The XX Factor

The Old Girls’ Network Fights the Taliban

The news of the hour is a new vote in Afghanistan . This is good news for Peter Galbraith, a United Nations representative in Afghanistan who had been fired from the U.N. team for blasting Afghanistan’s “tainted vote” in public . This new Washington- and Kabul-sanctioned runoff election, to be held on Nov. 7, may well delay an official White House announcement on more troop levels for “the good war.” But when discussing the Afghan crisis, which Daily Show co-creator Liz Winstead has taken to calling ” Noplanistan “-the plight of women in the feudal, fractured, straight-dangerous nation should spring to mind. This wasn’t always so. I’ve been slowly digesting Ghost Wars , Steve Coll’s indispensable treatise on Afghanistan from the end of the Carter years until the 9/11. A passage about Bill Clinton’s administration (pp. 362-3) caught my eye:

By the autumn of 1997 persistent lobbying against the Taliban by the Feminist Majority had influenced the two most important women in the Clinton administration, Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton. When Albright visited a refugee camp in Peshawar that November, she departed from her prepared script and denounced the Taliban’s policies toward women as “despicable.” It was the first time a Clinton Cabinet member had made such a forceful statement about Taliban human rights violations. A few weeks later Hillary Clinton used a major speech about human rights at the United Nations to single out the Taliban. “Even now the Taliban in Afghanistan are blocking girls from attending schools,” Clinton said. The Taliban were harassing those “who would speak out against this injustice.” It was the first time that either of the Clintons had seriously criticized the Taliban in public.

It wouldn’t be the last time-Albright and Clinton were early movers in what has since been an avalanche of censure for the Taliban’s record on women’s issues. Coll also writes about what caused Afghanistan to breach Clinton’s radar: networks of feminist organizers who remained vigilant even in what seemed like boom times for women’s rights. He continues:

The impetus had come from old friends of Albright and Hillary Clinton in the feminist policy networks of the Democratic Party. These were accomplished, professional women of the baby boomer generation now stepping into powerful positions that women had not held in Washington before, at least not in these numbers. They kept in touch with one another and worked on each others’ issues. The Taliban had now slipped onto the agenda of their fax machine network. Sitting cross-legged in their barren ministries thousands of miles away in Kandahar, the Taliban’s leaders had no idea where this turn in American attitudes had come from. They made little effort to find out. When pressed on the issue of education for girls by the occasional visiting American delegation, they said “this is God’s law,” recalled the State Department’s Leonard Scensny. “This is the way it’s supposed to be. Leave us alone.”

The upcoming election may or may not present an opportunity for women’s advancement. (In August , “a combination of fear, tradition, apathy and poor planning conspired to deprive many Afghan women of rights they had only recently begun to exercise.”) But 12 years after the fact, it’s heartening to see the maturation of this network, moved from faxes to the Internet!

No doubt the old network or those like it included Melanne Verveer, chief-of-staff-to-Hillary-turned-American-ambassador-at-large for women’s issues, and Carol Browner, a mid-level climate specialist, now energy czar. Pentagon brass, like Michele Flournoy, and protégés of Albright, like North Korea adviser Wendy Sherman and Indonesia specialist Karen Brooks, were likewise not at the apex of their authority then. These networks were instrumental in fighting for reproductive rights, as well as education and career opportunities abroad. They remain interested in the happenings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some are key decisionmakers. Events like the Darfur policy change announcement yesterday, run by Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice-in 1997, a first lady and an assistant secretary of state for African Affairs*-really bring home the leaps and bounds that American women have made during the time that the Taliban bas been busy bullying and oppressing and so forth.