U.S. Militarism and Women’s Rights

The Democratic Republic of Congo

This is a subject that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’ve always had a hard time rationalizing certain feminist principles with the United States’ hawkish foreign policy. How can we as a country proclaim our unyielding support for women around the world while at the same time advocating military solutions to almost every problem and propping up dictators whose modus operandi is the wholesale oppression of women?

I’m not naive. I understand that certain national security interests require us to make certain alliances that are, well, unsavory. But when we talk about national security interests are we talking about the protection of the U.S. or the protection of the military industrial complex? Or are we talking about protecting our hegemony in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, etc? Or are we talking about ensuring our economic dominance on the backs of low wage earners in South America and China?

Human rights groups have long documented how the militarization of society and constant war disproportionately impacts women and tends to worsen their oppression, particularly in countries where due to societal and religious beliefs, women are already third class citizens. While we often talk about certain domestic effects of the War on Terror, we rarely talk about how it effects vulnerable populations around the world or how it has made the U.S. even more of a bloated national security state where military intervention is increasingly seen as the answer to every problem. Americans are easily outraged when it comes to the debt ceiling, gun rights or the pensions of public employees, but they/we seem not to care too much about government abuses and economic waste so long as the words “defense” or “national security” are used to rationalize it.

The day before yesterday I wrote about how American foreign policy seemed to be getting in the way of helping women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So I was curious when I saw this article that looks at how our hawkish foreign policy sometimes seems to aggravate an already deplorable situation for women in areas like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Definitely go check out the whole article, it’s worth a read. Here is an excerpt:

When checking the nuclear ambitions of dictators or building “democracy” in Baghdad, politicians tend to justify foreign policy by touting America as an international “beacon” of freedom and equality. A new report on the world’s five most dangerous countries for women is a predictable listing of places not yet reached by the light of America’s democratic promise. Beneath the surface, though, many of the misfortunes that plague women in places like Afghanistan can be traced back to a cruel political consensus in Washington.

According to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation, the most dangerous countries for women are Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia.


Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the human rights situation has in many ways actually deteriorated amid constant war, a weak and corrupt puppet government, and the ascendance of reactionary forces aligned with warlords and the Taliban. The collapse of accountability falls hard on women, as the breakdown of the education, health care and legal systems further degrade women’s access to justice and social opportunity. And so, while the “liberation” of Afghan women has been held up as a chief goal of Western military intervention, following the Taliban’s decline, the U.S. occupation has ushered in another wave of oppression.


In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the injustices women endure daily stem from years of regional and civil conflict. But the rape and carnage also represent the fallout of controversial U.S. policies, which have long been tied to the arming of military regimes and patterns of socioeconomic instability that kill democratic development.


Similarly warped U.S. policies toward Somalia, as well as skewed Western media coverage, have fixated on terrorism and piracy, but left issues of women’s rights in the shadows. Following a long, chaotic legacy of failed foreign interventionism, the U.S. and the international community have lagged in launching an investigation into possible war crimes in Mogadishu. Fighting between insurgents and government and “peacekeeping” forces, according to Human Rights Watch, has shattered communities, not just through civilian killings but the coerced use of child soldiers.

From more privileged corners of the globe, we’re tempted to respond to reports about all the forsaken women out there by sadly shaking our heads at those intractable, faraway crises. But these women are closer to us than we think. And hope for them begins with justice here at home, by demanding that our government take responsibility for its complicity in making the world unsafe for women everywhere.

It sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? But can we really claim that being the world’s economic and military superpower hasn’t come at the cost of certain principles of human rights and justice? I don’t think there’s a spot on the globe where we haven’t intervened to try to coerce an outcome that is in line with our own interests- Iran, Haiti, Iraq, Chile, Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil and on and on.

Our political policies with respect to the DRC are particularly troubling given our stated objective of helping curb the ongoing use of rape as a weapon of war. For more info. on the differing views regarding the administration’s policies regarding the DRC, you can check out this website and also this one which discusses the Obama administration’s failure to crack down on the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Regarding Afghanistan, what’s interesting is that the importance of Afghan women’s rights has been a topic of considerable debate in this country. Secretary Clinton has made women’s rights and security a key aspect of her foreign policy. However some international women’s rights groups have accused both the Bush administration and the Obama administration of glossing over the negative impact that the U.S. occupation has had on women there.

And as the Obama administration weighs when and how to disengage from Afghanistan, many in the U.S. and Europe argue that protecting women’s rights should be a justification for staying in the country:

One of the original justifications for the war in 2001 that seemed to resonate most with liberal Americans was the liberation of Afghan women from a misogynist regime. This is now being resurrected as the following: If the U.S. forces withdraw, any gains made by Afghan women will be reversed and they’ll be at the mercy of fundamentalist forces. In fact, the fear of abandoning Afghan women seems to have caused the greatest confusion and paralysis in the antiwar movement.

What this logic misses is that the United States chose right from the start to sell out Afghan women to its misogynist fundamentalist allies on the ground. The U.S. armed the Mujahadeen leaders in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, opening the door to successive fundamentalist governments including the Taliban. In 2001, the United States then armed the same men, now called the Northern Alliance, to fight the Taliban and then welcomed them into the newly formed government as a reward. The American puppet president Hamid Karzai, in concert with a cabinet and parliament of thugs and criminals, passed one misogynist law after another, appointed one fundamentalist zealot after another to the judiciary, and literally enabled the downfall of Afghan women’s rights over eight long years.

Any token gains have been countered by setbacks. For example, while women are considered equal to men in Afghanistan’s constitution, there have been vicious and deadly attacks against women’s rights activists, the legalization of rape within marriage in the Shia community, and a shockingly high rate of women’s imprisonment for so-called honor crimes — all under the watch of the U.S. occupation and the government we are protecting against the Taliban. Add to this the unacceptably high number of innocent women and children killed in U.S. bombing raids, which has also increased the Taliban’s numbers and clout, and it makes the case that for eight years the United States has enabled the oppression of Afghan women and only added to their miseries.

This is why grassroots political and feminist activists have called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from their country. After eight years of American-enabled oppression, they would rather fight for their liberation without our help. The anti-fundamentalist progressive organization, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), has called for an immediate end to the war.

Granted, Afghanistan is a complicated issue. After all, the extremist and repressive Taliban are a part of the cultural fabric of the country and one could fairly argue that there is little the U.S. could do to help women in that country. However, it does seem a bit disingenuous for the U.S. to bomb the country to hell and back and then conveniently ignore the impact the war itself has had on women there, irrespective of the Taliban. Again, women’s rights groups have been calling for a dialogue about how militarism in and of itself plays a role in the oppression of women. As a side note, also keep in mind that Afghanistan has tremendous untapped mineral resources which makes it fertile ground for constant conflict.

For more on the issue of women in Afghanistan see the website Gender Across Borders, which is a great all-around resource for what’s going on with women all over the world.

Another area of the world where our foreign policy will likely leave a significant footprint is Iran. Despite the fact that the same fear-mongering and propaganda that led to the bungled, unnecessary war in Iraq, is being used to begin to garner support for potential military action against Iran, no one seems to be questioning whether a) a military attack by either Israel or the U.S. will cause Iranians to rally around their regime or b) a military attack will bolster or destroy the ‘Green Movement,’ let alone the fragile women’s rights movement in Iran. And of course, once again, if full-scale war broke out women would be caught in the cross-hairs as they bear the brunt of the economic hardship of war (and sanctions) as the primary caregivers of the very old and very young. Most opinions I have read from Iranian women’s rights/human rights activists seem to hold the view that a military assault on Iran would not help them at all and some even argue that economic sanctions are hurting the average Iranian on the street, not the regime of Ahmadinejad.

Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate, lawyer, and human rights activist, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, has spoken frequently about the need to promote peace in the Middle East, saying, “we must work toward cross-cultural understanding, prioritize the issue of human rights in formal negotiations, and most important, not be paralyzed by action from fear and hate.” She talks about the rampant Islamaphobia which helps justify conflict and also the role of U.S. support for dictators in the region. She also has noted that the Islam vs. democracy theme promoted by both the West and the Muslim world has served the narrow interests of both, while harming the prospects for peace:

Dr. Ebadi demonstrated how the divide between the West and Islam has been deliberately fueled to support interests on both sides: Western powers equating radical acts of terrorism by extremists such as Al-Qaeda with the beliefs of all Muslims; Non-Democratic Islamic States refusing to recognize The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or entertain progressive interpretations of Islamic Sharia law.

So how do we cross this seemingly impassable divide? With increased understanding and courage, says Ebadi.

We must look to the examples of Islamic States that have promoted rights and democracy, such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh who have all elected women to their highest political positions; or Morocco, Algeria and Malaysia (along with many other Islamic states) that have abolished harsh physical punishments such as stoning or amputation, still practiced in Iran. Such examples demonstrate that Islam does not have a single interpretation, nor can it be considered a single foe.

Iranian women played a key role in the Iranian protests several years ago and women also played a much larger role than they were given credit for during the recent nonviolent uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring.’ They have a huge stake in the outcome and it will be interesting to see if U.S. foreign policy evolves in accordance with the changes that have taken place or whether we will continue to cling to the status quo and the “stability over democracy” theme. What we’ve seen thus far from the Obama administration seems to indicate they are leaning more towards the short-sighted pursuit of “stability.” But we’ll see. Secretary Clinton’s recent announcement that the administration will open up a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood is promising.

I don’t want to over-generalize about gender differences but after reading Dr. Ebadi’s comments highlighted above, it does seem that women often approach things differently than men when it comes to resolving international disputes. Obviously, there are exceptions. But I can’t help but wonder, for example, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have been resolved a long time ago had women been at the negotiating table? As we speak, Jewish Israeli and Palestinian women continue to come together to discuss ways to promote peace but their efforts are largely ignored. In fact, the Israeli military occupation has opened up a new line of feminist discourse, albeit sometimes difficult, about how to bridge the cultural divide and also whether or not the central tenets of feminism are consistent with the goals and humanitarian effects of military occupation. These women are trying to tell their story but unfortuantely, their voices rarely seem to make it into the mainstream media or discourse about the conflict.

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About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

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One Comment on “U.S. Militarism and Women’s Rights”

  1. seamus6 Says:

    Wow, comprehensive article!

    I think that a lot of politicians don’t want to talk about this. Particularly women politicians because I really do think that many women in politics feel they need to be very hawkish in order to prove they have what it takes to run the nations military services. It’s too bad, really. War rarely solves many problems in the long term.

    Peacemaking is not valued as much was war-making. How much money goes to national defense but educational systems have to scrape together every coin just to give kids the basics. It’s a disgrace.


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