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Gloria Steinem: Restoring women's rights in Afghanistan

Gloria Steinem is a writer and a champion of women's issues, including equal rights, equal pay, and abortion. In the early 1970s she co-founded the Women's Action Alliance to develop women's educational programs. She founded Ms. Magazine in 1972, a revolutionary publication that challenged mainstream thinking about women's places in society, and she is now chair of Liberty Media for Women, LLC, the present owner of Ms. Magazine. She is the author of three books, including Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom, Gloria Steinem. It's a pleasure to have you with us today.

STEINEM: I'd like to say hello, and I wish I could hear your voices!

CNN: Issues such as freedom of reproductive choice and equal pay have been at the top of your activist agenda. What are your expectations for the women of Afghanistan?

STEINEM: The women of Afghanistan are strong, smart and very brave. If we give them the aid they need, even a third of what we have spent on dropping bombs, they will be able to take control of their own lives. But right now, the U.S. State Department has refused to give aid to or through women-led organizations. Instead, they give them through U.S.-based NGOs, which often start with training that these women don't need. They've already been operating schools and hospitals. So, much depends on us.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Women's rights? Is that an oxymoron even in America?

STEINEM: I'm not sure what you mean, exactly, but we're very far from having equal rights in this country, though we've made a lot of progress in the last 30 years. What happens in the future depends on what we do every day.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Ms. Steinem, it is a pleasure. When I look at women's plights around the world, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that religion is used to keep women submissive. Is there anything that can be done to change that?

STEINEM: I agree, that religion is often politics made sacred. If God is a man, then man is God. We need to return and go forward to the understanding that there is God in all living things, not more in men than women, and not more in humans than in nature. To believe otherwise is only an excuse for dominating women and nature.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you know what RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) is doing these days? Do they feel their mission is accomplished or is there still more for them to do?

STEINEM: RAWA, which is one of many women's organizations in Afghanistan, is very focused on reconstruction with a full role for women, and on self-determination for women. So, there's a very long way to go. Thanks to 23 years of war funded by the former Soviet Union and the U.S., there are more land mines in Afghanistan than there are people, and the entire infrastructure is destroyed. They need a Marshall Plan even more than the European nations did after World War II. I was in Washington with members of RAWA and many other Afghan women's groups, lobbying the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for this aid, and I hope that people who are part of this conversation will lobby their members of Congress to say that we must spend at least a third on peace that we have spent on war.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the best way to help? Many of these women seem to be loving the freedoms, while others seem to be holding on, perhaps in fear, to the traditions. How can we make sure we help them and not try to Americanize them?

STEINEM: If we listen to what the women ask us to do, we will not be imposing our will on them. What they are asking us to do now is to press for emergency humanitarian aid. As many as 6 million people are hungry and in danger of starving this winter. U.S. bombing has prevented much humanitarian aid from getting through. We need to stop the bombs and deliver food and shelter. As someone on the Internet said, "make dinner, not war."

CNN: You've been critical of George W. Bush and the way he came to office. That being said, what do you think of the Bush administration's efforts to urge the placement of women in the new Afghan government?

STEINEM: Anything that's helpful is welcome, but the Islamic leaders themselves were far ahead of the Bush administration. Bush representatives were saying, for instance, that women could only be observers in Bonn, at the same time that the king and Rabbani were putting women as official delegates on their delegations. Also, the Bush administration was courting the Taliban, inviting them to Texas, giving them millions of dollars, right up until September 11th because of a possible oil pipeline through Afghanistan. It's very clear that women were not a priority until September 11th, and are only an accidental addition now.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Because Islam is a medieval political system, i.e. more than just a religion, do you see it as incompatible with the modern world of equal rights which you wish to see?

STEINEM: No more incompatible than Christianity or Hinduism or Buddhism, when they are imposed as totalitarian systems, as some Christian rightwing groups in this country are also trying to do.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What can we do about the violence against women in Afghanistan as well as in the United States?

STEINEM: We can do our best as givers of aid to channel some of that aid through women and women's groups in Afghanistan, which helps restore their power. Here, we can support political leaders who fund programs against violence against women. And we as women can band together to help each other. When we see at work or in the supermarket a women who is bruised and battered, we can ask her if we can help. We can tell her about shelters. We can refuse to keep silent.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Gloria, do you think women's rights in Afghanistan will be anywhere even close to those in the USA in our lifetime?

STEINEM: Remember that women in Afghanistan had equal rights in the Constitution of the '60s and were doctors, lawyers, and teachers. If we restore those rights by refusing to arm and fund religious fascists like the Mujahadeen and the Taliban -- remember, the U.S. gave 3 billion dollars in arms to the Mujahadeen, which included Osama bin Laden -- then we can help to demilitarize and restore civil society. We have to recognize our responsibility for supporting religious fascists in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you believe that some major changes will come for women to be given the vote now that two women are on the interim government? Or will their roles be diminished after the permanent governing body is put in place? Or do you think they will get an expanding role?

STEINEM: Again, remember that we are talking about restoring women's rights that existed before this society was militarized. If the U.S. stops selling arms, closes the borders of Afghanistan to arms, and disarms the warlords, then the peace-loving women and many men of Afghanistan have a chance to rebuild and to establish a democracy. It greatly depends on what we press our own politicians to do. The U.S. is the biggest arms dealer in the world. We have to take power over our own acts, and that will encourage others to act in a more responsible, peaceful way, too. Having met a lot of the Afghan women leaders, I have great faith in them. I'm less sure about our own political decision-makers.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

STEINEM: Whenever we ask, "What will happen?" we've given up our power. We have to ask "what am I going to make happen?" That gives us back our power. The focus on Afghanistan has made us realize that women need a foreign policy, that gender apartheid is as serious as racial apartheid, and that the shared characteristic of violent societies is a polarization of the gender roles. So, we need to remember that when we look around us, and women need to take ourselves seriously. We need to speak up as much for women as we would for a racial or religious group that also includes men. That means in our own homes, where we work, and where we study. I don't mean to make this sound super serious, because creating this kind of change is fun and exciting, and gives us a community. So, I hope we remember the physicist who said that the flap of a butterfly's wing could change the weather hundreds of miles away. We each have a lot of power. Together, just those of us having this conversation right now make one hell of a butterfly.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Gloria Steinem.

STEINEM: Thank you.

Gloria Steinem joined the chat room via telephone and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, December 27, 2001 at 1 p.m. EDT.


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