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Women’s Liberation, Imperialism and War

Pam Johnson

January 1, 2003

Marxism No. 1, 2003
We may never know the number of women killed during the war on Afghanistan, but we can see the incredible devastation of peoples’ lives who have survived. Women who bear the brunt of child rearing are facing overwhelming obstacles trying to feed, house and clothe their children. The same is happening for women in Palestine, in Colombia and in Iraq. The combined effects of war and globalization have been devastating to women in war zones victimized by imperialist aggression. But in the rich countries like Canada, women are hardly free from oppression. While money flows freely for military, security and policing, funds for health care, education, day care or decent jobs are cutback and cut out.
The situation in the world for women today is in fact contradictory. On the one hand, the gains of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s have changed women’s lives. On the other, the effects of war and globalization have been devastating for women. Globally, for women there are fewer marriage and divorce restrictions, greater property rights, abortion rights, and more opportunities to work outside the home. A recent work by Goretti Horgan shows dramatic changes in the last 30 years for women even in the poorest and most restrictive countries including Ireland, Indonesia and Thailand.1 The freedom to work outside the home means more women are released from dependency on their husbands for their livelihood. Still, as Germaine Greer points out, it is truly a double-edged sword:

In the last 30 years women have come a long, long way. Our lives are nobler and richer than they were. . . but they are also fiendishly difficult… The contradictions women face have never been more bruising than they are now… On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners. It’s time to get angry again.2

Women and the War in Afghanistan
It is ironic that in the latest war in Afghanistan the issue of women’s liberation was used as a justification of the war. This is truly a surprise given that George W. Bush pandered to the conservative anti-woman right wing in his own party to get elected. The anti-abortion crusaders cheered when one of Bush’s first acts in office was to cut funding to international aid agencies that provide family planning counseling. Bush’s choice for Attorney General was John Ashcroft — the vocal anti-abortion crusader — who has argued that rape is not a valid reason for women to choose abortion.
Yet, one of the most enduring images splashed across newspapers and television during this war was of Afghani women wearing the burqa, a full body veil. The burqa became one of the main symbols suggesting the “evil” nature of the Taliban, the ruling force in Afghanistan prior to the US-led war, and thus the need for the war against them. The idea that this war would release women from their bondage was always utter hypocrisy; now the facts confirm the continued oppression of Afghani women. Thousands of Afghani women were killed in the war. And the American allies, the Northern Alliance, have exactly the same policy toward women as the Taliban. One of their first acts in power was to ban a planned women’s march through the streets of Kabul.3
So widespread is acceptance in the west of the idea of women’s equality, that it even became a cornerstone of the rationale for the “war on terrorism”. Disturbingly, it was not only the mainstream corporate press and governments that made the war out to be a struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Some sections of the left and some very well regarded activists, such as Susan George, were, at least temporarily, swayed by this argument.4 That this situation could occur raises questions about two issues that will be examined here: western perceptions of Islam and religious fundamentalism in the women’s movement; and the theory of women’s oppression that has historically underpinned the modern women’s movement.
Islam and Religious Fundamentalism
Some on the left saw US aggression against the Taliban as a positive step toward destroying a horrible anti-woman regime. There is no doubt that the Taliban’s treatment of women was oppressive, but this does not get at the reality of this situation. The Taliban came to power in the strife of 20 years of perpetual imperialist war, where every existing structure in society was decimated. The Taliban response was an attempt to create order. It was completely misguided and based on a rural society that could not be translated into an urban industrial world. The Taliban came out of the mujahideen, who fought against Russian aggression in the 1970s. It was encouraged and supported by the imperial powers, especially the US.
The strategic location of Afghanistan, lying between central Asia oil reserves and the Indian Ocean, meant the west needed a stable, pro-US regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban, at the time it took power in the mid 1990s, was considered to be the best hope to protect western investment and provide a climate where the vast oil resources could be exploited. It was only in 1998, when the US came to the conclusion that the Taliban would not be fully cooperative, that they began to denounce the treatment of women by the Taliban. Up to that time, no issue had been made of women’s rights, let alone democratic rights.
Nor has there been any outcry about other US allies like Saudi Arabia where the situation for women, the model for the Taliban, is equally oppressive. Recently, fifteen schoolgirls were burned alive in a school fire in Saudi Arabia. They were barred from leaving the burning building because they were not covered.5
Islamophobia and Women’s Oppression
The analysis behind the view that war was a progressive force for Afghani women follows from the argument that Islam is a particularly “anti-woman” religion. It is the same Islamophobia that has been nurtured since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Western politicians proffered this view during the 1991 Gulf War, and it has been reinforced by the corporate media and Hollywood movies.
But there is nothing in Islam that suggests that women should be subjugated. The same treatment for women has surfaced in Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. Wearing the hijab does not equal women’s complete subjugation. In Iran, where the headscarf is required, women work, vote and sit in the national assembly. The Iranian government slammed the Taliban’s treatment of women in 1996, ironically at the same time that the US was backing them.
The rise of Islamic regimes, pitched often as a religious phenomenon, actually emerged in this region in the context of growing opposition to western imperialism over the control of oil. In country after country — Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Algeria — a small ruling elite in cahoots with western powers has enriched itself while ordinary people have suffered. The context for the rise of Islamic regimes in the oil rich countries was mass poverty and despair, while small ruling class minorities grew richer and richer. This, along with the struggle of the Palestinians against Israeli imperialism, was the platform upon which the idea of Islam as a cultural and political pole became attractive. It became a banner for people fighting to maintain their way of life against the powers that threatened them.
The Islamists were voicing the concerns of people that secular governments in places like Egypt ignored. Many people were drawn under this umbrella because Islamism was the only movement on offer as a vehicle to fight imperialism. Yet, their alternative as the way forward, an ultimately utopian and revisionist idea of Islamic culture and values, could not and can not enable people to fight the political and economic realities of capitalism shaping the region.
The failure to understand how Islam as a political movement could have a pull on ordinary Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East and in Canada, has been problematic for the left and the women’s movement. In the case of the Muslim world, a failure of left wing ideas in the 1960s and 1970s led to a vacuum of despair about the possibility of fighting western imperialism. Islamism, in this context, took hold and had broad appeal because it targeted the real problem devastating peoples’ lives, western imperialism. Many people, even progressive women, embraced it, and put on the hijab, not in submission — but in defiance of imperialism that imperiled their way of life.
The Politics of Religious Fundamentalism
This political Islam that has influenced even progressive forces in the Arab world has been collapsed together with all anti-woman brands of religious fundamentalism. The idea that religious fundamentalism is an evil tantamount to the imperialism of the west is a widespread belief and it also holds currency in the anti-capitalist movement. Susan George, anti-capitalist theorist and anti-globalization activist, put forward what she termed a “Planetary Contract” after September 11 — a sort of new Marshall Plan for poor countries. She talked of fighting religious fundamentalism on a par with fighting imperialism and capitalism, calling our era the “age of radical insecurity and post-state conflict”. She cited Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak — a staunch ally of US foreign policy — claiming Osama bin Laden wants to take over the world, and that civil society must be on guard against “fascist fundamentalists”.6
Religious fundamentalists usually originate as small, fringe reactionary groups, but are raised to a high level in service of the state and capitalism when the ruling class needs to divide the population to retain political control. This was the case, for example, in India, where the right wing Hindu nationalist party (BJP) orchestrated a religious struggle that has killed thousands among the Muslim minority, as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from the real source of social problems.
Women’s Oppression
Another widely held idea that affects the fight against women’s oppression is the idea that fundamentalism, imperialism and war are all different manifestations of the same thing — male dominance or, more specifically, white male dominance. More recently globalization has been added to the list under the heading that “globalization is a man”. This comes from a perspective that remains the dominant idea among those fighting against women’s oppression — the theory of patriarchy — the idea that all men benefit in a system based on women’s oppression.7 The irony is that as the gains of the women’s movement have registered in society, a significant section of women have risen to the top of these “male” power structures. The warmongers of the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century include women like Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Margaret Thatcher. These women have waged bloody wars and are directly responsible for the deaths of millions. Although still a minority, women have emerged in the top echelons of big business and the highest ranks of government. Among a layer of middle class women, it is fashionable to claim that we are now in the “post-feminist” era. Since women have been “liberated” by social norms and laws, if they continue to feel oppressed it must be their own fault. In fact, women’s oppression continues, but it is the capitalist system divided by classes that reaps the benefits. The majority of women are poor and working class women, whose standard of living continues to decline despite the gains of formal equality. Despite this reality, the theory of patriarchy continues to influence feminists and activists in the anti-capitalist/anti-war movement.
Women’s Movement
Historically, the fight for women’s rights had been a feature of earlier periods of struggle. In the US, from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s, the struggle for union rights and public services included the fight for women’s liberation. McCarthyism and the anti-communist witch-hunt, and the influence of Stalinism on the left, decimated the ranks of socialists who led these struggles and buried the political ideas that stressed liberation and solidarity. Civil rights groups and students started the movement of the 1960s, not the traditional political groups on the left or socialists.
By the late 1960s women began to organize actively within the movement around the issue of women’s liberation. The modern women’s liberation movement was born largely in the US. It grew out of the struggle for civil rights and against the Vietnam War that marked the last period of an upturn in struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. Women were involved in the struggle against racism and war but also recognized their own oppression in society. Many of these women had access to higher education in the booming post World War II economy. Yet they still could not own a house, were expected to give up careers for family, and were paid significantly less than men. The stifling moralism and gender stereotypes of the 1950s clashed with the experiences of women activists who were standing up and organizing to change the world.
These women activists also came to recognize that some aspects of the movement itself mirrored the oppression of women in its ranks, a feature of the historic break of the left from the earlier traditions of solidarity. Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), infamously stated, “The only place for women in SNCC is prone.”8 Women who wanted to fight an oppressive system found themselves expected to serve coffee to do minor administrative duties, while men were the public spokespeople. There were women leaders like Angela Davis, but they were few and far between.
The movement had a presence on the street in its early years, but there were few mass actions built specifically around women’s issues. This early women’s movement suffered from isolation from the broader movement and more particularly from the working class as a whole. Despite a relatively small number of activists on the ground, ideas of women’s liberation generalized quickly to a broader population. By the early 1970s there were hundreds of women’s liberation publications and dozens of women’s studies programs.
As the focus for women’s liberation moved off the street and into the mainstream, the debate shifted. The call was no longer focussed on liberation from an oppressive society, but for equality with men within capitalism. Socialist feminists, though often still some distance from a clear Marxist perspective, continued to maintain a focus on challenging the profit system. This current was stronger in countries such as Canada or the UK where there was a more developed social democratic tradition and higher rates of trade union organization. In the US, however, the leading section of the women’s liberation movement became increasingly dominated by wealthy women oriented to corporate advancement. A consequence of this was the rise of radical feminism, which rejected politics altogether. An example is this statement from the New York Radical Feminists, “We ask not if something is ‘reformist’, ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ or ‘moral’. We ask: is it good for women or bad for women? We ask not if something is ‘political’. We ask: is it effective? Does it get us closer to what we really want to do in the fastest way?”9
The general downturn in working class struggle in the late 1970s and 1980s blunted and fragmented the women’s movement. The view that the women’s movement was dominated by white, middle class women, while often not inaccurate, led to fracturing of the women’s movement on the basis of identity. By the mid 1990s, the women’s movement was so internalized that feminist writer Seyla Benhabib commented “Feminist theory is in danger of losing the forest for the tress, vis a vis the difficult issues of conflicting identity claims.”10 And Susan Faludi has remarked that “the popular feminist joke that men are to blame for everything is just the flip side of the ‘family values’ reactionary expectation that men should be in charge of everything. The problem is neither of these views corresponds to men’s actual position in the world.”11
There is a need now for a renewal of the ideas of women’s liberation as part of the general struggle against capitalism and all forms of oppression. The oppression of women has to be understood not as a material divide in society between all men and all women, but as rooted within the capitalist system. Women’s oppression has been part of all class societies in history, but within capitalism it operates in a specific way. Women are expected to work in the home and sustain the reproduction, daily and over generations, of productive labour. Labour is the source of all the wealth in society, and the source of all the profits upon which the capitalist class depends. But increasingly, women are also wage workers outside the home, and therefore work a double day. Wealthy women get around this by hiring maids and nannies to look after their children while they pursue careers or benefit from the wealth of their male partners. But working class women labour side by side with working class men, struggling to make ends meet. Who leads the way on denying women equality? Most often it is governments and employers rather than individual chauvinistic men. This is not to underestimate the reality of sexism and the continued need for a fight for women’s liberation within the working class. However, there are many examples of remarkable class solidarity in support of women’s rights. For example, women in the Canadian federal public service had to fight for years to receive retroactive payment for unequal pay that was legally owed to them. They were backed by men and women in the Public Service Alliance of Canada in their efforts, but in the federal government both men and women fought against a settlement.12 Another example of solidarity among working class women and men is the example in the 1980s when there was a successful fight for legal abortion rights in Canada.13 Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, defending clinics, escorting women at clinic doors and challenging the right wing backlash against women’s right to choose. This fight was built on a working class basis. It was built by women and men trade unionists, students, feminists and socialists.
The development of capitalism has shifted women’s role and the nature of the family today. While more women are in the paid workforce, they continue to be paid lower wages than men. They also bear the brunt of unpaid child rearing, and increasingly, the care of the elderly in the home. In a disturbing trend, in the advanced capitalist countries, neo-liberal economic policies are increasing the oppression of working class women, as care for children and the elderly is pushed back in to the private family in the face of deep cuts in social services.
Women and the Anti-Capitalist Movement
By the time the anti-capitalist movement was thrust onto the stage of history in Seattle at the end of 1999, there was little left of an active fighting movement against women’s oppression. But the gains of the women’s liberation struggle were immediately evident in this new movement. Right from the beginning, women have been at the forefront of anti-capitalist theorizing and activity. Women like Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein, Maude Barlow, Starhawk, Mehda Patkar and Susan George are internationally known and respected leaders. Also at the forefront of this movement are issues that effect women severely: sweatshop labour, anti-immigration laws, and the loss of public services.
Historically, when the working class as a whole has fought against capitalism and won, even for a short time, women have benefited. We can see this during the Paris Commune of 1871, when workers took over the city. They immediately opened up education for women, which was a very radical demand at the time. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, abortion was legalized, divorce was made available on the demand of one partner, and women were involved at all levels of running society. Unfortunately, once Stalinism gained hold in the late 1920s, these gains were reversed. In the 1960s, when women around the world looked for a model of liberation from oppression, the repressive system of the old USSR was no inspiration. The false claim that the USSR and the other state capitalist nations were the legitimate heir to the tradition of socialism, confused a generation of feminists, and caused the majority of the movement’s theorists and activists to look away from the Marxist tradition.
The anti-capitalist movement is providing the horizon for a true challenge of the capitalist system that feeds on war and the oppression of women. Today, we can see again the possibility of rekindling and strengthening the fight for women’s liberation. As a new imperialist war against Iraq threatens, there are women activists and leaders at every level of anti-war organizing. This time round, we need to have a clear orientation to building international solidarity against all forms of oppression.
1 Goretti Horgan, “How Does Globalization Affect Women?”, International Socialism, series 2, 92 (Autumn 2001), pp. 77-98
2 As cited in Horgan, “How Does Globalization Affect Women?”, p. 77.
3 Sunera Thobani, “Northern Alliance Bans Women’s Freedom March in Kabul”, AFP, Nov. 27, 2001 <
4 There were also, of course, notable and vocal exceptions. See for example Sunera Thobani, “War Frenzy”, in this issue of Marxism.
5 “Saudi police ‘stopped’ fire rescue”, BBC news on line, March 15, 2002 <;
6 Susan George, “The Cluster of Crisis and a Planetary Contract” (Budapest: 2001) <;
7 For a more developed critique of the concept of patriarchy, see Lindsey German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London: 1998).
8 As cited in Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, (London: 1998), p. 343.
9 As cited in German, Sex, Class and Socialism, p.170.
10 Sylvia Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (New York: 2002)
11 Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York: 1999), p.10
12 The Canadian Human Rights Commission ruled in favour of the union’s demands for pay equity compensation in 1988. See <;.
13 The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics and the organized labour movement worked together closely to inspire a broad based coalition across Canada to fight for women’s right to choose without restriction in Canadian law. See Judy Rebick’s summary of the contribution of some key women union leaders in this movement. Judy Rebick “Honouring Unsung Heroes”, CBC news on line, n.d. <> and <>

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