All oppression of Muslim women must stop

November 21, 2001|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- It is hard to fathom how a part of the world that produced Cleopatra -- who perfumed the sails of her boat so that men would know she was coming and who ruled with elegant authority, signing one tax decree "Make it happen" -- could two millenniums later produce societies where women are swaddled breeders under house arrest.

When civilization rose in the East, it was scientific and sensual, embracing the possibilities and pleasures of life from mathematics to literature, art and fashion.

There have been many repressive regimes throughout history. But the Taliban were obsessively focused on denying gender, sexuality and the forces at the very gut of life.

When the barbarian puritans running Afghanistan began to scurry away last week, men raced to buy pin-ups of beautiful girls. And, in a moving tableau, some women unwrapped themselves, letting the sun shine on their faces as they smiled shyly and delightedly. A few dared to show a little ankle or put on high heels.

"Your head hurts and your eyes hurt from the limited vision," one young woman in Kabul told a reporter, discarding her despised burqa. "It was very difficult to walk without falling over." (Most have held off burning burqas because, as one woman put it, "They say the Taliban beat first and asked questions afterward. They say the Northern Alliance asks questions first and beats afterward.")

In a real version of Margaret Atwood's creepy The Handmaid's Tale, the Taliban reduced women to vessels designed to serve the needs and bolster the status of men.

"I agree that a kind of religion motivates the Taliban, but the religion in question, I'd say, is not Islam," Robert McElvaine, a history professor, wrote in the Washington Post. It is "insecure masculinity. These men are terrified of women."

Afghan warlords have long used castration to torture foes. The hijackers were haywire about women. Some draped towels over the prints of '20s bathing beauties in pantaloons in a Florida motel room; others indulged in lap dances, strip clubs and prostitutes, keeping busy until they got their bounty of 70 virgins.

Mohamed Atta's will had loopy, misogynistic instructions: "I don't want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean to come and say goodbye to me" and "I don't want any women to go to my grave."

The White House, suddenly shocked by 5-year-old Taliban excesses, began a campaign against their treatment of women. "Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish," Laura Bush said, taking over her husband's weekly radio address.

Bush aides say the campaign will try to influence the Northern Alliance to restore women's rights and press for women in the Afghan government. Of course, they also want to impress American women, who preferred Al Gore to Mr. Bush by 11 points. It's a freebie, an easy way to please feminists who got mad when the administration ended financing for international family planning groups that support abortion.

This belated promotion of women as a moderating, modernizing force in the Islamic world sounds hollow.

George Bush Sr. went to war to liberate Kuwait, yet America has not made a fuss over the fact that Kuwaiti women still can't vote or initiate divorce proceedings. We also turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's treating women like chattel. There are 5,000 Saudi princes, but where are the princesses?

The Saudi religious police, the Matawain, use sticks to make sure that women hide beneath their abayas, the long black cloaks.

Besides having to put up with polygamy, Saudi women cannot marry outside Islam, while men can. Or divorce without cause, as men can. Women also have to use separate banks and schools and obtain written permission from a male relative before traveling alone or going to a hospital. They must sit in the back seats of the cars they are not allowed to drive. (American military women stationed there are angry that they have to wear abayas and sit in the back seat when they leave the base.)

But the Bushes love that royal family and its oil. What does it matter if Saudi women can drive, as long as American women can keep driving their SUVs?

Millions of Muslim women are still considered property. The first lady might think about extending her campaign beyond Afghanistan.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.

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