Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

The Media vs. the Church

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Mormons Score a 9.6

The Indispensable Source

Harry and the Evangelicals

Returning to Normalcy


Grappling with Islam:

Bush and the Burqa
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

Last August 26 CNN aired a documentary on the plight of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Directed by Saira Shah, the daughter of an Afghan immigrant to England, Beneath the Veil was one of the first attempts by an American news organization to address the subject.

Womenís groups and international human rights organizations had been trying to focus attention on Afghan women since 1995. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) displayed photos of beatings and worse on its website ( Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation brought celebrities on board with a Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid, chaired by Jay Lenoís wife Mavis. All to little effect.

Filmed during several trips to Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 for Channel Four in England (where it aired in June), Beneath the Veil confirmed what the activists said: Afghan women were not allowed to work, go to school, leave home without a family member, or go outside without wearing a burqa. If they did any of these things they could be summarily beaten by officers of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and, as was graphically shown in footage provided by RAWA, in some cases executed.

But prior to September 11, the documentary stirred little interest on the part of the government, the public, or the rest of the media. As Shah later told Larry King on December 26, it was "a time when people were asking me where Afghanistan was."

In the days directly after the attacks, the plight of Afghan women was one item on a laundry list of Taliban extremism. Tom Pelton, writing a detailed account of the Talibanís reign for the Baltimore Sun September 13, included one sentence on the issue: "Women, under the rule of the Taliban organization that controls most of Afghanistan, are barred from leaving their homes without covering themselves from head to toe." A USA Today story by James Rupert that ran September 13 also did no more than touch on the subject: "Since taking power in 1996, they [the Taliban] have periodically shocked the world, notably with their draconian treatment of women."

In his September 20 address to Congress, President Bush followed suit, citing among the reasons for taking military action against the Taliban the fact that Afghan women were "not allowed to go to school."

But then, on September 22 and 23, CNN aired Beneath the Veil a second time. Five and half million viewers tuned in, making it the networkís most-watched documentary ever.

At first, newspapers handled the story locally rather than globally. On September 23, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an op-ed by Sumayyah Karimi, an Afghan woman living in Georgia, whose medical studies were cut short under Taliban rule. Linking the trauma of the events of September to her own experience, Karimi wrote, "I understood the pain of those who lost their relatives and friends, as I have felt the pain of terrorism many times in my own life." Similar first-hand accounts were published by the Denver Post (September 23), the Seattle Times (September 24), and the Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register (September 28).

The first in-depth story from Afghanistan appeared in the Los Angeles Times October 5. Under the headline "Response to Terror: Womenís Rights," reporter Robyn Dixon recounted interviews with women and girls who had been beaten by the religious police. "Life under the Taliban is so repressive for Afghan women that many of them now see U.S. military action against their regime as their best hope for a freer life."

Across the country other papers followed suit: "Female Foes of Taliban Seeking Support Abroad" (Washington Post, October 8); "Taliban Regime has Returned Women to Dark Ages" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 21); "Afghan Women Lead a Life Restricted by Tradition," (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 6); "Taliban Reaching New Low in Their Protection of Women" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 13).

Throughout, CNN kept Beneath the Veil in the public eye, showing it on September 26 and 30, October 6 and 30, November 17, December 30, and February 3. "Repeated airing," wrote Cox Newspapersí Julia Malone in an early "putting Afghan women on the map" story, "has driven home the message."

Gone were the days of not knowing where Afghanistan was. Shah became a media celebrity, appearing not only on CNNís own Larry King Live but also on Good Morning America and NBCís Today Show. RAWA member Taheema Faryal was interviewed on Good Morning America (October 30), Larry King Live on (November 13), and the CBS Evening News (November 14), where she commented, "Animals have more rights than women in Afghanistan."

What did the oppression of women have to do with the war on terrorism? As early as September 20 Eleanor Smeal told Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times that the Talibanís treatment of women should have been a warning sign: "These women were the first casualties of the war against the United States."

"In the same way that many Islamic extremist crusades use the oppression of women to help them gain control over wider populations, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are now employing the tactics of terrorism to gain control," wrote author Jan Goodwin and activist Jessica Neuwirth in an October 19 New York Times op-ed. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed November 4, author Barbara Ehrenreich generalized the proposition: "[F]undamentalism everywhere is no friend to the female sex."

In the first week of November women in Congress got into the act. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and 13 of her female senatorial colleagues introduced the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001. "Mr. President," Hutchinson began her speech to the Senate, "no one in America can have read a newspaper or seen a television report about the plight of women in Afghanistan, and children, without being horrified."

Nor did the White House need a focus group to tell it which way the wind was blowing. On November 17 the State Department released a "Report on the Talibanís War Against Women," which slammed the Taliban for "egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage."

Later that day Laura Bush, becoming the first First Lady to speak on a presidentís weekly radio address, spoke on the subject of the women of Afghanistan. The presidentís wife detailed abuses of the Taliban, including the fact that "only terrorists and the Taliban pull out womenís fingernails for wearing nail polish."

In the following week, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld both spoke out on behalf of Afghan women. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in a press briefing, "The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women."

Several White House employees and members of Congress started to wear blue swatches of material snipped from burqas to show their support. Also enlisted in the campaign was Cherie Blair, wife of Britainís Prime Minister, who met with Afghan women and kept the issue alive in the British press.

The administrationís sudden embrace of Afghan women struck many in the press as too ardent to be believed. Under the head "Bushís Womenís Rights Promotion Rings Hollow," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on November 20 questioned why the administrationís interest in womenís rights did not extend to oil-rich countries friendly to the U.S. "What does it matter if Saudi women can drive, as long as American women can keep driving their SUVs?"

"I see this as an effort on the part of the Bush administration to expand support for military action in Afghanistan by jumping on the bandwagon in support of the women of Afghanistan," the Boston Globeís Mary Leonard quoted Kim Grady of the National Organization of Women as saying November 29.

"Bush...may have a political motive,"" suggested the Hartford Courantís Liz Halloran November 25. "For years Democrats have fared far better in capturing womenís votes."

In an attempt to diffuse the attacks, Mary Matalin, top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, told reporters that the Talibanís treatment of women was not a womenís issue but "a justice issue." Perhaps in response to criticism for its handling of domestic "womenís issues" (such as closing the White Houseís womenís outreach office), the administration quickly hired a liaison to womenís groups. On November 25, Newsweek reported that the State Department had "decided to fill a high-level job that promotes womenís rights overseas...a job left vacant until now."

With the overthrow of the Taliban, the "liberation" of Afghan women became a new focus of coverage. Hopeful stories now told of women leaving their homes and returning to work, their daughters now going openly back to school. As the New York Timesí Erik Eckholm reported from Kabul December 23, "Two weeks after the Talibanís defeat, this city reached a milestone today as its top school reopened-this time for girls as well as boys, and with no stern mullahs to dictate what is taught."

In December, the new interim government of Afghanistan, responding to pressure from the West, placed womenís rights on its list of 13 national priorities, and included two women in the 30-member Cabinet: Health Minister Suhaila Siddiqi and Womenís Affairs Minister Sima Samar.

For the press, the removal of the veil/burqa became an irresistible metaphor of that new freedom: "Veil Is Lifted in Mazar-e Sharif; New Freedoms Embraced as City Emerges From Taliban Rule" (Washington Post, November 12); "Women Shedding Cloak of Taliban Oppression" (Boston Globe, November 26); "Veil Lifts on Afghan Womenís Future" (Denver Post, November 27); "In Kabul, Still a Veil of Fear," (Newsday, November 28).

"To many Western eyes, the Muslim veil is not an innocent piece of cloth," wrote Eli Sanders in the Seattle Times October 5. Yet it has "been defined more by the imaginations of those viewing it than by the voices of those wearing it." Pointing to the Westís longstanding fascination with the veil, Sanders noted that in 18th and 19th centuries "the need to free veiled Muslim women from oppression was often cited as a justification for colonialist actions" in the Muslim world.

American feminists also made the veil a rallying cry. Explaining why "Afghanistan is Everywhere" was chosen as the new slogan for "V-Day" (violence-against-women day), playwright Eve Ensler told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[I]n every place I go women are being raped and battered and burned and destroyed. We all wear a burqa, but it is a different burqa in every country."

American Muslim women and scholars of Islam did not hesitate to protest this particularly Western attitude. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed January 20 Laila Al-Marayati and Semeen Issa of the Muslim Womenís League contended that the burqa was not the major focus of concern for Afghan women. "Their priorities are more basic, like feeding the children, becoming literate and living free from violence." "Bring us your democracy, not your bikinis," Zohra Yusuf Daoud, Miss Afghanistan of 1973, told a Women for Afghan Women conference in New York.

In the January 30 issue of The Christian Century, Jane I. Smith, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary, recounted, "I have had Muslim women tell me that they refuse to participate in Christian-Muslim dialogue anymore, because the Christian women canít get past focusing on the headgear."

After January, Afghan women began to fade from the front pages and the nightly news along with whatever else was going on in Afghan society. In a January 23 appearance on Larry King Live, Shah remarked that it was "tempting to say that the Taliban are gone and everythingís absolutely fine." She wondered, she said, "if the West has also got the patience, the stamina, to rebuild lives."

Speaking to the UN on International Womenís Day (March 8), Laura Bush asserted, "[T]he world is helping Afghan women return to the lives they once knew."

But as USA Todayís Steve Komarow reported March 18, Afghanistanís shattered economy was making it all but impossible for the countryís educated and professional women to find employment. On the street, meanwhile, the burqa was still the order of the day. "The Taliban pushed [women] 100 years back," said Womenís Affairs minister Sima Samar, as she sat in her rubble-strewn office.

"Samar shrugs with acceptance," wrote Komarow, "knowing that her ministry, like the women of Afghanistan, faces many challenges."

Hit Counter