Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

Women and Sept. 11th


Zillah Eisenstein

Ithaca College

October, 2001

At this instance a masculinist militarist mentality dominates on both sides of the ill-named East/West divide. As I try to think through these post-Sept. 11 moments I feel compelled to locate and name the privileging of masculinist power with all its destructiveness. The silencing of womens unique voices at this momentmost especially the voices of Afghan women and feminists who criticized the early U. S. support of the Taliban, and then led much of the early resistance against them, only to now be treated by all involved as helpless creatures in need of saviorsallows for the continued misunderstanding of the critical historical juncture we live in today.

This political moment is not to be fully understood as simply the excessive greed and irresponsibility of global capitalism and its white supremacist ways. It is ALSO to be viewed in relation to the way that male patriarchal privilege orchestrates this hierarchical system of domination. The age-old fear and hatred of womens sexuality and domestication of her womanly and wifely duties informs all economies. At this juncture global capitalism unsettles the pre-existing sexual hierarchical order and tries to mold it to its newest needs. The Taliban is fully aware of the stakes involved here and it is, in part, why they root their politics in the active subordination of women. You do not bother oppressing those who are already docile, and powerless. You only veil and stone and murder people you fear for the power they have. Women in countries throughout the Muslim world have been sorting out their own democratic conception of Islam for decades. Their effect has not gone unnoticed by Radical Fundamentalists.

Some in the Taliban, hate “the west” because they blame it for allowing women too much freedom. But we must not misunderstand the issue here. The neat category of “the west” no longer simply holds, as people and their ideas traverse the globe. Womens struggle for their independence takes hold in its own way EVERYWHERE and ELSEWHERE. No one system of thought can claim it as their own. These blendings are what are feared the most. Whereas “the west” has modernized patriarchal privilege; the Taliban wants to enforce and secure it in more traditional familial form. I am not equating these formulations of male privilege. But neither do I want to allow the more modernized so-called “western forms of patriarchy off the hook at this moment. Instead I wish to bring these different formulations with some of their similarity into fuller view. Neither form of masculinism is good enough for women at this moment: either in the form of bin Ladens terror tactics or Bushs bombs.

Given the flux and tensions which reside within the sexual and gendered relations of global capitalism women have become a key part of the messy political imagery of the times. On any given day women simultaneously appear in the news as passive burqas covered ceatures; fighter pilots, although I think there is only one at present; bereaved widows of the Sept. 11 carnage; pregnant wives of men who died in the towers: Pakistani women holding signs against the war; and the women of the Bush administration: Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, Victoria Clarke as the hard-line Pentagon spokeswoman, and worldwide advertising agent Charlotte Beers chosen to overhaul the governments image abroad. On the one hand U.S. women are showcased as modern actors; and yet ALSO as simply traditionally grieving mothers and wives AND against the backdrop of supposedly non-modern women from abroad. The U.S. showcase masquerades as a modernized masculinity in drag.

Women are captured here as both actors and passive receptors of historical moments. And there is little clarity of what a democratic and freely chosen femaleness and womanhood should mean. U.S. policy speaks against the Talibans mistreatment of women at this juncture, while having condoned it earlier. The U.S. also supports Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan each which regularly violates womens rights. So what exactly is U.S. foreign policy towards womens rights, the very rights that the U.S. parlays as central to so-called western democracy? Yet, at least one senior administration official says that the U.S. cant make womens rights a part of the Post-Taliban package because Awe have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them?. The official goes on to say that the championing of womens rights goes well with a domestic audience, but that we must be careful how it sounds abroad. But who exactly is this official thinking of here? Hundreds of thousands of women abroad, as well as men, applaud the rights of women. Thousands of Afghan women were full participants in everyday life before the Taliban. They had the right to study and to work. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has a female lobbyist in Washington, and a position paper on womens rights, despite criticism by some Afghan womens groups, that the Alliance has not been a friend towards women in the past. The divide between ‘us and ‘them is no simple divide and should not be used against women in this way. As well, if U.S. policy makers aggressively think they have a right to orchestrate aspects of a new Afghan regime, why exclude womens rights in fear of seeming too pushy?

The massacre of Sept. 11 reminded me how much of a patriot I am to the human body. My patriotism despises all acts of terror and uses of terror. I wish to foil each and every attempt of terrorist actions but not simply by the use of more terror and aggression. This tactic of ‘more’ simply means the mightiest wins with no judgment of who and what the mighty demand. My patriotism to the human bodynot the nation–defines my struggle to see the complex negotiations necessary to really thinking our way through this moment. As an anti-racist feminist patriot I need to slowly bring into view the biggest picture I can of this humanity.

Almost all the talking-heads, and all the military spokespeople are men. All in the Taliban are men. The hijackers were all men. This is particularly significant today, because women often partook and led terrorist actions; as in the Spanish Civil War, or the Israeli freedom fighters. But not these terror-men of Sept. 11. For them, women are to be re-covered and re-silenced; they are lesser and contaminated. The Talibans treatment of women has tried to force Afghan women to disappear from public view. Its actions against Afghan women are terrorizing and inhumane. Ask any Islamic feministLeila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, Nawal El Saadawi, Nahid Toubia, Valentine Moghadam, and on and on– and she will say how these abuses towards women are mens abuses, not Islams. In the U.S., feminist activists of all kinds need to turn the lens of scrutiny on how the masculinist terrorist activity of bin Laden will be reproduced in a simple reactive method of more terror. Women cannot allow the silencing of women at this crucial time to mean the silencing of an anti-terror, social justice strategy.

Bin Laden and Mohamed Atta have made quite clear that women are not to be actors in history. Atta, in his will, requests that no women attend to his body, or participate in his funeral. This speaks his fear of women, his denial of their shared humanity, his need to separate and exclude them. Bin Laden is quoted in an interview with al-Jazeera televisionOur brothers who fought in Somalia saw wonders about the weakness, feebleness, and cowardliness of the U.S. soldier…We believe that we are men, Muslim men who must have the honour of defending Mecca. We do not want American women soldiers defending [it]…The rulers in that region have been deprived of their manhood. And they think that the people are women. By God, Muslim women refuse to tbe defended by these American and Jewish prostitutes! Ahmed Rashid writing on the Taliban says that most of these young men grew up in refugee camps without the love or comraderie of mothers or sisters.

Atta reminds me of Jean Jacques Rousseaus wish to keep women from the developing bourgeois markets of France and relocate them in the traditional patriarchal ways of ancient Greece. It is more significant, than not, that at this particular historical moment when women are more politically and economically active across the globe, than maybe, ever, that women are not actors in these moments of terror. The terrorist is named for us as Arab, or Muslim, but there is no accounting for them as men. There is too much silence on this point for it NOT to be important. Mens brown skin is put in full view, but not a word about their gender. My mind wanders to what seems like a logical conclusion: let women call for peace discussions between the women of Islam, specifically Afghan feminists, and the women of the United States, with the complex diversity of each of these sides represented. Islamic feministsbelievers and non-believersliving in the U. S. could lead the U. S. delegation. At the least, Afghan women should head any new post-Taliban government.

I believe that mostalthough not allwomen are more pacifist than men. That women will most often try to conciliate before just striking back. I am reminded of Barbara Kingsolvers description of mens child-like war mentality in this moment. She feels as though she is standing on a playground with little boys screaming at each other, just trying to hurt the one that they think started the whole thing. Meanwhile, no one is listening, and people are dying. Women, especially feminists of all kinds, are often eager to find ways to build bridges across difference, rather than blow up the bridges, deny crossings, and find safety by securing border-crossings. Yes, there is also Madeleine Albright who was one of the biggest hawks during the Gulf and Bosnian wars; or Golda Meir who was an early architect of Israeli militarism; or feminists of many stripes who are unwilling to let go of past hurts and repeat them over and over again. Nevertheless, I believe there are more people than ever, and more anti-racist feminists than before, that can make the difference that we must. Women all across the globe who move and shake these times: the haulers of water and firewood, the leaders in protecting the environment, the activists dealing with AIDS in Africa, the leaders in non-governmental civic organizations must mobilize a peaceful voice against all terror.

As an anti-racist feminist we need womens voices spoken more loudly here: for peace, for our cities, for our schools, against prejudice and discrimination, for protecting the environments across the globe, for the needed freedoms to speak and think and discuss and find new ways of finding coalitions across the differences which make this hard. Women are of all colors and classes, just like the people who died on Sept. 11 and who die daily from terror-politics. Yet, men dominate public space just now. Rivera Live spews out macho bravado, while whole heartedly endorsing Bush and his advisors. The U.S. media appears more masculinist in this aftermath than usual.

If the women of the world were given a space to be heard what would we be saying? Many of us are already asking for negotiation rather than aggression. We are looking to understand the provocation for the heinous act of Sept. 11 in order to see what might be done differently to try to prevent this from happening again. Many feminist activists have been asking for food and clothes to be donated to Afghanistan, rather than bombs. Feminists in countries throughout the world are asking how we can come to recognize a notion of a global public good which counters the nationalist rancor of hatred and death.

Central to the crisis of secular as well as religious governments is the place of women in both the public and private sphere. These once so-called separate spheres have been assaulted by the privatization of first-world states and third-world economies. As women in poor countries are dragged into the sweat-shop factory, as women are called away from their families in this country as reservists, as women hold high office in the Bush administration, as images of women are sold abroad as western-feminism for export to build new markets for cosmetics and porn, as girls and women are sold into prostitution in Thailand and elsewhere, as women drop their chadors as soon as they are in the privacy of their homes, as women protest their subservience in myriad acts of defiance, as more and more women become refugees and migrants, as Islamic and secular feminists demand human rights, women remain, and become anew both the terrain and symbols of political conflict.

The Taliban knows it must curtail womens lives if they are to stem the tide of change, and blames western-style democracy for the demands of Islamic feminists. Yet, this is no simply straight-forward story. There is the romantic legend surrounding the origins of the Taliban and their leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Supposedly, in early 1994, Omar heard of the abduction and rape of two women by local Mujahideen commanders. He went to the local madrasas (religious school), collected sixteen of the students, and went and freed the girls and hanged the commanders. The burqas followed thereafter as a protection for all.

On the one hand, the traditional despotism of the Taliban is represented through continual imagery of the confined and passive woman; on the other hand it is womens activism in public arenas that has focused the Taliban against womens progress right here. Pre-Taliban, Afghan women were participating in government, as well as schools and other civic institutions. Pre-Taliban Afghan women were active in most parts of life, much like women in Iran and Algeria, before the take-over by traditional Islamic Fundamentalists. This moment uncovers the similar and yet specifically very different patriarchal politics of Islam and “the west” towards girls, and women. This is about the politics of patriarchy and masculinist privilege and the way it comes up smack against the contradictions of global capitalisms promise of democracy for all–for women in Islamic countries AND women in “the west”. And, it also reveals an enormous contradiction in U. S. foreign policy in that the Talibans restrictive policies towards women were in place while the U. S. supported their activities during the Afghan war against the Soviets. It was Afghan and U. S. feminists,especially the Revolutionary Afghan Womens Association (RAVA)– in large part who brought critical attention to womens abuse; not our government.

Neither capitalism nor patriarchy are democratic regimes for women. Traditional patriarchy has less freedom for women than more modern forms; while equality is elusive in both. Global capitalism continues to negotiate the relationship between “western AND Islamic patriarchal forms of freedom. The Taliban response towards women is clearly rooted in their belief that if women are allowed certain freedoms, Islam as they choose to interpret it, will be undermined. The Taliban is a symptom of the complex 21st century definition of male privilege. I despise the hate-filled politics of the Taliban towards women AND the new levels of exploitation of women by global capitalist patriarchy. “The west” is not off the hook here either.


Womens activism must become a larger part of this political moment. Much of the discourse of human rights across the globe has been brought center stage by womens groups demanding equality as well as freedom, specifically for women. This has been done in the context of womens growing consciousness of themselves in war, as refugees, as laborers in the fields and sweatshops of the global economy. War rape, acid burnings, honor killings, sex trafficking and prostitution, should put terrorism towards women on the global map. Womens demands for their rights and their freedom from oppressive religious fundamentalist regimes is very often blamed on the west and its excessive self-indulgences. It is important to be critical of the U.S. for its excesses while recognizing that womens rights is not a western plot. Women from across the globe demand their rights on their own terms, from their own understandings of what Islam means. They do not need “the west” for an assist. The true subversiveness of womens rights discourse is that it speaks from the needs of womens humanity, which is transnational even if culturally experienced in different form. Womens bodies demand freedom from war rape, freedom from unwanted pregnancy. One does not need to learn this from someone other than oneself.

The Taliban chooses to curtail womens lives because this is what they see as the way to secure the life that they want for Islamic men. Global capitalism endangers this positioning. The policies of the Taliban towards women reflects the centrality of womens lives in defining culture. The Taliban declares itself as the sole interpreter of Islam against womens changing demands. If Afghan women were not changing and demanding recognition of their rights as they understand them for themselves, there would be no need to re-articulate repression. It is the dynamism of women today, not their passivity, which instigates this struggle.

Leila Ahmed asks us to think whether or not there may be at least two Islams; one of men, another of women. Mens IslamBan official textual Islam–demands that they know the meaning of Islam by interpreting the text as they do. The mullahs cling to a medieval version. Womens Islam evolves in practice through the oral tradition, as women sort out the meaning of life with the Islamic beliefs they have been taught. This is always changing, and renewed to find the meanings of justice, fairness, compassion and truth.

I am critical of the U.S. for exploiting other countries unfairly, and for taking the environment for granted, and for dropping bombs, and for the embargo against Cuba, and for our support for terrorist regimes in South America, and….Yet, I also embrace secularism and womens right to freedom and choice, as do most women across the globe. It is therefore crucial that we figure out ways to think through the complex politics of global capital with its racist and sexist formations AND the promissories of an anti-racist feminist democracy that allows us to build a socially just globe.



Written for all anti-racist feminist humanists:

Say yes to global peace

Say yes to the secularism

Say yes to religious freedom

Say yes to freedom for atheists

Say yes to sexual freedom

Say yes to gay rights

Say yes to a living wage

Say yes to women=s rights

Say yes to civil rights

Say no to exploitation

Say no to excessive greed

Say no to ALL terrorism

Say no to excessive wealth

Say no to bombing

Say no to enforced prostitution

Say no to forced veiling

Say no to ruining the earth=s resources

Say no to sexism and racism

Say yes to international law

Say no to hegemony

Say yes to humanity

Say yes to differences

Say yes to similarity

Say no to war.



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