Monday, December 15, 2008

The Role of Women for Peace -- A Commentary

I don’t normally read “The Huffington Post,” but over the weekend two emails from quite separate sources (that is to say, one source did not get the posting from the other and pass it on to a similar list of acquaintances) highly recommended it.

The immediate subject was President-elect Barack Obama’s choices – both women – for Secretary of State (Hillary Rodham Clinton) and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Sudan Rice) and whether these appointments signal a more gender inclusive U.S. foreign policy – that is to say one that emphasizes “women’s issues” – over the next four years.

At this point the Huffington piece veers off to the role of women in Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most traditional patriarchal countries in the world. Since many Americans, including – apparently – President-elect Obama, consider this conflict “justified,” it is worth reminding ourselves what the real motive was for invading Afghanistan.

Following the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Bush administration demanded that the ruling Taliban faction in Afghanistan surrender Osama bin Laden to the U.S. or to a third “neutral” country for trial. When the Taliban refused, President Bush invaded Afghanistan to effect regime change – justifying the war as bringing democracy to that country and liberating women from a harsh subservience to men. Under the western-backed regime, women were allowed to work outside the home, to be educated, to enter politics, and in general have the same rights and privileges as men.

Installing a new government that recognizes gender equality and legislates such guarantees is a necessary but insufficient step to actually achieving equality, especially in a society where ethnic and tribal identity is more important than national identity. Moreover, it is a status that cannot be imposed by outsiders. It can only be accomplished by women who must organize themselves politically and economically to both press for removing restrictions that still inhibit equality of treatment and ensure new laws do not “claw back” the rights they have already won.

In this regard\, it is significant that 68 members of the Afghanistan parliament – 14 percent – are women. By comparison, 17 percent of the members of the just-ended 110th U.S. Congress – sixteen in the Senate and 75 in the House – were women. The 110th is also noted for being the first to have a woman as Speaker.

What the Huffington Post doesn’t address (or what I cannot find in it) is why “women’s issues” would become more prominent in international relations of a Barack administration featuring women as Secretary of State and U.S ambassador to the UN. We don’t wonder about “men’s issues” when these positions go to men.

I suggest that similar cultural and social attitudes on “protecting women” are subconsciously at work in tribal or clan-based societies while they are present as legal (and therefore intentional) choices of the body politic in émigré countries like the United States. But in the latter instances, such concerns are part of the larger issue of human security. The choices, however, still breakdown between a “male” response (war) and a female response (diplomacy).

The Huffington piece notes that until women occupy 30 percent of policy-making positions in government, their ability to consistently influence \social and legal policies will be problematical. Any successes will have to be nurtured and protected until they become so integral to the society as to not be noticed at all. And in a tribal-based society, that is asking a great deal.

Even as far removed as is the U.S. from the tribal/clan social order, the press and the public dote on differences rather than commonalities of experience. For example, in the just-ended U.S. presidential sweepstakes, the press constantly reminded the voters that (1) Obama is the first African-American to win the nomination for president from a major political party; (2) Clinton was the first woman to seek the nomination of a major party for the presidency; and less frequently that (3) had McCain won the presidential race, at his swearing-in he would have been the oldest first-term president. What these facts had to do with the substantive issues – especially the economic distress evident in November and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is still unclear.

While yet to attain the presidency, many women in the United States have risen to policy-making positions in government. Those who have held presidential cabinet-level positions tend to be appointed to departments dealing with domestic issues. Six women – including the first appointed as Secretary of a cabinet department, Frances Perkins – have been Secretaries of Labor, the most in any department. Overall, 33 women have been appointed to cabinet or cabinet-level positions. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, at one point in President Clinton’s second term, 47% of cabinet level positions (nine of nineteen) were held by women.

The four departments that have never been headed by women are in the “national security” arena: Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. Only one woman, Janet Reno, has served as Attorney General, a cabinet position whose role in national security has mushroomed since the start of the “global war on terror.”

It would seem that, when it comes to “national security,” the only department or cabinet-equivalent positions open to women are diplomatic. Ronald Reagan appointed Jean Kirkpatrick as the first woman to represent the United States as ambassador to the UN (1981-1985). After three men occupied the post, Bill Clinton chose Madeleine Albright as the top U.S. official at the UN (1993-1997). In Clinton’s second term, Albright became the first woman to be Secretary of State and the first woman to hold both posts. The current Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, came to the post not through the UN but from the position of National Security Advisor to the president. (Three women have served as Trade Representative when that position has been designated as cabinet-level by the president.)

The men have succeeded in grossly mismanaging relations between the U.S. and Iraq, Afghanistan, the global war on terror, and still possibly in Iran. Perhaps it’s time to see whether more women at the top of the seven key national security cabinet departments or cabinet-level agencies (State, Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans, Attorney General, U.S. ambassador to the UN) c find the key that opens the door to less war and more peace. .

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