Paying the Price for Ignoring Women's Calls Against Fundamentalism
Sunila Abeysekera, Sri Lanka
October 31, 2001
The 'War against Terrorism' being waged by the USA and Great Britain against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has entered its third week. As troops began fighting on the ground, we once more watch the reaffirmation of the
'masculine' nature of war. On our television screens each day we see the war unfold, we see the 'sound and light show' in the night skies over Kabul and we see men: men talk about the war, men glorify their 'crusade' against terrorism and men go into war determined to 'save the world'. Patriotism mingles with jingoism; nationalism becomes intolerance. Women are to be seen in two places: As reporters, they report on the war, not 'making' the news but merely transmitting it; and as refugees, they desperately seek their loved ones and cry out for help from the world.
Should we be thankful that so few women are to be seen actively promoting this war? And that many women have instead raised their voices against the war calling for moderation and restraint and for a political approach to justice for the attacks of September 11 rather than a military one?
Among those who have been most outspoken in condemning the war from its outset have been women around the world who have for years supported women in their struggles against fundamentalism and intolerance, whether it be in Afghanistan, Sudan, Algeria, France, India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom or Saudi Arabia. Developing a discourse on women in conflict situations has brought women from all continents and all ethnic and religious communities together to theorise the inter-sectionality of all forms of discrimination and intolerance. From Iran, Kashmir, Aceh, Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, Palestine, Israel, the north-east of India, Colombia and Sri Lanka, women academics and activists have researched and conceptualised the specific
ways in which women become the most vulnerable group whenever a conflict takes place. They are subject to sexual and physical abuse, to enslavement and exploitation, and to barbaric forms of violence such as forced pregnancy and motherhood.
In addition, in all societies in conflict, an examination of pre-conflict conditions point to the ways in which divisions based on perceptions of difference lead to the growth of all forms of intolerance and fundamentalism which in turn create social and public spaces in which discrimination and violence against women can be justified. In many countries in Western Europe, women from South Asian and Arab communities in the last decade have been experiencing the shrinking of their own space in the public sphere as well as enduring manifestations of religious and social conservatism such as the veiling of women and the murder of women in the name of 'honour.'
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, on September 14, many commentators reflected on the situation within Afghanistan, focusing on the economic deprivation and social injustices as well as various forms of intimidation and abuse of human rights that had been undergone by the people over the past 20 years of civil war and authoritarian rule. A statement from the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) a group working with Afghan women both inside and outside Afghanistan focused on the way in which any military attack on Afghanistan would further exacerbate the misery of the civilian population of that country, saying. 'From our point of view a vast and indiscriminate military attack on a country that has faced permanent disasters for more than two decades will not be a matter of pride.'
There are several clear messages that emerge from the various statements and petitions that have been circulated by women's groups from all parts of the world, following the U.S. decision to wage its 'war against terrorism' in Afghanistan. One is that there can be no military solution to terrorism. This is a lesson that we have learned in Sri Lanka the bitter way, through the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of the social and economic fabric of our island. A second is that one needs to understand
the links between the September 11 attack and the growing forms of fundamentalism and extremism in many different parts of the world, if one does not want to end up with a solution only for the symptom and not for the root cause. For example, Iranian women have for years urged the international community to take steps against Iran in order to prevent it from 'exporting' fundamentalism and terrorism, highlighting the misogyny of fundamentalism in everything they do.
The third point being raised by women in their condemnation of this war focuses on globalisation, and on the links between political power and economic power in the world today. Their view is that the grave imbalances of power in the contemporary world play a key role in whatever Conflagration erupts in whichever part of the globe. Peggy Antrobus, a Caribbean feminist and academic, in an interview to the Feminist radio station FIRE has elaborated on the nexus between the state and the market at the national and global level as creating a series of insecurities that result in the politicisation of religion which is fundamentalism as we know it today.
Women's groups have appealed for a focus on moderation and adherence to principles of international human rights and humanitarian law and standards in dealing with the issue of how the world should respond to the attacks in the U.S. on September 11. They have defined the attacks as 'crimes against humanity' and have thereby paved the way for an appropriate legal and political response. In addition women's groups have focused on a broad understanding of militarism and called for a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and in particular called for a reduction of military expenditure and a halt to the arms trade and development of sophisticated weapons including biological, chemical and nuclear methods of warfare. Women's groups critical of the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan have also argued that this would not only justify increased military expenditure and a heightened development of arms and but also lead to restrictions on the civil liberties of entire populations.
Women's critiques of the 'War against Terrorism' have also highlighted the hypocrisy in the international political arena which has permitted the US and other Western and Islamic countries to create and manipulate fundamentalist groups for their own economic and political interests. One example of this that has been pointed out is the relationship between France and the Sudan that allowed France to send its secret services inside Sudan to ferret out and arrest the notorious 'Carlos the Jackal' while in return France turned a blind eye to the gross abuses of democratic and women's rights taking place in the Sudan.
Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) is a
broad-based network, which has through its work against fundamentalism gained a great deal of credibility and support in the past years. In a statement issued on September 21, the group extended its condolences to all those affected by the September 11 attack but went on to remind us of the global spread of fundamentalism and the threat that it poses to democracy and peace everywhere. 'Terrorism in the name of Islam is a transnational force. Politico-religious movements across the world are reinforcing each other through funding, military training, educational exchanges, joint international lobbying etc. The profound impact on women can be seen, for example, through restrictions on access to education and limitations imposed on freedom of movement as well as changes in family laws that severely curtail women's legal rights.'
The WLUML also strongly criticises the U.S. for its action against 'those harbouring terrorists' stating that the U.S. itself provides safe havens for some persons accused of being involved in terrorist acts and human rights abuses. In particular, the WLUML cites the case of Anuoar Haddam, a leader of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria who has been granted permission to seek asylum in the U.S. Many women's groups who support the struggle of Algerian women against fundamentalism have challenged his asylum application on the grounds that he has a record of human rights abuse.
In Spain, Montserrat Boix, journalist and Coordinator of the Women's Network wrote a piece in which she denounced the years of silence in the West about fundamentalist outrages against women: 'The West never cared when the Talibanis attacked Afghan women's rights, when they assaulted them, when they killed them. It has looked in the other direction while in Algeria the radical Islamic groups have kidnapped, raped, killed and ripped to pieces scores of women, when in Bangladesh many women have to live with their faces scarred by the acid thrown in their face by fundamentalists.'
From Gjakova, Kosovo came a plea reminding the world that 'terrorists are not nations. And nations must not act like terrorists'. The call for the U.S. and other Western states to refrain from seeking revenge was all the more eloquent and emotive because it comes from a group of women who are themselves struggling to come out of a situation of destruction as a consequence of war who say: 'We understand that the urge for revenge is strong. And we know that it must not be given in to. We know that a violent response can only bring more violence. It does not bring justice. It perpetuates more hate, more insecurity, more fear and ultimately more death among civilians.' The Kosova women appeal to the world to leave a legacy of justice and peaceful construction, not of revenge destruction and war.
From the Asia-Pacific region, the Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) emphasized the plight of women and children who were being displaced as a consequence of the war and of the threat of an intensification of the war, pointing to the fact that options for such people to seek refuge in other countries was also being curtailed, citing the Australian government's recent rejection of Afghan refugees.
Leading women opinion-makers based in the U.S., such as Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, Alice Walker and Noeleen Heyzer issued a statement saying: 'We stand with our sisters in Afghanistan who are suffering and dying under the gender apartheid and sexual terrorism of the Taliban. The world has endangered itself by failing to heed their pleas'. The group has vowed to boycott financial institutions that refuse to disclose the flow of funds to terrorists and to target and expose political leaders who refuse to require disclosure.
As the world tries to understand all the implications of this ever-expanding war that is taking a heavy toll of lives, political commentators are becoming more critical of the propaganda blitz unleashed by the mainstream media that masks much of the political reality of the situation. Writing in The New Yorker, Susan Sontag has said: 'The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has happened and what may continue to happen'.
Arundathi Roy, speaking of 'The Algebra of Infinite Justice’ in a piece published in The Guardian (UK) on September 27, also focused on the need to search for the reasons behind the attack on September 11. 'Could it be that the stygian anger that led to the attacks has its taproot not in American freedom and democracy but in the US government's record of commitment and support to exactly the opposite things—to military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable genocide (outside America?)' Remembering a comment made by then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1996, when referring to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children—'a very hard choice but we think the price is worth it'—Roy reminds us of the basic inhumanity of waging such wars in the 21st century, describing what she terms 'the infinite justice of the new century' to be 'civilians starving to death while waiting to be killed'.
Through their statements and appeals, women's groups have once more brought to the forefront of the contemporary political agenda the negative consequences of the politicisation of religion and the tolerance of forms of fundamentalism and extremism that are themselves intolerant in the essence. They remind us of the Taliban's reign of terror in which the first victims were women and highlight the need for all democratic forces to unite in opposition to all attempts to respond to terrorism with violence.
In South Asia, as in the rest of the world, women have been in the forefront of public actions to denounce the military attacks on Afghanistan, focusing on the destabilisng impact of such attacks on an already fragile and nuclearised region. In India in several cities, on September 19, thousands of people from all communities turned out to light a lamp for peace and make a public demonstration condemning U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan. On September 25, in Lahore, Pakistan, over a thousand people demonstrated against the U.S. military attacks but also called for a
condemnation of the Taliban regime. This was an act of extreme courage in the face of continuing pro-Taliban demonstrations throughout Pakistan. This action was organised by a broad coalition of human rights groups and women's groups including Simorgh, Women Workers' Help Line, Shirkat Gah and AGHS.
Surely it is one of the ironies of the 21st century that this war against an already ruined country is termed 'Operation Enduring Freedom'. Whose freedom? Interestingly enough, unlike in the first days after the attack on New York and Washington in September 2001, the international community now seems to be having second thoughts about this 'adventure'. At the APEC meeting in Shanghai, northern leaders refused to endorse the military initiative. Across the world, leaders of humanitarian aid agencies have appealed for a halt to the fighting so that humanitarian assistance can be delivered to the millions of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan who are being displaced and transformed into refugees overnight because of this war. The inhospitable terrain and the approaching winter make it imperative that aid and assistance reaches refugees in Afghanistan and ranged along its borders NOW.
The impact of the U.S. onslaught on the Taliban has also led many political observers to raise the issue of the origins of this group, in particular the role played by the U.S. and Pakistan in creating and nurturing the Taliban. Noam Chomsky, in an interview, pointed out that across the world, many communities and individuals condemn the U.S. for its anti-democratic stands in supporting brutal and corrupt regimes, and pointed to the dangers of the present anti-terrorism coalition which, according to his analysis, is based on the desire of the governments in countries like Russia, China and Indonesia to obtain U.S. support for their efforts to quell democratic expressions of dissent in their own countries; Russia for its war against Chechnya, China for its wars in western China against Muslim groups and
Indonesia for its repression of uprisings such as in Aceh. Human rights organisations have sent out a strong message that questions the dependence of this U.S.-led military initiative on the shadowy Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, reminding the world that many among the leaders of the Northern Alliance are guilty of gross violations of human rights.
Now more than ever, women need to continue speaking out strongly against all attempts by the international community to justify the use of military attacks and violence in combatting terrorism. As Sri Lankan women, with our own experiences of war, violence and terror, we know very well that such a response can only bring more suffering to women and children and create a never-ending cycle of violence. As much as we fight for a negotiated solution to the ethnic conflict and a return to peace in our island, we must fight for the peaceful resolution of all conflicts and non-violent responses to violence and terror in the world.
Sunila Abeysekera is a leading Sri Lankan fighter for women's human rights.
From the "Cat's Eye Column," a weekly feminist feature column in The Island, an English-language Sri-Lankan daily, October 31, 2001.