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July 01, 2002

Discrimination Against Women and the Roots of Global Terrorism

by Tom Lantos

In her historic radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, First Lady Laura Bush eloquently stated that "the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," noting that "the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists."

The events of September 11 focused the world’s attention on the medieval brutality of the Taliban and, more specifically, on its policy of gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, Afghan women suffered what Amnesty International has called a "catastrophic assault on their human rights." According to the U.S. Department of State, that assault included edicts barring women from employment; forbidding their movement outside the home without a male escort; strict enforcement of a draconian dress code requiring that women wear head-to-toe burqas at all times; a ban on female education; and a virtual restriction on access to even basic healthcare. All of these policies were brutally enforced by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice (PVSV), which administered lashings and public beatings to errant women. The searing images captured by a clandestine cameraman of an Afghan executioner holding a burqa-clad woman at gunpoint in a Kabul stadium as Taliban loyalists looked on symbolized the murderous repression of women that had befallen Afghanistan.

With the defeat of the Taliban, and at the insistence of the international community, women’s lives are slowly returning to historical norms in Afghanistan. The transitional government of Hamid Karzai has made the restoration of women’s rights a priority, and has established a Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Women claimed 10 percent of the seats in the recent "loya jirga," or grand assembly. This is remarkable progress, and it demonstrates the power of united international pressure to end gender discrimination.

Unfortunately, the deplorable condition of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was not an isolated case. As President Bush has said, a "central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women—and not only the women of Afghanistan." As we seek to address the conditions that bred the September 11 terrorists, it is critical to remember that the Taliban’s medieval social system of gender oppression was not something they dreamed up on their own. In fact, "gender apartheid"—the harsh political, legal, and economic segregation of women—was adopted, in large part, from Saudi Arabia, home of the original PVSV.

Gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, although perhaps not quite as severe as the version imposed by the Taliban, is nevertheless brutal and dehumanizing. According to Human Rights Watch, "women in Saudi Arabia face pervasive discrimination, ranging from strictly enforced gender segregation in public places—including schools, universities, and the workplace—to unequal legal status with men in matters relating to marriage, divorce, and child custody." The State Department’s annual report on human rights for 2001 sums up the situation as follows:

. . . [W]omen have few political or social rights and are not treated as equal members of society. There are no active women’s rights groups. Women legally may not drive motor vehicles and are restricted in their use of public facilities when men are present. Women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections. Women risk arrest by the Mutawwa’in (religious police) for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or close male relative. Women are not admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of a male relative. By law and custom women may not undertake domestic or foreign travel alone.

Similar systems of gender apartheid exist in the countries where Al Qaeda recruits the majority of its foot soldiers, including the Gulf States, Algeria, Yemen, and Sudan. The subjugation of women in these states seems to fulfill a dual purpose. First, it reinforces the control of existing elites by imposing uniform codes of behavior. But just as importantly, it bestows false legitimacy on inept authoritarian rulers by demonstrating their active rejection of Western values and diverting attention from pressing socioeconomic problems afflicting their people.

The Bush administration has yet to develop a strategy to pressure corrupt extremist regimes to grant basic rights to women and enable them to choose how to exercise those rights. Empowering women is critical to promoting democracy, which is imperative if we are to defeat terrorism. Absent a diplomatic offensive aimed at securing democracy and human rights for the downtrodden in the Middle East and beyond, our military victory in Afghanistan could prove hollow.

Not only has President Bush shied away from pressing the women’s rights agenda beyond Afghanistan, he has turned a blind eye to U.S. business practices that aid and abet gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Today, U.S. investment continues to support gender segregation across the region. For example, U.S. retailers doing business in Saudi Arabia—Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King, Saks Fifth Avenue, and even the socially progressive firm Starbuck’s—enforce laws and customs that dehumanize women. When Saudi women arrive at these U.S. businesses, they are barred from entering unless they arrive in the company of a male relative. Once inside, they are shuttled into separate but unequal "family sections" that, in the case of Starbuck’s, do not even have seats.

These practices offend American values, but are sadly seen as the price of doing business in Saudi Arabia. What is even more appalling is the apparent willingness of U.S. corporations with operations in Saudi Arabia—ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Boeing, Proctor & Gamble, Citibank, Philip Morris, and others—to extend gender discrimination to their own hiring practices. By conforming to local customs requiring separate work areas for male and female employees and limiting their face-to-face interaction, thus reinforcing gender apartheid, these American corporations are needlessly handicapping their own business operations. Ultimately, these inefficiencies lead them to favor men over women in hiring, perpetuating the subjugation of the latter. Denying qualified women equal employment opportunity in U.S. businesses is simply intolerable.

In the mid-1980s, the United States led the world in confronting racial apartheid in South Africa. Reverend Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia developed principles that required U.S. companies to challenge racial laws, provide equal pay for equal work, and offer training to enable them to bring blacks into management positions. Within four years of implementation of the Sullivan Principles, the number of black South Africans who held technical positions with American companies jumped from a token few to over 10,000.

It is time to develop a set of similar principles, focused on gender apartheid, for Western companies to follow when they do business in Saudi Arabia and other countries that systematically discriminate against women. Congress should also consider imposing restrictions on U.S. companies with investments and operations in countries that practice gender discrimination to confront the system in the same way that the Anti-Apartheid Act (enacted over President Ronald Reagan’s veto) confronted racial apartheid in South Africa.

As a recent article in USA Today pointed out, U.S. financial leverage in Saudi Arabia is substantial. U.S. firms provide 40 percent of the forty-five billion dollars in annual foreign direct investment there. It is morally incumbent on us to use this leverage to pressure Saudi Arabia and other states practicing gender apartheid to reform.

The Bush administration also should use all available bilateral and multilateral diplomatic levers to push for immediate reforms in all states practicing gender apartheid. In pressing for reforms in all of these states, we should accept nothing short of the benchmarks for women’s political participation and for legal protections of women’s basic human rights that we are insisting on in Afghanistan. In this regard, one diplomatic tool we should grasp is the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, both by adhering to it ourselves and pressing others to do so as well.

Years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority argued that the Taliban’s brutal suppression of women in Afghanistan and the growing oppression of women in other Muslim countries was a sign of exploding fanaticism that could lead to attacks on the West. Their prophecy haunts us still. We can no longer afford to deny this growing threat. We cannot defeat the evil and hatred that drives the terrorists until we stand firmly against the brutal and unjust system of gender apartheid.

Tom Lantos

Tom Lantos (D-Cal.) is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. He is also co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.