November 21, 2001—With bombs still dropping from US war planes, a delegation of American women left the U.S. the other day, bound for Afghanistan. The goal of the mission: help ensure that Afghan women are represented in the country's new post-Taliban government.
The delegation from San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange (www. globalexchange.org) will meet with representatives of various Afghan women's groups and international development agencies, and visit refugee camps. The organization, which spearheaded successful campaigns to pressure Nike and the Gap to improve their abusive labor and environmental practices, will take the concerns of Afghan women directly to the Bush administration and Congress, and lobby aggressively.
Medea Benjamin, founder of Global Exchange and leader of the delegation, said in a brief interview on CNN (the only mainstream media coverage of this first-of-its-kind mission so far), "Afghan women have not only been the most oppressed, they have also been at the forefront of fighting the Taliban clandestinely and at great risk to their lives—and they should play key roles in the new government." Benjamin, who is working closely with women's groups such as RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), is well aware that she faces a challenge.
While much of the world gloats over the "victory" of the U.S. and the Northern Alliance, the urgent concerns of the Afghan women remain largely unheard. While the Bush administration and its allies have rushed to organize meetings to carve out a new Afghan government, Afghan women have been shut out of the process. Despite calls for participation from numerous Afghan women's groups, a recent summit in Peshawar included 1,200 men and not one woman.
First Lady Laura Bush has bandwagon-jumped on the Afghan women's cause in the most paternalistic and one-sided fashion. She is simpering for "help," but not empowerment, for Afghan women. She has denounced Taliban crimes against women, while completely ignoring the fact that the "victorious" pro-U.S. Northern Alliance is no less sadistic a bunch of rapists, torturers and butchers that Afghan women fear equally. Secretary of State Colin Powell has offered lip service to representation for Afghan women, but has offered no place for women at the bargaining table.
RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, rawa.fancymarketing.net/index.html), has consistently maintained that any regime led by brutal elements of the former Mujahadeen—Taliban and Northern Alliance—and any government shoehorned into place by an opportunistic United States is unacceptable. Indeed, Afghanistan appears to be on the verge of a new period of internal chaos and women are fleeing Kabul. In a recent statement critical of the "Bush victory," RAWA said:
"Although the Northern Alliance has learned how to pose sometimes before the West as 'democratic' and even a supporter of women's rights, in fact they have not at all changed, as a leopard cannot change its spots. RAWA has already documented heinous crimes of the Northern Alliance. Time is running out. RAWA on its own part appeals to the UN and world community as a whole to pay urgent and considerable heed to the recent developments in our ill-fated Afghanistan before it is too late. The UN should withdraw its recognition to the so-called Islamic government headed by Rabbani and help the establishment of a broad-based government based on the democratic values."
If the Bush Administation remains true to its "values," it will do what it takes to muscle into place a compliant (pro-western, pro-oil business), and undemocratic Afghan regime that ignores the concerns of women. Repairing the social infrastructure—basic human needs, rebuilding families and communities and restoring rights and dignity—are counterproductive to U.S. interests, which depend on exploitable chaos.
Although they are now being treated as sub-human pawns in a violent men's power game, women in pre-Mujahadeen Afghanistan held high political offices. The country's leading educators and health care professionals were women. It remains to be seen whether or not the efforts of Global Exchange, RAWA, Amnesty International (www.web.amnesty.org), the Feminist Majority Foundation (www.feminist.org/afghan/facts.html) and other groups will succeed in eventually restoring Afghan women to their proper status in Afghan society.
All of the women's groups are racing against an extremely fast-moving clock. A U.S.-orchestrated summit meeting has already been set for this Saturday, November 24, in a "neutral" European city.
It appears that, once again, no women will participate.