Bush and the Burqa
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.
Women’s 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 (http://rawa.fancymarketing.net/). Eleanor Smeal of
the Feminist Majority Foundation brought celebrities on board with a
Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid, chaired by Jay Leno’s 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
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 Taliban’s 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 network’s
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
The first in-depth story from Afghanistan appeared in the Los Angeles
Times October 5. Under the headline "Response to Terror: Women’s
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 Newspapers’ 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 CNN’s own Larry King Live but also
on Good Morning America and NBC’s 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 Taliban’s treatment of women should have been a warning
sign: "These women were the first casualties of the war against the
"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 Taliban’s 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
president’s weekly radio address, spoke on the subject of the women of
Afghanistan. The president’s wife detailed abuses of the Taliban,
including the fact that "only terrorists and the Taliban pull out women’s
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
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 Britain’s Prime
Minister, who met with Afghan women and kept the issue alive in the British
The administration’s sudden embrace of Afghan women struck many in the
press as too ardent to be believed. Under the head "Bush’s Women’s
Rights Promotion Rings Hollow," New York Times columnist Maureen
Dowd on November 20 questioned why the administration’s interest in women’s
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 Globe’s
Mary Leonard quoted Kim Grady of the National Organization of Women as
saying November 29.
"Bush...may have a political motive,"" suggested the Hartford
Courant’s Liz Halloran November 25. "For years Democrats have
fared far better in capturing women’s votes."
In an attempt to diffuse the attacks, Mary Matalin, top aide to Vice
President Dick Cheney, told reporters that the Taliban’s treatment of
women was not a women’s issue but "a justice issue." Perhaps in
response to criticism for its handling of domestic "women’s
issues" (such as closing the White House’s women’s outreach
office), the administration quickly hired a liaison to women’s groups. On
November 25, Newsweek reported that the State Department had
"decided to fill a high-level job that promotes women’s 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 Times’ Erik Eckholm reported from
Kabul December 23, "Two weeks after the Taliban’s 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 women’s rights on its list of 13 national
priorities, and included two women in the 30-member Cabinet: Health Minister
Suhaila Siddiqi and Women’s 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 Women’s 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 West’s 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 Women’s 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 can’t 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 everything’s
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 Women’s Day (March 8), Laura Bush
asserted, "[T]he world is helping Afghan women return to the lives they
But as USA Today’s Steve Komarow reported March 18, Afghanistan’s
shattered economy was making it all but impossible for the country’s
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 Women’s 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