Beyond the veil - bigger issues

The poor and oppressed in many forgotten corners of the world no doubt would welcome a glint of Hollywood glamour to shed enough light on their problems to attract the attention of Europe and the United States.

The plight of women and girls in Afghanistan has been taken up in the past few years by more than 70 stars, as well as Glamour magazine and the prime-time show "Seventh Heaven." Last month, 7,000 activists attended the Feminist Majority Foundation's Feminist Expo 2000 in Baltimore. The organization's Campaign to End Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, led by Mavis Leno (Jay's wife), figured prominently there.

Yet, for Afghan women, being a Hollywood cause clbre may have hurt more than helped.

After becoming a force in Afghanistan's civil war in 1994, the Taliban Islamic Movement placed harsh restrictions on the entire female population, barring them from work and school. But what raised Western concern were images of women wearing a garment, mandated by the Taliban, that conceals the body from head to toe, with a mesh opening for the eyes.

US and European human rights organizations feature the images of these veiled women prominently in their direct mail and media campaigns, aimed at shocking Western sensibilities to generate awareness - and money.

Western efforts to fight Taliban disregard for the rights of women, which are recognized in Islamic and international legal texts, are well-intentioned. But the repeated use of the burka image as a publicity tool reinforces dangerous stereotypes, mainly that the world's diverse 1.1 billion Muslims are a group of powerless women under the thumbs of turbaned, gun-toting men. Beyond the obvious insult, this strategy fails to address the physical, social, and economic devastation faced by all Afghans after two decades of war.

The unfortunate consequence of this media blitz is felt most keenly by the very ones the campaign seeks to assist. Aid groups complain that cumulative criticism of the Taliban has made donor nations reluctant to provide humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan, even though the regime's policies seem to be relaxing.

Many donor nations and agencies fear aid to Afghanistan will be perceived in that nation as condoning the Taliban's treatment of women.

In addition to advocating sanctions, South Africa-style, against the Taliban, the Feminist Majority Foundation raises money to assist female Afghan refugees in Pakistan and helps some to resettle in the US. However well-meaning this evacuation is, it isn't feasible for the more than 80 percent of women who are uneducated and live in rural, agricultural communities. For these women, who in many cases have worn a burka for years, life has changed little under the Taliban. It's not the veil, but an almost total lack of international aid, that threatens their survival.

Since 1994, when the Taliban captured the southern city of Kandahar, the UN and other humanitarian agencies have served women by quietly negotiating exceptions to the militia's policies. By November 1995, the Taliban controlled more than half of the country, but it wasn't until the faction's widely publicized takeover of the capital, Kabul, in September 1996, that the international community took notice. As the media focused on forced veiling and other restrictions on women in Kabul, aid contributions fell sharply. Last year, less than 40 percent of needs identified by the UN were funded. Ironically, no country or organization - not even the Feminist Majority - supported planned human rights projects in Afghanistan.

Finding resources is even more difficult for Afghan aid groups, which have been more successful than Western organizations in persuading Taliban leaders to permit some women's healthcare and home schooling. The New York Times reported recently that as many as 10,000 girls are now studying with Taliban consent - but over the past five years, more have attended school in secret or with the approval of local authorities on a case-by-case basis. Had there been adequate funding for this long-time strategy of subtle engagement with the Taliban, more girls might have had earlier access to education.

In addition to discouraging aid that would most help Afghan women, newfound Western outrage over the veil is viewed as hypocritical and anti-Muslim by many Afghans - including not a few women, some US-based Afghan aid organizations, and the broader Muslim world.

For years, aid to Afghan refugees was distributed to male commanders of various mujahideen factions fighting Soviet occupation, several of which were known for rape and abduction of women. Taliban leaders and other Afghans have raised legitimate questions about why the West failed to express concern for women's rights back then. This latest Western misunderstanding of the diverse Muslim world further erodes the credibility of efforts to resolve the deep-rooted political issues at the heart of the Afghan civil war, as well as other international conflicts.

The perpetuation of inaccurate stereotypes seems even more serious in light of President Clinton's recent visit to the region, where nuclear tensions make the stakes very high.

Of course, Western women's groups should continue to raise consciousness of women's suffering around the world. But they must act more responsibly in their use of images that, in the long term, harm those they're trying to help. If efforts are redirected toward providing humanitarian assistance for women inside Afghanistan and pressuring governments to address the underlying political and economic problems left after the Soviet withdrawal, Afghan women can again decide for themselves what to wear.

* Megan Reif researched the Taliban as a 1996-97 Fulbright Scholar in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She is now a development consultant with an international non-governmental organization.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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