War on Women

When I was a young woman, I faced gender barriers my granddaughter will never know: job and credit discrimination, exclusion from educational opportunities, and pervasive social attitudes about "proper" roles for women. Today the legal barriers are largely gone, and social expectations have changed dramatically. Women work…

Today the legal barriers are largely gone, and social expectations have changed dramatically. Women work in virtually every field and profession; women’s sports attract large crowds; Elizabeth Dole is running for President. Issues that American feminists argue today include whether even consensual sex between a boss and subordinate in the workplace is sexual harassment, or whether women’s role in combat should be restricted. As the (politically incorrect) cigarette ads proclaim, we’ve come a long way baby.

So it comes as a real shock when we are confronted with evidence that, elsewhere in the world, women are victims of socially sanctioned, brutal and dehumanizing treatment simply because they are female.

In Afghanistan, since the Taliban assumed power in 1996, women have had to wear the traditional burqua, and have been beaten and stoned in public for not doing so. According to one report, a woman was beaten to death by an angry mob of fundamentalists for accidentally exposing her arm while driving. Another was stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man who was not a relative.

Women are not allowed to work, or even to go out in public unless accompanied by a male relative. Professional women have been forced from their jobs. Because they cannot work, women without husbands or male relatives are starving to death or begging on the streets. Husbands once again have been given the right of life or death over their wives. Homes where a woman is present must have the windows painted so that she cannot be seen from outside; women must wear silent shoes so that they are not heard.

Before the 1996 fundamentalist takeover, women in Afghanistan enjoyed relative freedom: they could work, drive, dress as they liked, appear in public alone. Since 1996, relief workers report that the suicide rate among women has skyrocketed. Depression is epidemic. A reporter visiting one of the rare hospitals for women found "still, nearly lifeless bodies lying motionless on top of beds, wrapped in their burqua, unwilling to speak, eat or do anything…Others have gone mad and were crouched in corners, perpetually rocking or crying."

If this were a war of one ethnic group against another, American officials would have expressed outrage. When Saddam Hussain moved against Iraq’s Kurds, America sent in the military, and we continue the imposition of economic sanctions. The United Nations is again threatening to intervene in Kosovo if atrocities there don’t stop. Western democracies continue efforts to prevent violence in Ireland and the Middle East. We have sent relief workers and supplies to Somalia. The list could go on.

Why are the women of Afghanistan less worthy of our concern?


  1. Sheila, this has been a concern of mine for a long time. Especially, what were we, as women, doing to assist our sisters in such dire straits. As it turns out, there are really successful endeavors afoot that have been generated by, achieved by, and benefits, women. Led by women such as Hilary Clinton, Tina Brown, new editor of “Newsweek,” and Christine Amanpour of PBS, there is a growing body of women helping women in third world countnries.

    The Daily Beast carries a very comprehensive story about the “World and the Worls Summit Conference” held recently in Manhattan. Search the Daily Beast for the category “Women and the World” (or click, in the byline of TDB, “World” and then choose “Women and the World. To quote Susan B. Anthony, “A Woman cannot depend on thep rotection of men, She must protect herself.” Sometimes from her own government, too, ours not excluded.

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