- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

This Thanksgiving, the people of Afghanistan, freed from the awful Taliban, have a lot to be grateful for. But they are not alone. Somewhat belatedly, it seems to have dawned on people in this country that, yes, some societies are better than others societies based on respect for human rights and personal dignity, democratic values and individual liberty. No place on Earth is perfect, but we are incredibly lucky to call this wonderful country home, and Americans should not be afraid to say so. The eye-opening focus on the women of Afghanistan has had a large part in fostering this new sense of appreciation.
Of course, there are those who will say that when the attention turns to the dire plight of women in Afghanistan, the suffering of men is neglected. It takes a pretty warped mind to think that improving one can only come at the expense of the other. A regime that dehumanizes one part of its population as profoundly as the Taliban did Afghanistan's women, is highly likely to treat other citizens like dirt as well, and in fact pictures from the liberated capital of Kabul show not just women jubilantly discarding their burqas, but men looking joyful as their four-inch beards fell to the ground.
Now, the high priests of political correctness have been telling us for years that we have no business judging other cultures and that we must learn to appreciate religious and ethnic diversity. Yet, at the same time, feminists have preached that we must interfere in the domestic arrangements of other societies if the lives of women do not conform to feminist ideas which mostly they don't. (Neither do the lives of most American women, for that matter.) These two approaches to the world, both originating on the left, sometimes end up in complete conflict, and can only be resolved by shifting the blame usually to the United States.
Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Maureen Dowd managed to combine appropriate outrage over the treatment of Afghan women with shameful fingerpointing at the U.S. president. "The White House, suddenly shocked by the five-year-old Taliban excesses, began a campaign against the treatment of women," she writes, failing to notice that four of those years were on Bill Clinton's watch. White House concerns expressed in first lady Laura Bush's radio address on Saturday, Miss Dowd dismisses as gratuitous. "It's a freebie, an easy way to please feminists who got mad when the administration ended financing for international family planning groups that promote abortion." Also, she demands, what's the Bush administration going to do for the women of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia? American women serving with the U.S. military there are just furious that they have to cover up and can't drive cars.
A simple humanitarian impulse should be enough to motivate American leadership without resorting to the vocabulary of feminism. In fact, Mrs. Bush did not even accuse the Taliban of being "chauvinists." They are something far more serious than that. The war on terrorism was "a fight for the rights and dignity of women," she said. "The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control." She accused the Taliban of practicing "gender apartheid," which seems a pretty apt term.
The good news is that the Bush administration is determined to help effect change. As Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky told me, "this administration supports Afghan women playing a vital role in the political and economic recovery of a future Afghanistan."
Coinciding with the first lady's radio address, the State Department's Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues released a report on "Women and Girls in Afghanistan." Familiar territory is the Taliban prohibition against girls' education (resulting in a female literacy rate of 4 percent) and against women working outside the home (hitting war widows and their families especially hard). The all-encompassing veil, the burqa, was enforced particularly in the cities. Houses where women lived had to have their windows painted over. No women were allowed to drive, and taxi drivers were prohibited from picking them up if unaccompanied. That left special women's buses for transport with windows covered by curtains. It's not even as though Afghan men gained much of an advantage from this oppressive state of affairs. Due to the lack of female doctors and nurses, life expectancy sank to 45.1 years for women and 46.6 for men.
As it happens, the U.S. government is already a donor to Afghanistan, contributing $187 million for 2001, some which has been targeted specifically to women and children in refugee camps. However, since September 11, says Ms. Dobriansky, White House meetings have produced proposals in areas like education, health care, micro funds for starting businesses and exchange programs to bring Afghan women to the United States. A consensus quickly formed here, she says, on "the importance of restoring the human rights of Afghan women and on the importance of the role they can play in the planning and reconstruction of Afghanistan." One hopes they will have even more reason to give thanks next year this time.

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