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Campaign for Afghan women seems insincere

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 25, 2001

Like Captain Louis Renault in the movie Casablanca, who was "shocked, shocked" that there was gambling going on in Rick's Cafe, the Bush administration has discovered that the Taliban abuse women. Top administration officials, including the first lady, have been dispatched to alert the rest of us.

Laura Bush recently told a radio audience of the many ways in which the Taliban has made life for women one of "brutal degradation," declaring: "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

Yes, that is true. But where was President Bush's (and Bill Clinton's) liberating army before the repressive Taliban decided to harbor an American mass murderer? Nowhere. We were too busy pledging to give the Taliban tens of millions of dollars (in May) for its successful crackdown on poppy cultivation -- a plant used to make opium. Encouraging the war on drugs was apparently more vital than interfering in their war against women.

So, a cynic might say the administration is capitalizing on its military assault against the Taliban to woo American women voters, possibly hoping to close the gaping gender gap of the last presidential election without having to offend the religious right.

To be fair, there could be something to the administration's claims that it is focusing attention on the plight of women under the Taliban in order to justify demands that women and women's rights be part of the formation of any new government.

But the sincerity and credibility of any motivation rises and falls on its consistency. If the Bush administration wants us to believe it is waging war in part to raise the status of women, we need to look at how much concern the administration has given women's equality issues in other parts of the world.

And it is here where Team Bush falls short. Very short.

We all know about our chummy relationship with Saudi Arabia, where women suffer under the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, the very form practiced by the Taliban. Saudi women are forced to cover up neck-to-toe in a black garment called an abaya and wear a full veil over their heads. They are prohibited from driving cars or sitting in the front seat. But what you may not know is that the U.S. military imposes those same restrictions on female American soldiers stationed there.

Maj. Martha McSally, a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who has helped to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq, brought the issue to the public in April. In an interview with USA Today, McSally said she objected to the military forcing female soldiers to don the abaya when off the base -- even when in a car (which she is prohibited by our government from driving). Men have no similar restrictions and wear Western clothes off base. McSally has complained about this double-standard all the way up the chain of command, to no avail. She was told, in effect, that the dignity and equality of women soldiers have to take a back seat (so to speak) to our sensitivities about Saudi culture.

So the drug war and our oil interests come before women's rights.

(Had the elder Bush been able to wipe the oil slicks from his eyes maybe we could have wrangled suffrage for Kuwait's women as part of the bargain for getting the Kuwaiti princes their country back.)

George W. Bush shouldn't be blamed entirely for these lapses. He has merely followed the path carved by his predecessors. Where he can be blamed is in the blithe way he has traded access to reproductive health services for poor and subjugated women throughout the world for domestic political points.

Let's start with Bush's first day in office when he reinstated the Global Gag Rule, which cut off U.S. international aid money from going to any family planning organization that provides abortions or even discusses the topic in a favorable light.

Then we can look at that way he has tamped down the U.S.'s former international leadership in calling for comprehensive sex education and access to family planning services. He gave a seat on the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly to a Right to Life lobbyist; and at recent preparatory meetings for the U.N. Special Session on Children, the U.S. objected to a call to make reproductive health services accessible to those of appropriate age because "health services" might include abortion.

Under Bush, the U.S. doesn't just ignore issues of women's equality around the world, it gets in the way. Which leads me to think that the administration's campaign for justice for Afghan women is more propaganda than commitment and, in the long run, won't amount to a hill of beans.

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