From the start of the war on terrorism, America's mission in fighting radical Islamic fundamentalism has been described not only in terms of protecting the homeland but also of bringing freedom to the oppressed—particularly to women. But have women in the Islamic world truly benefited from the US intervention? Can we—and should we—export women's liberation? Today, these questions remain a focus of intense debate.
Liberating Afghan women from the Taliban's brutally misogynistic rule was often cited as one of the altruistic reasons for going to war in Afghanistan—and as a major success story. Watching the news, we rejoiced in images of girls going to school for the first time in years, and of women casting off their burkas, going to work, or even going to beauty parlors. "The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free," President Bush declared in his 2002 State of the Union address.
The victimization of women by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was also invoked by supporters of the war in Iraq—though in this case, their oppression was far less gender-specific. Hussein's rule was secular, and while women who ran afoul of the regime could be tortured, raped, or murdered, the men hardly fared better.
Now, more than two years after the fall of the Taliban and more than a year after the fall of Saddam, critics say that the situation of women has not improved much and, in some cases, may have worsened. "For many Iraqi women, the tyranny of Saddam's regime has been replaced by chronic violence and growing religious conservatism that have stifled their hopes for wider freedoms—and, for many, put their lives in even greater peril," says a recent cover story in Time magazine. The article focuses on "honor killing"—the murder of women by male relatives after they have "dishonored" the family by committing some sexual infraction (or by being raped). These killings may be on the rise because of the breakdown in law and order and the greater availability of weapons.
Reports from Afghanistan are bleak as well. While few would dispute that things are better for women than they were under the Taliban, particularly in large cities such as Kabul, the country remains in chaos, torn apart by warlords and thugs. Kate Allen, a director of the British chapter of Amnesty International, wrote in The Guardian last March that an aid worker told her, "If a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged—now she's raped."
Some of the criticism may be driven by ideological opposition to the Bush administration's foreign policy. But some of it comes from strong supporters of US intervention. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, who still believes that "Americans should be proud that we ousted the Taliban," has chronicled troubling and little-noticed developments in the new Afghanistan. Among other things, the Supreme Court has barred married women from attending high school—in a country where girls as young as 9 are routinely forced to marry.
In part, the situation of women in today's Afghanistan and Iraq is a shameful American failure. Clearly, the Bush administration was unwilling to invest enough resources (financial or human) into helping rebuild these countries after toppling the old regimes.
Yet the limits of American influence are equally clear. We are confronting societies in which male supremacy is deeply ingrained. In Afghanistan, voter registration teams are trying to register women to vote while accommodating the tribal customs that forbid them to leave their homes. So a housebound teenage mother of three, married at 12, will be able to vote in a free election: what a victory for women's rights. What do you do when it's not a dictatorship but custom that keeps women imprisoned, and when honor killings are condoned even by the victim's female relatives? What can you do when an attempt to appoint a woman judge in an Iraqi city is met with vehement protests not only from conservative Muslim clerics but from the town's lawyers—including women?
Feminist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote recently in The New York Times that promoting women's education may be our best strategy against radical Islamic fundamentalism. Yet if women's rights are seen as a Western import, this will likely worsen the backlash against feminism; in some Muslim countries, educated women have donned the veil in anti-imperialist protest. Let us, by all means, try to help women; but let's be realistic about our possibilities.