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Arms Length

Why don't feminists support the war?

TODAY THE TALIBAN’S crimes against Afghanistan's women are well known. But, in the months after the party swept into Kabul in September 1996, the United States needed an education. It was feminists who provided it. Well-orchestrated public relations efforts, like the Feminist Majority's "Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid," kept the United States and the United Nations from recognizing the Taliban. And when, in December 1998, California-based unocal broke off negotiations with the Taliban to build a trans-Afghanistan pipeline, independent observers noted that feminist pressure had played a key role. By the late '90s, feminist leaders claim, the State Department was receiving more mail about the plight of Afghan women than about any other issue.

Still, it wasn't until September 11 that the feminists' ultimate aim--toppling the Taliban--coincided with the nation's. Since then women's rights activists have garnered praise from across the political spectrum--even from quarters where "feminist" is normally a dirty word. The Weekly Standard ran a grudgingly admiring piece, noting that it is "not without irony that it now falls to Bush to overthrow the Taliban and presumably replace it with a government less repressive toward women. If he does, he will have secured the feminists' most worthy goal of the last several years." "I applaud you for what you're doing," declared conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity to a guest from the Feminist Majority. "I think it's important that the world understand what exactly it is that we are struggling with and battling here in Afghanistan." The only problem is, at the very moment feminists should be finishing the battle that they began, they are nowhere to be found.

Since September 11 feminists have been handed an unprecedented public platform. And what they've said is eminently high-minded—and largely irrelevant. Writing in The Nation last week, columnist Katha Pollitt explained, "Where women have education, healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political and economic power—where they can choose what to wear, whom to marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism, democracy and human rights." That's absolutely true. It also says absolutely nothing about how to dislodge from power the regime that is brutalizing Afghan women. Go to feminist websites and you'll find them urging the United States not to forget the imprisoned Afghan women, pushing for a constitutional democracy in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and vigorously supporting humanitarian aid for Afghan refugees. Yet what they aren't vigorously supporting—or even vigorously debating--is the one thing that might bring a post-Taliban Afghanistan into being: America's war.

Brand-name feminists have retreated to cliches about women and nonviolence. "Women are not more moral than men, or even intrinsically different from men," said feminist matriarch Gloria Steinem. "It's just that we have been raised without our masculinity to prove. We ... can come up with new and different solutions and end this cycle of violence and revenge." Sisterhood is Powerful Editor Robin Morgan urged women on the Internet to "[t]alk about the root causes of terrorism, about the need to diminish this daily climate of patriarchal violence surrounding us in its state-sanctioned normalcy." Barbara Ehrenreich and Alice Walker weighed in with similarly worded missives. And the Third Wave Foundation, whose praiseworthy goal is to "inform and empower a generation of young women activists," urged women to "unite in calls for a peaceful resolution to this attack."

But there's no logical reason that nonviolent means always promote feminist ends. In fact, even before September 11, some feminists had begun to suggest they might not. The rape of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim and Croat women in the 1990s led, in 1998, to the categorization of the methodical raping of women (sometimes with the goal of impregnating them with their enemy's children) as a war crime, punishable at the international war crimes tribunal at the Hague. That linkage—of violence against women with war—offered a momentous challenge to the feminist-pacifist equation. In the Balkans, says Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, there were women who "called for military intervention in Kosovo months or years before it started, who would say—as I would say--that sometimes military intervention is the tragic best choice."

But this war, which should have broken that equation for good, has done no such thing. Even the laudable Feminist Majority has hesitated to unabashedly endorse the war effort—focusing instead on unobjectionable, but decidedly secondary, concerns like increasing humanitarian aid to the region. Feminist Majority head Eleanor Smeal does admit that she "can understand why there is some military movement." But that's pretty tepid language from the woman who put Afghanistan's women on the U.S. radar screen to begin with. Then again, she's fighting a different war—the war between women's rights and feminist dogma. And it's pretty clear which side is winning.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.