Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Women and Terrorism

The BBC's World Program asked listeners to send in their definitions of a 'terrorist'. The answers were what one expected, ranging from the definition of a terrorist as someone who targets civilians to someone who is called George W. Bush. But one definition really stood out:"One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist."

These are men who define terrorism. Terrorism is something that might bring them freedom or terror. But for women? Granted, there are women terrorists, and women do experience the effects of terrorist activity as much as men do. But are there freedom fighters for women? Do terrorists ever work for women's causes?

I can't think of a single cause like that. The early British suffragettes came the closest, but even they stopped their violence at property or their own bodies. If freedom fighters ever fought for women, it was most likely in the sense that they fought for the right of previously oppressed men to have free access to their 'own' women or to bar other men from such access. Some women must have benefited from such movements, but this was not the intended effect.

Iraq is an interesting example. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women first gained additional freedoms and rights. More women attended the university and there were women in his government. Later, some of these gains for women were sacrificed when Saddam courted the religious muslims and launched an islamization program. Yet women in Iraq are still more literate than in any other Arab country.

The liberation of Iraq may change this. The new freedom fighters there want an Islamic society. Some want obligatory veiling, and there are arguments about whether education is a good thing for women under Islam. The lawlessness makes going out into a major adventure for women, and there are news about kidnapping and rape. So who there is fighting for the women? Who really cares about the fact that women are the majority of the Iraqi population, with something like ten percent representation in the Provisional Council?

The answer is that very few people care about women. The status of women in Iraq is low, and determined by both traditional culture and certain ways of reading the Islamic law and the Koran. Who are outsiders to decide that things should be different for them? Yet outsiders decided that other things in Iraq were unacceptable, however much they, too, were based on tradition and religious precedent. Women just don't matter, very much.

Women don't matter awfully much in the greater terrorist wars, either. Their importance is as symbols: symbols of western decadence as the semi-naked women cavorting on our tv screens in the west, symbols of eastern backwardness as the totally shrouded shapes cowering in the corners of their hidden rooms in the east. Or as reversed symbols: the independent, self-confident western woman vs. the modest, pure eastern woman. Yet it's all about symbols.

In the wars of terrorism most real women are in the middle, in the mined no-man's land where they are possible victims for both sides. The war goes on over their heads and sometimes through their bodies. They are the ultimate definition of collateral damage.

Most women don't think this way, you might say. That's probably true. It's hard to get much constructive thinking going when the media bombard you with one false message after another, when daily life is enough to pull you down, when to realize that you ARE collateral damage would demolish your whole world view. So yes, most women don't think this way.

That's the unfair thing about being a goddess. We goddesses see through the smoke and fog and scraps of flying bombs right through to the truth. Sometimes.