War of Ideas – September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives Reviewed

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Just weeks ago, travelling to the U.S., I had a dose of the “anti-terror” measures introduced as a result of the shocking events of 11 September 2001. From Melbourne onwards, each airport was effectively a military checkpoint. I particularly remember Honolulu, on the way home, where the only passengers pulled out of the line-up for frisking were people of colour. In my much X-rayed bag was September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives. Very appropriate! Feminism is dissent, and governments everywhere are using the appalling mass murders as an excuse to crush dissent. Publication of the book is a welcome riposte to the fear-mongering of the mass media. Yet it leaves unanswered the key question of how to end this war — and all wars — for good.

September 11 is a hefty array of contributions from women around the world, who offer a variety of perspectives on the world-changing event and its aftermath. Editors Bronwyn Winter and Susan Hawthorne compiled the book to document feminist views against war and analysis of what drives it. They say that women’s voices have been drowned out by governments and media whipping up “terror” hysteria. Diane Bell, Australian anthropologist and contributor, rightly says that women, because of their second class status, are well practised in “dislodging dearly held beliefs in the ‘natural order’ of things.” Therefore feminists ask awkward questions. Yet feminism is not a monolithic theory. As a socialist feminist, I was interested to check out the questions and the answers.

The book is divided into two sections. Part one covers immediate responses as events unfolded: “Whose Terrorism?” encompasses September 12 to October 7, 2001, the day the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan; “Whose War?” spans October 8 to November 13, when the Northern Alliance entered Kabul; “Whose Peace?” then takes us to International Women’s Day 2002. Part Two is a collection of analytical pieces entitled “Reflections.” Most of the writings initially appeared in email correspondence, newspapers, feminist publications, speeches and submissions to governments or to the United Nations.

Human consequences of terrorism. Robin Morgan speaks of incomprehensible losses: “Each lamppost, storefront, scaffolding, mailbox, is plastered with homemade photocopied posters, a racial/ethnic rainbow of faces and names: death the great leveller, not only of the financial CEOs — their images usually formal, white, male, older, with suit-and-tie — but the mail room workers, receptionists, waiters. You pass enough of the missing posters and the faces, names, descriptions become familiar. The Albanian window-cleaner guy with the bushy eyebrows. The teenage Mexican dish-washer who had an American flag tattoo. The janitor’s assistant who’d emigrated from Ethiopia. The Italian-American grandfather who was a doughnut-cart tender. The 23-year-old Chinese American junior pastry chef at the Window on the World restaurant who’d gone in early that day so she could prep a business breakfast for 500. The firefighter who’d posed jauntily wearing his green shamrock necktie. The dapper African-American mid-level manager with a small gold ring in his ear who handled “minority affairs” for one of the companies. The middle-aged secretary laughing up at the camera from her wheelchair. The maintenance worker with a Polish name, holding his newborn baby.”

Around the world, many of us watching this on television had similar thoughts. But the people of New York are not unique in their grief. Says Kathleen Berry: “When we look at the lines of people with photographs of loved ones held to their hearts, looking and waiting for word, hoping for life, we can immediately be reminded of the mothers of the ‘disappeared’ who carried those pictures for years, in Argentina and in Chile after the bloody U.S.-sponsored coup that set up the vicious dictator, Pinochet, or in Guatemala, in East Timor and many other countries.” And Suheir Hammad, a Black Palestinian, says in her poem: “If there are any people on earth who understand how New York is feeling right now/they are in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Collateral damage. Some contributors take a hard look at terrorism. Whoever sent those planes, the verdict is that Corporate America is responsible. GABRIELA Network, a U.S.-Philippine women’s solidarity organisation, blames its ruthless drive for profit: “Where medicine vital to survival becomes priced out of reach of the majority of the sick, where medicine is not manufactured because the sick poor does not constitute a market, where the food self-sufficiency of nations is compromised to maintain a world trading system, and where the most fundamental needs of human beings are ignored in favour of ‘globalisation,’ not only despair but also a vast reservoir of hatred becomes the constant emotion of daily existence of the populations of the world.” Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva also identifies the economic roots of terrorism: “the destruction of livelihoods and jobs, and erosion of democratic control over the economy and systems of production.” Capitalist globalisation, she says, is contributing to the “Talibanisation” of the world by causing increased economic insecurity and assaulting people’s political freedoms.

Two gripping reads are “Women, the Taliban, and the Politics of Public Space in Afghanistan” by Valentine Moghadam, from Illinois State University, and “Afghanistan, Central Asia, Georgia: Key to Oil Profits” by Karen Talbot, director of International Council for Peace and Justice. Moghadam exposes the sordid history of U.S. bankrolling of the misogynist Taliban and Mujahadeen against a Soviet-backed Afghan government which had freed women to participate in public life. Talbot shows up the business connections of the Bush family and high ranking presidential functionaries, such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, with Unocal and Enron and their sleazy deals in the Middle East. Hamid Karzai, who heads the current “interim” government, has been in the picture since the 1980s as a covert operator for the CIA, supporting the Taliban, and a consultant for Unocal. She continues: “The big payoff for the Bush Administration is the entrenchment of a permanent U.S. military presence in oil-rich Central Asia…the further balkanisation of Central Asian and trans-Caucasus nations…and further military encirclement of China. All of this is icing on the cake — the “cake” being the trans-Afghanistan pipelines with their access to and dominance of the South, South-East and East Asian markets.”

War on the poor. Acts of terrorism provide the excuse for increased government repression at home and abroad. Hawthorne and Winter mention the Howard Government’s “anti-terror” legislation, modelled on the USA PATRIOT Act. Canadian academic Sunera Thobani speaks of the chilling effects of “racial profiling” — like the roundup of Indonesian-Australians following the bombings in Bali. For the women and children of Afghanistan, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza, the cost is especially high. Hammad puts it this way: “Shit is complicated, and I don’t know what to think/ but I know for sure who will pay/ in the world. It will be women, mostly coloured and poor/ Women will have to bury children, and support themselves/through grief.”

September 11, 2001 is a treasure trove of information and viewpoints which send out a message that must be at the centre of the anti-war movement: fighting this war is a feminist issue of the first order. What the book fails to do is get to the bottom of why. The theme in so many contributions is that sexism and war are “masculinist” — men struggling for power. Hawthorne and Winter deny that this is to say men are “naturally” warmongers, it just means that we live in a male supremacist world. True. But without an analysis of class, there’s no viable solution to war.

Academic and journalist Cynthia Enloe claims that the war drive has been shaped by “notions of manliness.” She believes that Congress and the ruling Democratic and Republican parties can come up with a “less militarised, less distortedly masculinised foreign policy.” Several others appeal to the United Nations. This is the body set up by the world’s imperialist powers in 1945 to disarm and pacify troubled regions which they regard as strategic to corporate interests and global supremacy. Its first military mission was Korea in 1950, where the United States started a war that Bush now intends to finish. More recent exploits include the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq, smack inside the petroleum-rich arch stretching from the Middle East to South-East Asia. For the peoples of these regions, the UN has never brought peace, security nor freedom.

Sexism and war are cornerstones of capitalism. Women reproduce the workforce and care for it throughout life — without pay. A working man may get a bigger pay cheque and his house kept clean — maybe even a warped sense of superiority. But male supremacy works for the ruling class, not for ordinary men. Similarly, war does not benefit working men. It kills and impoverishes them, so that the ruling class can enrich itself building machines destined only for destruction. War is not “masculunist,” it is about class, about who rules. Capitalism is on the verge of collapse. This war is about keeping it alive — with the United States at the helm.

No more “Ground Zeros.” Capitalism is responsible for the deaths of 99,000 every day and the absolute poverty of billions of people. It is the source of war. Therefore we must build a feminist, anti-capitalist movement focussed not only on stopping the slaughter in the Middle East, but on winning lasting peace and justice. Anyone targeted by Bush’s war machine must be staunchly defended by international mass action, led by the working class of core capitalist countries like the U.S. and Australia.

Leon Trotsky, who organised the military defence of the 1917 Russian Revolution against imperialist invasion, knew that war solves nothing. He wrote: “All of the evolution of the past, the thousands of years of human history, of class struggle, of cultural accumulation, are concentrated now in the sole problem of proletarian revolution. There is no other answer and no other escape.”

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