Riffat Hassan

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights leaders in the United States recently recounted their efforts to draw the world’s attention to the Taliban’s mistreatment of women and expressed concern over whether Afghanistan’ new government will recognize women’s human rights.

And, in the two-day conference at City University of New York, Afghan women reminded U.S. feminists that there is more to human rights than removing the veil, or burka, and that U.S. ideas of feminism and freedom cannot and should not be imposed on the women of Afghanistan. American women need to understand that religion is integral to the lives of Muslim women, they said.

At the same time, world leaders were meeting in Bonn, Germany, drafting agreements that will shape the future of Afghanistan, at least in the short term. In an apparent nod to women, Amena Afzali, the widow of a Northern Alliance fighter who established a women’s self-help organization, is expected to be one of the five deputies in the cabinet of Hamid Karzal, the Pashtun leader likely to become head of government.

Riffat Hassan, a feminist Muslim theologian and professor of religious studies and humanities at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, told the New York gathering that after many years of tremendous suffering, the defeat of the Taliban may result in durable freedoms for Afghan women.

Nevertheless, she expressed concern that the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan and U.S. policies in the Middle East not only continue to cost lives but also could lead to an attempt to impose Western values and culture upon Muslim-led nations.

Well-Meaning U.S. Women Should Be Better Informed About Muslim Women

And she cautioned American women against assuming that all Muslims deny women’s rights.

“American women need a much better understanding of Afghanistan women’s religion, which is the matrix of their life,” said Hassan. “The paradigm ‘you need to be like us’ will not work.”

“Education and human rights are far more important than whether or not a woman wears a burka,” Hassan said. “We are not talking about feminism in Afghanistan-we’re talking about basic human rights.”

She also emphasized that in order for Afghan women and others oppressed by some Islamic systems to realize freedom, Muslims must take responsibility for the ways in which some Muslim countries have stripped women of basic rights.

“Muslims have to become self-critical and say ‘there are many things we must set right in our own house,'” Hassan said.

Women in the U.S. became aware of the Taliban’s systematic denial of women’s human rights largely because of the five-year campaign undertaken by Eleanor Smeal, the founder and president of The Feminist Majority Foundation.

Smeal told the gathering that in 1996 she began noticing disturbing reports from The Associated Press and Reuters. Although the items were only about an inch long, they spoke volumes. A group calling itself the Taliban had begun issuing decrees stating that women couldn’t work, couldn’t go to school and had to cover themselves from head to toe.

“I began to wonder if anyone was doing anything to counter these acts of gender terrorism,” Smeal told the conference sponsored by Women for Afghan Women at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “I began reaching out to human rights organizations, the U.N. and the State Department, and I found out that the situation for women was even worse than I’d suspected.”

Smeal, Others Turned the Spotlight on Plight of Afghan Women

She learned that women in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s control could not leave home without an escort, could not be treated by male doctors and that female doctors were not permitted to practice. She found that women-headed households were not eligible for state assistance. The nation had the world’s highest infant and maternal mortality rates.

Smeal, at the forefront of the women’s rights movement for over 30 years, took action. In 1997 The Feminist Majority launched the International Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan.

“We began by pushing the United States government to acknowledge the atrocities against women in Afghanistan. We had recently learned that the United States government and the United Nations were going to recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan. We were very concerned.”

“We organized a huge mail campaign that was an enormous success,” Smeal said. “In 1999 former secretary of state Madeleine Albright told us that we were producing more mail on this issue than any other foreign policy issue–she was literally amazed.”

Smeal credits the success of The Feminist Majority’s campaign to Mavis Leno, the chair of the campaign.

Celebrity Press More Helpful Than Mainstream Media in Helping Afghan Women

Mavis Leno suggested the campaign use the celebrity and entertainment press instead of the traditional mainstream press–she is married to the television celebrity Jay Leno.

“This proved wonderfully successful,” Smeal said, noting that more than 100 major celebrities were willing to speak out against the atrocities committed against women. “And our campaign got the attention of the United States government.”

American women, from First Lady Laura Bush to playwright Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” have closed ranks to protest the Taliban’s treatment of women.

Yet, even with intense world interest, the combination of vast numbers of refugees and a drought has placed 7.5 million women and children at risk of hunger and starvation.

At the same time, U.S. women themselves have yet to attain full political participation. The 100-member U.S. Senate contains only 13 women, or 13 percent. The 435-member House of Representatives contains 62 women, or 14 percent. The wage gap between women and men persists, and control of women’s reproductive lives is still far from guaranteed.

Noting the recent spate of anthrax scares at U.S. abortion clinics, author and activist Gloria Steinem pointed out that while many U.S. women protested on behalf of Afghan women, they failed to strenuously advocate for themselves.

“The situation of women under the Taliban should make it more clear to more people in this country that there is no democracy if that democracy does not include free women,” she said.

“We have the duty to point out the gender politics of terrorism–militarism, serial killings,” Steinem said. “During times of war, gender roles are polarized, violence is normalized and hyper-femininity is emphasized.”

Steinem urged U.S. feminists to press for a foreign policy in which women’s rights would be central. “While we call ourselves the U.S. women’s movement, I hope that we begin to see ourselves as just one part of a global women’s movement.”

Siobhan Benet is content manager and staff writer for Women’s Enews.

For more information:

The Feminist Majority Foundation:

Women for Afghan Women:

Amnesty International: