By: Nick Santangelo

It’s no secret that women are treated differently throughout the Muslim world, specifically in Afghanistan, than they are in the West. The difference between how men and women are treated is so extreme that some Afghan families even try to pass their daughters off as their sons.

For a long time—too long—the United States, and much of the West, didn’t give the human rights issues faced by Muslim women the attention and support they needed. That all started to change, however, under the Bill Clinton presidential administration. Speaking as a guest of the College of Liberal Arts’ (CLA) Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy, Florida Atlantic University Associate Professor Kelly Shannon, CLA ’10, explained how and why that occurred. Unsurprisingly, it was the women of the administration and feminist groups who successfully pushed for the change.

Dr. Shannon recounted to students and professors some of the research and findings behind her book, U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s Human Rights. She was fascinated when President George W. Bush said part of the original justification for the U.S.’s invasion of Afghanistan was to liberate Muslim women from oppressive gender rules. She found it odd given President Bush’s history with gender issues.

But the president was following what Dr. Shannon said was a new precedent of women’s rights being human rights. The movement for that norm started in the 1970s, taking all the way until 1993 to convince the United Nations to get on board. But when the U.N. finally came around, it meant “the Taliban could not legitimately complain that their treatment of women was a cultural issue that was of nobody else’s concern,” explained Dr. Shannon. Instead, it meant Afghanistan’s gender rules were “abuses of the international community.” Those rules included:

  • Women not being allowed to work
  • Women having to wear burkas and cover their faces
  • Severe, violent punishment for women who stepped out of line

But this was well before 9/11. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan following a decade of war with the former communist government and the U.S.S.R., it was desperate for the U.S. to recognize it as a legitimate government. Meanwhile, U.S. oil company Unocal wanted to work with the Taliban to build a pipeline through Afghanistan.

Although the pipeline is again being discussed today, it didn’t end up getting built while the Taliban’s restrictive gender rules were in place. That’s despite millions spent in lobbying efforts that initially won over the Clinton administration. But, as Dr. Shannon explained, feminist groups did their own lobbying and changed public opinion.

Madeleine Albright also became Secretary of State and Robin Raphel Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the ‘90s. Once in power, each pushed for more women’s rights. Combined with feminist lobbying, it was enough to kill any dealings with the Taliban.

“In this case, women’s rights concerns actually outweighed U.S. policy interests in military and oil concerns,” said Dr. Shannon.

Feminists also got the Clinton administration to adopt their vernacular and to avoid imperialist language while pushing for stronger women’s rights. Still, President Clinton is today a difficult figure for feminists to fully embrace, said Dr. Shannon, given his extramarital affairs.

Nevertheless, when the Taliban applied for U.S. recognition, the administration refused to meet with them. It instead met with the women of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, whom Dr. Shannon says “took the Taliban to task” in 1998. The U.S. refused to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government, and the rest of the world followed its lead.

Aid also began flowing into Afghanistan, much of it circumventing the Taliban and going directly to women. It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there, though. Dr. Shannon criticized some feminist groups for later being in favor of invading Afghanistan. This imperialist-type of thinking did little to help and much to harm Muslim women, claimed the professor.

But even if feminists and the government don’t always execute perfectly, the takeaway from Dr. Shannon’s presentation was that these events caused a fundamental change in how the West views Muslim women and women’s issues at large. To highlight this, she quoted First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1995 U.N. speech in Beijing.

“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” 

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