The women of Afghanistan have rarely enjoyed equal status with men, not under the kings that ruled the country for centuries, not under the Soviet-backed regime that took over in a 1979 coup, and definitely not under the fundamentalist Taliban who seized power in 1992. In this country, with one of the lowest rates of literacy and highest rates of poverty in the world, women have repeatedly organized for their rights. The most visible of these women’s movements has been RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
Established in 1977, RAWA worked for social justice during the monarchy and subsequently fought against the Soviet occupiers. In the 1990s, however, RAWA came to prominence for daring to challenge the stone-age politics of the Taliban. The Taliban government insisted that women wear the all-encompassing burqa. It closed down all girls schools, outlawed family planning, and restricted the movement of women. It even banned female vocalists and decreed that women not laugh out loud for fear that it would corrupt all men within earshot. RAWA documented the violence against women during this period: the beatings of those who wore colorful clothing, the stoning of alleged adulterers, the rapes and public murders. RAWA established schools in refugee communities in Pakistan. It kept the world’s attention on the plight of Afghan women, both inside the country and in the refugee diaspora.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2002, RAWA has consistently challenged the new authorities to expunge fundamentalism from the traditions and political practices of the country. By some measures, the situation has improved. Schools for girls have reopened, the government has a new Ministry for Women’s Affairs, and a women’s radio station is back on the air as of February 2005. In other respects, not much has changed. Many patriarchs still refuse to let the women of the family out of the house, the burqa is still mandatory for those women who do venture into public, and horrific punishments are still meted out to women who fall afoul of “tradition.”
In Afghanistan, RAWA has demanded equal access to education and jobs, created income-generating projects, campaigned against sexual abuse and violence, organized for greater political representation, and sought transformations at a social and cultural level. On the Korean peninsula, the South Korean women’s movement is looking for ways to work together with women in North Korea. In the United States, the women’s movement continues to work on closing the pay gap between men and women. African-American feminists have gone to great lengths to diversify the ranks and the way of thinking of feminism, even to the point of, like Alice Walker, rejecting the term altogether in favor of “womanist.” Women activists in the United Nations have worked hard to shut down the trafficking of women and girls.
There are, in short, many feminisms in the world. There is not just one philosophy of what women should be, how they should achieve equity with men, and what political and social order best preserves the rights of half the world’s population. There are feminisms that are more separatist and more inclusive, feminisms that seek ameliorative change and those that seek radical transformation, feminisms that speak the liberal language of rights and feminisms that speak in more communitarian or socialist tongues.
Have these feminisms, in achieving many successes in the 20th century, lost some of their power to engage the new generation? Have the “third generation” feminists provided a useful image upgrade of the movement or “mainstreamed” the women’s movement at the expense of its more radical ideas? Was Margaret Thatcher, in being a powerful woman leader, a feminist icon even though she abhorred the term and promoted polices that proved disastrous for average women? Does the TV show Desperate Housewives reinforce all the worst gender stereotypes or does it showcase the power of sisterhood? Are female prostitutes advancing sexual liberation and women’s power or are they merely the playthings of patriarchy? Is the “consciousness-raising” paradigm a viable approach or the remnant of paternalistic thinking? Has the feminist movement become a home for women of all colors and from all economic classes?
On a trip to Provisions, you can read bell hooks’s diversification of the women’s movement in Feminist Theory: From the Margins to the Center, become absorbed in Frida Kahlo’s vibrant diaries, flip through irreverent Bitch magazine, log on to learn about a different feminist each day, listen to the “grrl sounds radio” of Feisty, and escape with the popular film Thelma and Louise.