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  • Solidarity:War Rites and Women’s Rights
  • Elisabeth B. Armstrong (bio) and Vijay Prashad (bio)

War Stories

War has never been men's work. Women are always part of wars. Women fight and die in wars. Women protest and resist wars. Nothing is predictable, however, about how women enter war, or how war enters them. Since the Vietnam War, the catchphrase "women and children first" has no longer simply earmarked those passive bystanders and innocent victims of war, if it ever did. Women are also the enemy to be met on the battlefield and destroyed. Still, the victim-enemy duality remains, as the ideological build-up to the invasion of Afghanistan so clearly illustrates. On 17 November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush held her first radio conference to frame the impending U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as righteous support for the rights of women. "Women's rights" in 2001 galvanized invasion, massive air bombings, and the indiscriminate use of depleted uranium. Yet Afghan women were wholly absent from the body count of these bombings, house raids, and imprisonment. They were innocent victims only when they faced violence from Afghan men. [End Page 213]

We could dismiss the U.S. government and media attention on women's rights as bad faith, just another tattered excuse for war. After all, many of the women's organizations both in Afghanistan and Iraq opposed the invasions and fought against the assumption that they needed U.S. arms to liberate them. Groups like the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association (RAWA), the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), and the Iraqi Women's Rights Coalition (IWRC) denounced the occupation that followed the invasion, because none saw it as of any special benefit for women. When Iraqi women took to the streets on International Women's Day in 2004, they voiced two demands: complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the repeal of post-invasion sharia law, a very conservative interpretation of Islamic law wholly new to Iraq's political and religious tradition. Feminists count with dismay the diminishing numbers of women on the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan and shake their heads at then-Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai's tacit support for counting a woman's vote as one-half a franchise.

While there is considerable anger over the Taliban's mistreatment of women, there is much less concern over the rights of women lost due to U.S. military aggression. For feminists the oversight has a peculiar character, marked by what feminist theorist Iris Marion Young targets as "masculinist protection logic." In Young's words, "the apparent success of this appeal in justifying the war (to support the liberation of Afghan women) should trouble feminists and should prompt us to examine whether American or Western feminists sometimes adopt the stance of protector in relation to some women of the world whom we construct as more dependent or subordinate" (Young 2003, 3). U.S. feminists and other progressives often presume that the darker nations do not have an indigenous feminist tradition on par with our own, or, if there are such traditions, they are culturally far from modernity. There is a deep silence about the many resilient feminist resources in the darker nations, and about the close relationship between these traditions and the national liberation movements that incubated them.

The appearance of "women's rights" during a time of war is not new. It also figured in nascent and hidden ways during the Vietnam War, both as a [End Page 214] tenacious deterrent to U.S. aggression and as an unexpected reward for U.S. anti-war activists. Unlike women's rights in Afghanistan and Iraq, the story of women's rights during the Vietnam War is often told as one of a recovered feminist consciousness and new organizational horizons for women's activism in the United States. Scholars such as Sara Evans, Amy Swerdlow, and Nina Adams give ample credit for the foment of women's liberation in the United States to the National Liberation Front delegates in meetings with U.S. anti-war contingents, particularly when the latter met with the women from the Women's Union of North Vietnam and the...


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