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Laura Bush and Ellie Smeal: Together at Last!

by Jo Freeman

Once upon a time, back in the early days of the women's liberation movement when we were naïve and hopeful, we used to say that all women were sisters under the skin. Splits, internecine warfare, and external opposition from women as well as men soon disabused of us that notion.

Sometimes it just takes a while.

The Feminist Majority Foundation, which Ellie Smeal founded and heads, has been arguing for years that "the Taliban has been leading a campaign of terror against women, ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan with the help of Osama bin Laden."

In mid-November the Bush Administration, not particularly known for listening to feminists, took up the baton. In a report released on November 17, the State Department highlighted the Taliban's "war against women" as "particularly appalling." It documented how "the Taliban has perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage."

Quite a few representatives of feminist organizations were invited to the briefing announcing the report. Ellie Smeal and other feminists met privately with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Karen Hughes, the Counselor to the President who conceived the campaign, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

First Lady Laura Bush became the first First Lady to give the weekly Presidential radio address in order "to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban. "

The US may even insist that women be involved in the new government.

So why is the anti-feminist Republican Administration putting a feminist plank in its pro-war platform?"?

Of course the administration sees propaganda value in promoting the participation of women -- both at home and abroad, but why should we care?

The Northern Alliance was just as brutal toward women before the Taliban took over in 1996 (though in a slightly different way). It stands to be a leading player in any future government, thanks to the US military intervention.

Anything the US, the UN, or anyone else can do will be an improvement. Just putting women's rights on the agenda is an improvement. Feminists should watch carefully to see that these fine words are followed by actions.

But it will take more than a formal declaration that women's rights are human rights, or even the formal inclusion of women in whatever government comes next. It will take more than giving women education, health care, mobility and jobs.

Someone will have to tackle the mindset of the men who thought women's place was under house arrest; that is the source of the problem.

Since, as Laura Bush said in her talk, "The severe repression and brutality against women in Afghanistan is not a matter of legitimate religious practice," the problem isn't Islam. The problem is institutions and values that took patriarchy to its most extreme form, and then shrouded it in religion.

While Laura Bush and Ellie Smeal find common cause in the liberation of Afghan women, perhaps society should (and that includes our own government) take a long hard look at what made men want to treat women so badly in the first place.

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