COMING TO the defense of women requires locating ourselves in relationship to allies and enemies on the ground. To denounce sexual terror without identifying who’s responsible leaves us nowhere. Not all men turn women into sexual slaves and rape baby girls, as do soldiers of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR). Not all Afghan men marry off their little girls or marry someone else’s girl. But men with loyalties to particular groups, armies, and reactionary political forces do these things, and more. Urgent circumstances require specific responses. Americans can’t undo the worst of patriarchy (child marriage exists in many places in the world, not just in Afghanistan), but we can work for policies that offer some measure of safety and hope.
This just happened in Afghanistan with the Shia Family Law that Susie Linfield refers to. The combined impact of an international outcry, outrage from women MPs and women’s groups inside the country, and a sharp reprimand from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forced Karzai to backpedal on his capitulation to the Shia clergy earlier this spring. The political situation is fluid at the edges, although the main contenders jockey for power at the center. But the shaky peace that has held in the north and west since 2002, elections in which high numbers of women participated, and the mobilized international opinion have given Afghan women some political force, and this spring they used it to good effect.
The violence in Congo is more desperate and daunting—to everyone. The state is weak and in the south virtually absent, women’s groups in the country are sparse, and there is no energetic lobby of exiles and expatriates as is the case with Afghanistan. The FDLR is the remnant of the shock troops of the Rwandan genocide—they raised sexual torture and terror to a military art in 1994. They operate outside the reach of the sparse UN forces. Safety for women is only going to come with safety for the region, but so far no Western nation—including the United States—has seriously involved itself in advancing a settlement for regional security that would mean the total demobilization of Rwandan Hutu forces. This would involve engaging with Rwanda (the main military force opposing the FDLR, with a huge economic and political interest in peace), Uganda, and the DCR.
But what might be done in general to stop the war against women? There is a new constellation of forces in play—agencies in international bodies, NGOs, and local women’s movements—that has crystallized from years of feminist activity around the world. For the first time, we have a direct line for these issues into the State Department. Hillary Clinton has a strong record speaking up for women’s human rights, going back to her speech at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. In April, Clinton’s testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee was, according to Michelle Goldberg, “the strongest defense of reproductive rights worldwide ever to issue from the lips of a senior government official.”(See Michelle Goldberg’s excellent article on the Daily Beast.)
American liberals should be thinking about what will constitute a decent feminist foreign policy for the Obama administration. Obama’s appointment last week of Melanne Verveer as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues gives feminism an institutional focus in Washington for the first time ever. The Clinton administration took up some of these issues, but never systematically; and before that, they were invisible. But now we can constitute a lobby that helps shape an agenda for Verveer and provides ideas about how she can implement it. We should be listening to the Afghan and Pakistani women’s groups and bringing their ideas and demands to American discussions.
We can ask, for example, whether U.S. forces in Afghanistan can do more than they already have to protect girls’ schools in areas that are under siege and where attacks on students and school buildings are a signal form of Taliban terror. The same goes for State Department pressure on Zardari and the Pakistani army. As Ahmed Rashid points out in his article “Pakistan on the Brink,” there are more than a hundred girls’ schools that have been burned down in western Pakistan in the past twelve months and that their fate is an emblem of “Pakistan on the Brink.”
Involvement in the terrible plight of Congolese women will demand at the very least interest in central Africa on the part of the State Department and the American public. Journalists don’t go to Congo; it is too dangerous and it is not easy to understand. As a result the American public is clueless. But nothing is going to improve for women until it is resolved.
Christine Stansell’s new book, The Feminist Promise, to be published by Random House next spring, takes up issues of global feminism.