Thursday, November 8, 2001

Is there a gender gap in this country in the war on terror? That depends on who you read. If you round up the usual suspects of the female persuasion on the media left, you’ll find them (as usual) angry at the United States.

Susan Sontag in the New Yorker blames our foreign policy. Katha Pollitt in the Nation scorns the new flag waving as the work of jingo yahoos. Robin Morgan writes on the Internet that we must look at the “root causes” of terrorism.

In this reckoning the sexes seem to be split, as usual. Women are doves and men are hawks. The degrees of separation are putting lots of stress on some marriages.

In an imagined scenario that focuses on the war between the sexes, men and women go at it with old-fashioned reversions to stereotypes. Men perspire, women glow; men are but beasts driven by their testosterone, women luxuriate in their estrogen and the moral purity of pacifism. Men operate on primal instincts of manhood, and women hark back to the behavior recorded in the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” depriving their men of (un)fair sex. Such women won’t fall into their arms until the men lay down their arms.

Gender politics, generalizing broadly about women and men, is always risky business. Most feminists in America rail against the brutal subjugation of women in much of the Arab world. When the Taliban first gained power in Afghanistan, feminists were in the vanguard decrying the plight of Afghan women. I don’t find much difference in the opinions of men and women on whether this is right or wrong. Both sexes believe that we must aggressively fight terrorism to defeat it and that the president is doing the right thing, and doing it well. In terms of sisterhood, we all know that Afghan women won’t gain even modest freedoms as long as the Taliban rules.

Muslim men and women often seem to read from different pages of the Koran to guide their relationships. Certain Muslim women in the Middle East, of course, support terrorism, but it surprises nobody that women were notably absent from the lineup of the September 11 hijackers.

“This is the warriors’ time,” Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, tells the New York Times. “The warriors, the martyrs they’re all men. In this moment of history, with the world of the Arabs and the larger world of Islam on the boil, the whole question of women and women’s progress is shelved.”

The terrorist-fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is not, we’re told over and over, of the Islamic mainstream, and its contempt for and/or fear of women is unacceptable to most Muslims. But fringe or not it is clearly seductive to many in the Islamic world.

Mohammed Atta may have been be extreme, but his fanatical fundamentalist beliefs are reflected in “the Arab street.” The man who is thought to have been the leader of the suicide bombers left a will that barred women from his funeral. He equated pregnancy with lack of cleanliness: “I don’t want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean to come and say goodbye to me.”

It’s almost impossible for an American woman to understand how any Islamic woman could find anything admirable in such a man. The Taliban who harbor terrorists also deprive Muslim women of even the most rudimentary education. But wearing the chador or burqa and returning to cultural fundamentals are regarded by many Muslim women as a return to positive tradition, acts of piety and modesty, defiant declarations against the corruption of the modern.

When we defeat the Taliban, as we will, we can’t know what kind of government will be put in its place, and it’s certainly not clear how women’s lives will be different in Afghanistan. But they couldn’t be worse. The American woman won’t be a model for the Afghan woman. But that could change in time, too.

In Iran in the 1970s educated women began to wear the chador to protest the excesses of their secular shah and to revive traditional dress. These women couldn’t foresee that a fundamentalist government run by mullahs would take away rights they took for granted. Young women as well as young men in Iran today join protests in support of America because they want the democratic freedoms they associate with America.

As we fight against those who would deprive us and everybody else of such freedoms, we’re fighting for them as well as for ourselves. George W. Bush is the commander in chief in the struggle for the rights of women everywhere. Our hero, you might say.

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