FP: Ms. Burkett, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Burkett: Thank you Jamie.
FP: As someone who was once on the Left, tell us how your travels through the Muslim world challenged some of your ideological beliefs.
Burkett: Let me start out with some background. As you clearly know, I spent most of my adult life (I'm 57) thinking of myself as on the Left. Not a liberal Democrat. In my generation of '60s activists, liberal was a dirty word. We thought of them as those establishment types who thought that America's problems could be fixed with a band-aid. We were trying to ask harder questions about the system, about the balance of power among the nation's various constituencies. And in some sense, I think I'm still asking those questions.
If you think of the women who reinvigorated public discussion and political activity around women's issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Second Wave feminists, that was me. I helped establish two Women's Studies Programs. I taught Women's History. I was on the front lines of a dozen battles to defend women's rights.
Then, in August 2001, I took a Fulbright Professorship to teach journalism in Kyrgyzstan. I wasn't looking for news. I was taking a break from reality and had seized on Kyrgyzstan as the most remote possible country - one where the word chad had never been uttered, one which never would appear on any CNN map.
Two weeks after my arrival, the Embassy called late one evening and advised me to turn on the TV and STAY HOME. About 10 days later, they called for a voluntary evacuation of Americans since the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, has been very active in Kyrgyzstan.
At that point, reality had come to me, so I couldn't go home. Rather, I plunged into the new reality at the intersection where Reagan's Evil Empire met Bush's Axis of Evil. In late October 2001, I flew into Kabul. Over my Christmas break, my husband and I went to Iran. The day after our return, Bush declared the Axis of Evil. Since I'd already been to one of the three, I decided to try for the other two. I never made it to N. Korea, but that May I spent three weeks in Iraq. Over the intervening months, I traveled and lectured in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
No matter where I went, it was impossible for me to escape the reality that ALL of my experiences were being shaped more thoroughly by my gender than by my nationality. Sure, people reacted to me as an American - mostly to ask if I could help them get visas or to ask if some silly nonsense they'd read in the press (U.S. troops being required to pray daily to a pamphlet filled with photos of Bush and his Cabinet, or the U.S. plotting to deprive the Russians of gold medals at the Winter Olympics.) But I was suddenly operating in a part of the world in which my gender was foremost in almost every encounter.
In Afghanistan, I found it difficult to walk down the street because I didn't understand that women always scurried around in their burqas because they were always expected to get out of the way of any man on the sidewalk. I met a woman who'd been crippled by a beating from the Vice and Virtue Police because - unaccustomed to seeing out of a burqa - she's tripped on the street and exposed a little ankle. I interviewed extraordinary women who'd been active professionals before the rise of the Taliban who'd endured their confinement by addicting themselves to sedatives or by abusing their husbands and kids.
In Iran, I got on a bus one afternoon and was directed to the back of the bus, which is where women are expected to ride. In Turkmenistan, I heard about arranged marriages to uncles, about women who refused to agree to such marriages being driven out by their families. In Kyrgyzstan, I learned about hymen replacement surgery - surely an amazing symbol of the plight of young women caught between modernization and tradition. If these women couldn't produce bloody sheets on the night of their weddings, they would, as a minimum, be shunned, at a maximu, be killed. In Iraq, urban women had watched as Saddam became more religious, and as short-sleeve dresses disappeared from the stores and women were pushed out of public life.
So when I came home, I fully expected the feminist movement to be up in arms, demanding that the U.S. government do more to defend these women, marching on the United Nations in defense of their sisters.
Instead, I found NOW working on its annual Love Your Body Day. And if I didn't hit a wall earlier, I hit it several weeks ago during the March for Women's Lives. Whoopi Goldberg declared that "there's a war going on, a war against women." I agreed. Unfortunately, we were talking about different wars.
The marchers insisted that George W. Bush is the world's greatest threat to women. What I'd seen and heard during a year's travels was that Muslim fundamentalists were the world's greatest threat to women. That's certainly what the women I met - on the street, in the market, in the classroom, on buses and during interviews - told me. They weren't worried about access to abortion. They were worried about access to jobs, about the right to work, about the right to run to the store without having to cover themselves, about the right to select their own husband, the right to educate themselves and their daughters.
And a march focused on George Bush and access to abortion belittled their situations and their struggles. How can you care about women, as the feminists insist they do, and not care about the actual threats to their lives?
Fortunately, I discovered shortly after I returned home, the current administration didn't need NOW and the Feminist Majority to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in order to reach out to women who live under the threat of Muslim fundamentalists. They understand that we - Americans - share an enemy with these women. By defending them, we defend ourselves.
FP: The Bush administration is doing a remarkable job empowering women throughout the Muslim world. Can you illuminate the picture for us a bit?
Burkett: In Iraq, the CPA ensured that a bill of rights would grant women equal rights and that the governing council included women.
Included in all facets of Iraq’s political transition. We sponsored political workshops and trainings that helped establish a national women's umbrellas organization as a watchdog and advocacy group. We have helped pay for the creation of women's centers throughout the country to provide job training programs, legal services and political organization. We sent a delegation of women leaders to the Global Women's Summit in Marrakesh last summer. We've donated $6.5 million to local women's groups, including the Iraqi Nursing Association since there were only 300 trained and licensed female nurses in the country. We've renovated the women's dorms at the University of Babylon
In Afghanistan, we've set up more than 175 projects for Afghan women to increase political participation, build economic lives, secure education and health care. Beginning with insisting on the inclusion of women in the new government, we've helped establish an office of Women's Affairs in the country and a special section on encouraging women-owned businesses inside the Ministry of Commerce. We gave $2.5 million to the construction of Women's Resource Centers in every province. We're providing $3.5 million to help women secure property rights under Islamic law and gain access to legal aid. We've established a program to live microcredit to Afghan women and given millions to create schools where girls are actually allowed to study. That doesn't include the literacy programs we've funded for women who grew up with no education and women's wings in hospitals.
Should I go on?
The new Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - a $129 million program to promote reform - recognizes that women's issues are one of four key pillars essential to progress in the region. We've funded dozens of programs them - from workshops on Women and Law to women's campaign schools. We've singled out women for international exchanges to give them the skills to become economic, political and social leaders and created business internships with U.S. companies. Educational programs, literacy programs, and media training programs have been established.
All by the president who poses the greatest danger to women?
FP: Why do you think radical feminists in the West are so silent regarding the fate of women in this part of the world?
Burkett: There are only three possible explanations for this shameful silence. First, that they really don't care about women at all, at least not about any women who aren't like them. Second, that they care but that they care less about these millions of women in peril than they do about their broader political agenda, which is booting the Republicans out of the White House. Third, that they do care but they can't bear to agree with George Bush on anything.
Frankly, I think the reality is some sort of combination of all three. These are such partisan times that it seems that it's impossible for feminist leaders to say: "We don't like the president's position on abortion, we worry about his potential Supreme Court nominees, but, in fairness, we have to admit that he's done some terrific things for women in the Muslim World."
When pushed to acknowledge this reality, many tell me, "Oh, but he isn't doing it for the right reasons. He doesn't really care about women. He only cares about national security."
I can't help but laugh, not just at the poo-pooing of national security concerns. Do you think those women CARE if anyone's motivations are pure? They only care that they're defended.
The rank-and-file women have a different problem: They don't know what Bush has done for women because no one is writing that story. A few editorials have been written about the new U.S. campaign to stop sexual trafficking, but not in mainstream women's magazines or in feminist journals. These women turn to their leadership for information, and they are refusing to tell them the truth.
Two more things come to mind:
When I was in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, at the instigation of the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy, I visited a Burn Center established by a local female physician. In that part of the world, rural women live as virtually slaves to their husbands and mothers-in-law, an unending onslaughter of violence in many cases. When they can't take it any more, some women resort to pouring gas over their bodies and lighting a match - local belief being that burning yourself alive isn't a violation of Muslim prohibition against suicide. Some women survive, and not only are they maimed and scarred, but they are cast out of their communities. Several dozen live in a private burn center. What were they eating? Military rations sent over by the new base in Uzbekistan.
Second, I want to give you a paragraph from my book, which is a long quote from a woman I interviewed in Kabul just after the Taliban left. Nadia was one of seven sisters, all educated women. Her sisters had gotten out. Nadia, a high school principal, didn't:
"We knew the Americans were going to bomb us, and of course, we were worried. We thought that it would be like with the Russians with bombs falling everywhere. Every night we waited. When we finally heard the planes overhead, we lay down in the hall, all seven of us (she has five kids and a husband), and put cotton the children's ears. When the bombs finally dropped, I smiled, really smiled, for the first time in years.
"Later, I heard on the radio that the first pilot was a woman. Here, women don't have the right to attend school and become literate. In American, they learn to bomb accurately. I knew at that moment that the Taliban would be finished and we'd have our freedom back. I knew I would have to thank that woman pilot for what she had done."
FP: Why do you think men oppress women throughout the Islamic-Arab world? What is the impulse within the religion and culture to dehumanize and enslave half of the human race?
Burkett: Ah, you've posed the $64,000 question now, and I don't think the answer is easy. Islamic law certainly isn't the problem, at least not in terms of Koranic law. Shariya, after all, might limit women's right to inherit, for example, and it calls for modesty in dress. But it certainly doesn't prohibit women from working, owning businesses (which Mohammed's wife certainly does), or driving cars. It REQUIRES that women, as men, be educated. And who defines what modesty is? A small band of mullahs who have taken advantage of the fact that so many people are illiterate? The only question about Islam is why a religion that, early on, had such a progressive tradition has lost it, and why the other clerics aren't being more forceful in taking Islam back from its misusers.
In terms of women, though, the problem isn't the content of Islamic law but the tribal traditions of desert peoples, traditions that we see in many parts of the world hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Their persistence - or rebirth, in some cases, has to be seen in light of the enormous global struggle between tradition and modernization, a struggle which I fear we are not talking about enough during these perilous times.
You feel and witness that struggle keenly when you travel through the Middle East and Central Asia, especially among young people with one foot in each world. They cover their heads yet listen to Madonna. They apply for visas to the U.S. but wonder whether they should join the jihad instead.
For the diehard traditionalists leading much of this battle, the United States is their international symbol of modernization, of evil. In the same vein, domestically, the symbol of that same danger is the emancipation of women - modernization invading the home, imperiling the hearth, if you will, challenging their wisdom, their control, their view of themselves and the world.
This is hardly a unique phenomenon. We've watched it repeated in dozens of cultures and societies. Why were so many Americans fervently opposed to women's suffrage? To women wearing pants? To women working outside the home? Change is hard. It's scary. It is disruptive.
The real question, then, is why so many Arab societies have been unable or unwilling to see the other side of change, the positive side. And I fear that too many people assume that the fundamentalist establishment is made up of guys who worry that they won't be able to "make it" in the modern world. You only have to consider Osama bin Laden, a man who clearly would have been a "winner" in the modern world to know that that analysis is too easy. But I suspect that in order to understand him, and many of his compatriots, we'll need an army of shrinks instead of a band of historians and intellectuals.
FP: Why don't we conclude on what you think needs to be done and where hope resides for women in the Muslim world.
Burkett: Most importantly, as you wrote in your FrontPage article We Are All Souad, we need to stand with Souad and all the other women whose liberties are under threat by fundamentalists. We need to stand with them not only because it is right but because we share the same enemy and because strengthening the place of women - politically, economically and socially - is our surest guarantee that we won't have to fight fundamentalists alone.
So we need to continue - and increase - the programs the administration has already put into place, and we need the American private sector to help. We need businesses to invest in women. We need universities to create partnerships to open enlightened programs that will teach everyone, male and female, about what Islam really does say about women, about Mohammed's wife (surely a terrific role model since she was an independent businesswomen), about how to establish businesses and organize politically.
Women are caught between their sense that they must conform to "tradition," indeed, that women are the guardians of tradition, and their powerlessness to define what that tradition really says. They need to gain, or regain, their power so that they can be meaningful actresses in their own societies. And I think that we are obliged - morally and for our national security - to help them do so. If the U.S. feminist movement isn't interested, then conservative women's groups need to step into the breach and work alongside the U.S. government to stand up for these women.
There is hope. There's LOTS of hope. But these women can't fight this battle on their own, any more than we can.
FP: Thank you Elinor Burkett. It was a pleasure to speak with you.
Burkett: And thank you, Jamie, for intelligent questions. That's all too rare these days.
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