban are gone."

The restoration of the basic rights women enjoyed before the Taliban took control in 1996 - the right to work, go to school, seek health care, even leave the house or wear clothing of their choice - is an easy sell in the United States and other Western nations.

But in the effort to topple Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, the United States is allied with Muslim nations and other Afghan factions with varying records and views on women's rights.

In much of the Muslim world, women have broken taboos and have risen to top leadership positions, such as former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Turkey, the president of Indonesia and the prime minister of Bangladesh. But some Muslim governments and Islamic sects cling to restrictive codes of varying degrees. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women are not allowed to drive or vote.

The record of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the U.S. ally that has ousted the Taliban in Kabul and other northern towns, is one of oppression of women and rape while it occupied the Afghan capital in 1992.

Fears of being overlooked

Some women's groups are concerned that, in talks with Afghanistan's tribal leaders and neighboring nations, the issue of women's rights and participation in government could be set aside or bargained away if it appears too controversial, volatile or divisive.

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