Natasha Walter: Where are the women in this war?

'You might think, flicking through the newspapers, that war is something that only men can talk about, that only affects men'
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The Independent Online

Who wouldn't have been pleased to see Yvonne Ridley's calm smile in the pages of their newspapers yesterday? Yet there have been murmurs of criticism ever since she was first captured by the Taliban. "What about her child?" I've heard other journalists asking, suggesting that she shouldn't have left her daughter to go and work in a war zone.

But Yvonne Ridley wasn't the only parent working for the western media in Afghanistan or Pakistan, though she was a particularly unlucky one. Maybe we can ask whether Ridley's child misses her when she goes away to work – but only if we also find out how many male reporters currently in central Asia have left children at home, and ask what their children might feel about that.

All I can say is, thank God some women are ready to go off and work in the war zone, even some mothers. If it weren't for the few female journalists out in the field you might think, flicking through the newspapers, that war is something that only men can talk about, and that only affects men.

I'm not going to argue that women reporters will always bring a particular, feminine point of view to their reports. That would be nonsense. Some female journalists in the field like to report on troop movements rather than refugees, just as some female commentators at home prefer the language of the hawk to that of the dove. Equally, many male reporters are keen to report events through the eyes of the refugees, or to talk about military maneouvres as though they had consequences beyond the military.

But if war reporting has changed over the last generation– and I believe that it has – to the point where it now includes, more than ever before, the experiences of civilians, of refugees, and of ordinary people affected by military action, it is not coincidence that this change has taken place just as more women have taken part in such reportage.

In this war, perhaps more than ever before, we desperately need to hear the voices of women. And that doesn't just mean the voices of Western women. We heard, and we needed to hear, the voices of the mothers and sisters and daughters of those who died in the attacks in America.

And we do have a few Western female journalists filing reports from central Asia. But the women whose voices are still almost entirely missing are the women now most affected by the war. If Yvonne Ridley had succeeded in her doomed expedition to Kabul, at least she might have helped to lift, momentarily, the silence of the Afghan women caught within the war. Because it's their voices that we urgently need to hear.

In at least one way, the fundamentalists of Afghanistan are still entirely successful. They are still keeping women under wraps. Occasionally a few women have sneaked out – speaking from behind a pseudonym, behind a veil, behind a smokesceen, trying to convey to a bemused journalist the horrors not just of the last few weeks, but of years of oppression in Afghanistan. But what would the women have to tell us now? We can only imagine what they are going through now, in a society that was already scratching an existence between civil war and drought, and where bombs are now ripping through what is left of their cities.

In this war, if we look dispassionately at the situation of women, we can clearly understand that military attacks are not going to eradicate the problems of the region. When the Americans and the British first backed the mujahedin as the likely lads in the struggle against the Soviet Union, they could do so only because they utterly ignored their behaviour towards women. Now that they are relying on the Northern Alliance as a strategic ally that can push the Taliban out of the way, they are able to do so only because they are utterly ignoring their behaviour towards women.

"The Northern Alliance are the second Taliban," an Afghan woman who identifies herself only as Fatima says in an interview on the internet. "The Northern Alliance are hypocrites: they say they are for democracy and human rights, but we can't forget the black experience we had with them. Seventy-year-old grandmothers were raped during their rule; thousands of girls were raped; thousands were killed and tortured. They are the first government that started this tragedy in Afghanistan."

Fatima is a spokeswoman for an organisation that has moved into many people's consciousnesses for the first time in the last few weeks: the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (Rawa). They have become so important because they remind us that a country where women are denied all human rights is a country where fundamentalists were already visiting terror on their people long before some decided to visit terror on American office workers.

"We warned the United States government about this many times," Fatima says. "Fundamentalism is equal to terrorism. We said, this germ won't just be in Afghanistan – it will spread out all over the world."

If we listen to the voices of these women, we might also come to realise that the struggle against terrorism will not be won by weapons. Another spokeswoman from Rawa was interviewed on Radio 4's Woman's Hour yesterday morning. When Jenni Murray asked her if Afghan women were ready to take up arms, she said that an armed struggle would achieve nothing.

Indeed, the war against terrorism is a battle of ideas, not of guns. How can the strikes that have now begun on Afghanistan fail to strengthen the appeal of a movement like al-Qa'ida, way beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan? Any movement that relies on inflaming people to die against a Goliath of an enemy can only be bolstered by the sight of bombs raining down from the night sky. If such a movement is really to be weakened, it must be by turning people's minds, not by bombing them into even more entrenched positions.

And here women are central. They have the potential to be by far the most powerful dissenters from fundamentalism throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. Women like those in Rawa must be supported in their long, desperate struggle to regain some rights and to push back the tentacles of fundamentalism in their countries.

Many people in the West are recognising that a war in which women can be ignored by both sides is not a war that is going to bring stability to the region. The talk of humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan has already been exposed as merely talk, now that bombing has begun. American aeroplanes have thrown a few thousand packs of shortbread and peanut butter into heavily mined mountains as a propaganda ploy, while UN food convoys grind to a halt and millions of civilians are left to face the winter, after years of drought without aid. The borders of Afghanistan remain closed to the starving women and children who are being sacrificed in this war that, for them, simply adds new terror to old.

Interestingly, both George Bush and Osama bin Laden have used similar language to insist that we must all now take sides. "In this conflict, there is no neutral ground," said Bush. "The world is divided into two camps, the camp of the faithful, and the camp of the infidel," said bin Laden. But many women in Afghanistan are now caught between the two camps, and many will die there without ever being heard.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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