To defeat terrorists, try listening to feminists

August 03, 2004|By Barbara Ehrenreich

NEW YORK - The Democrats couldn't be more butch if they took to wearing codpieces. Every daily convention theme contained the words "strength" or "strong," and even Hillary Rodham Clinton was relegated to the role of wife.

The idea, according to the pundits, is that with more than half of the voters still favoring President Bush as the guy to beat Osama bin Laden, John Kerry needs to show that he's macho enough to whup the terrorists. Of course, everyone knows that the macho approach is notably less effective than pixie dust - otherwise, we wouldn't be holding our political conventions under total lockdowns.

Well, I've been reading bin Ladin - Carmen, that is, not her brother-in-law Osama (she spells the last name with an i) - and I'd like to present a brand-new approach to terrorism, one that turns out to be a lot more consistent with traditional Democratic values.

First, let's stop calling the enemy "terrorism," which is like saying we're fighting "bombings." Terrorism is only a method; the enemy is an extremist Islamic insurgency whose appeal lies in its claim to represent the Muslim masses against a bullying superpower.

But as Carmen bin Ladin urgently reminds us in her book Inside the Kingdom, one glaring moral flaw in this insurgency, quite apart from its methods, is that it aims to push one-half of those masses down to a status only slightly above that of domestic animals. While Osama was getting pumped up for jihad, Carmen was getting up her nerve to walk across the street in Jeddah fully veiled but unescorted by a male - something that is illegal for a woman in Saudi Arabia. Eventually she left the kingdom and got a divorce because she didn't want her daughters to grow up in a place where women are kept "locked in and breeding."

So here in one word is my new counterterrorism strategy for Mr. Kerry: feminism. Or, if that's too incendiary, try the phrase "human rights for women." I don't mean just a few opportunistic references to women, like those that accompanied the war on the Taliban and were quietly dropped by the Bush administration when that war was abandoned and Afghan women were locked back into their burqas. I'm talking about a sustained and serious effort.

So, Mr. Kerry, announce plans to pour dollars into girls' education in places such as Pakistan, where the high-end estimate for female literacy is 26 percent, and scholarships for women seeking higher education in nations that typically discourage it. (Secular education for the boys wouldn't hurt, either.) Expand the grounds for asylum to all women fleeing gender totalitarianism, wherever it springs up. Reverse the Bush policies on global family planning, which condemn 78,000 women yearly to death in makeshift abortions. Lead the global battle against the traffic in women.

I'm not expecting these measures alone to incite a feminist insurgency within the Islamist one. Carmen bin Ladin found her rich Saudi sisters-in-law sunk in bovine passivity, and some of the more spirited young women in the Muslim world have been adopting the head scarf as a gesture of defiance toward American imperialism. We're going to need a thorough foreign policy makeover - from Afghanistan to Israel - before we have the credibility to stand up for anyone's human rights. You can't play the gender card with dirty hands.

If Mr. Kerry were to embrace a feminist strategy against the insurgency, he'd have to start by addressing our own dismal record on women's rights. He'd be pushing for the immediate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been ratified by 169 countries but remains stalled in the Senate. He'd be threatening to break off relations with Saudi Arabia until it acknowledges the humanity of women. And he'd be thundering about the shortage of women in Congress, an internationally embarrassing 14 percent.

In my dreams, you say, and you're probably right. Maybe Mr. Kerry will surprise me, but it looks as if the Democrats are too frightened of being labeled "girlie men" by the party of Arnold Schwarzenegger to do what has to be done. If you want to beat Osama, you've got to start by listening to Carmen.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The New York Times.

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