The reports out of Afghanistan are mostly optimistic about women’s progress toward opportunity and equality in the aftermath of the Taliban regime. The United States has promised $840 million in aid (and has already provided more than $300 million), and American troops are restoring peace and rebuilding the infrastructure.
But there are disturbing signals that there’s still a long way to go for Afghan women. Top Bush adviser Karen Hughes, who was the president’s personal emissary at the Kabul meeting of the United States-Afghan Women’s Council, noted that on the way to Kabul from the airport she was “surprised to see so many women still in burqas.” “I hope that it is a choice and not out of fear,” she noted, adding: “One of the things that we heard in the meeting is that there is still a substantial amount of fear.”
And there is considerable evidence that that fear is justified. No matter how much the United States does to help create a new kind of woman in Afghanistan, it will all fail unless there is also developed in the process a new kind of Afghan men — men who are comfortable having a woman look them straight in the eye, men who are eager to see their wives and daughters well-educated and able to move freely and safely around their communities and nation, men who view women as human beings with equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities.
On their return home after the first meeting of the Women’s Council, held in Washington, the Afghan women were criticized by their nation’s male leaders for not wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, and for looking directly at the men with whom they conversed while here in the States. The leader of the Afghan women’s delegation, a judge, eventually felt compelled to step down because of the intense pressure she felt on her return to Afghanistan.
The Afghan women I interviewed while they were in Washington said that warlords still dominated the outlying regions of the nation. Taliban restrictions are still the custom outside the cities, and intimidation of women is still common. I did not see any of the 14 women who came to Washington in the pictures of the Kabul meeting that were shown at last week’s White House briefing by Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky and other members of the delegation.
According to Under Secretary Dobriansky’s account of the Kabul meetings, ten of Afghanistan’s male cabinet ministers attended the meetings. I couldn’t help but wonder if their presence served — whether intentionally or not — as an inhibiting force on the women’s comments and participation. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity during the question-and-answer session to ask the delegation whether they saw any signs that the women who came to the States were kept from participating, or whether those who were there at the Kabul meetings were intimidated in any way.
Strangely, Under Secretary Dobriansky specifically cited the work of groups like Vital Voices and the Feminist Majority, though neither supports the policies of the Bush administration. (The leaders of both groups are fiercely loyal to Sen. Hillary Clinton and are committed to policies that are diametrically opposed to President Bush’s.) Several of the women representing these organizations at the briefing were Clinton-administration personnel charged with the responsibility for implementing the plan of action developed at the U.N.’s Beijing conference. In their current positions, they are clearly working to realize the leftover feminist priorities of Sen. Clinton and the feminist NGOs.
Several of the programs that were featured in the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council briefing are efforts to “promote the self-reliance of women,” and millions of dollars for this effort “will be spent jointly with some NGOs and the Government.” The vaguely worded goal — and the reliance on the predominantly leftist United Nations NGOs — means it is highly likely that NGOs that oppose the president’s agenda will be using these government funds to further their own agenda among Afghan women.
The 14 Afghan women’s resource centers, which received $2.5 million, will undoubtedly provide much-needed services to the Afghan women; but they are also designated for training women on “NGO management, political participation, and girls’ education.” We must ensure that these purposes do not become a mere cover for using the resource centers as propaganda mills for left-wing agendas.
While it’s obvious that Afghanistan will need a new kind of woman and a new kind of man, it is equally important that, here in America, our own government needs to rely on a new kind of woman — women who represent the values and beliefs of the majority of American women, rather than seeking to advance special interests and feminist ideology.
Further, our president himself needs to be a new kind of man — one not taken in by high-sounding, old-guard rhetoric and smooth-talking Clintonian women. He needs to have the courage to forge alliances that will strengthen his hand in building his own vision of a new, free, and prosperous Afghanistan.
— Janice Shaw Crouse has been an activist and writer on family and women’s issues since 1990. She is a senior fellow at Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America.