FEATURES | summer 2006
U.S. Policies in Afghanistan and Iraq Sell Out Women in Favor of Oil
When the Taliban, the most anti-woman militia in Afghanistan's civil war, took over the country in 1996, they immediately forced women to leave their jobs, banned work outside the home, prohibited females from attending school and put women under house arrest, unable to go out in public unless accompanied by a close male relative and wearing a head-to-toe burqa. Women who violated Taliban decrees were beatened,
imprisoned, even killed. Despite this, the U.S. government
was on the fast track to recognize this
unelected, oppressive regime as Afghanistan’s official government, and to prop up the militia with millions of
In a word: oil.
Unocal Corporation of California (now part of Chevron),
in partnership with a Saudi company, was competing with
an Argentine company to build an oil pipeline through
Afghanistan to the coast of Pakistan. The U.S. wanted to secure the project for Unocal.
The Clinton State Department announced it would establish relations with the Taliban by sending a diplomat to Kabul, and several envoys were dispatched to woo the Taliban for the pipeline rights. State Department spokesperson Glyn Davies said the U.S. found "nothing objectionable in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law. Only a concentrated effort led by the
Feminist Majority, NOW and allied groups prevented the
Taliban from being recognized as the official government
of Afghanistan, and kept the U.S. from sanctioning the
abolishment of women’s basic human rights in service of
the petroleum industry. (But then, once the oil-happy
Bush administration came into power in 2000—both the
president and vice president are former oil executives—it
re-established talks with the Taliban about the pipeline.)
This is perhaps the starkest example of why the politics of oil is a feminist issue. Whether supporting gender
apartheid abroad, or sacrificing feeding programs for
U.S. women and children so that ExxonMobil can get a
tax break, or simply standing by while the company
reaps record profits at the expense of women who must
drive to work and heat their houses, U.S. priorities are consistent: Oil wins over women’s rights hands down.
As official justifications for the war in Iraq have been
exposed as bogus, evidence has come to light that oil
was a major factor in the invasion. At least one member
of the British Parliament has flatly stated that control of
Iraqi oil—the third largest untapped supply in the
world—was the only reason for the war. A top-secret 2001 National Security Council document, written before
9/11 and two years prior to military action in Iraq, instructed
staff of that agency to comply with Vice President
Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force as it explored the “melding” of two ostensibly disparate fields of policy:
“the review of operational policies toward rogue states,”
including Iraq, and “actions regarding the capture of new
and existing oil and gas fields.”
The State Department also created the “Oil and Energy
Working Group,” a consulting group working under
the “Future of Iraq Project.” The group concluded that Iraq’s oil “should be opened to international oil companies
as quickly as possible after the war.” When the invasion
took place, the oil fields were swiftly captured.
Whether or not this blood-for-oil scenario is the whole story, the new Iraqi constitution and laws already passed
there contain far stronger guarantees for major U.S. oil
interests than they do for the women of Iraq. Women’s
rights deteriorated rapidly after the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein sold them out to religious fundamentalists
in order to consolidate power. The U.S. had the
opportunity to restore much of what was lost after the
2003 invasion. But in the period leading up to the election of the National Assembly, our government
ignored demands by Iraqi women’s organizations to create
a women’s ministry, appoint women to the drafting
committee of Iraq’s interim constitution, pass laws codifying women’s rights and criminalizing domestic violence,
and uphold U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325—
which mandates that women be included at all levels of
decisionmaking in situations of peacemaking and post-war reconstruction.
The postwar constitution now declares Islam as the official religion of the state and the fundamental source of
legislation. Even though the document gives a nod to
equal rights for all, no laws have been passed regarding
women’s rights to work, equal pay, pregnancy leave or
child care—all guaranteed in the previous constitution.
According to Human Rights Watch, the failure of occupation
authorities to provide public security in Iraq’s capital
lies at the root of a widespread fear of rape and abduction among women and their families, preventing many
women from working and doing business in public. Yes,
there is an Iraqi State Ministry for Women’s Affairs, but
unlike other ministries it has no budget.
In contrast, Big Oil is well protected in the constitution
and through laws. The constitution guarantees the reform
of the Iraqi economy in accordance with “modern economic principles” to “ensure... the development of the
private sector”—essentially abolishing Iraqi state dominion
over its petroleum reserves. Corollary laws guarantee
that foreign companies will have control over at least 64
percent of Iraq’s oil, and possibly as much as 84 percent.
The oil-trumps-women policy is not just practiced
overseas. Here, oil companies and utilities received tax cuts topping $14.5 billion in the 2005 energy bill. Women
got their cuts in the 2006 budget, too: Domestic violence
prevention was slashed by $35 million, Medicaid by $17
billion over five years and child-care programs by $1.03 billion over five years. Women-owned business aid was
pared down as well.
Meanwhile, the price of gasoline has doubled since
George W. Bush took office. According to the National
Community Action Foundation, households below 150
percent of the poverty line now spend nearly 19 percent of
their income on energy. That doesn’t count the price
hikes in school supplies, food and clothing caused by the
increased cost of transporting goods.
As bad as it is for women at the bottom in the U.S.,
their pain is felt primarily in the pocketbook. Not so in the
Middle East, where oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia
get a pass on women’s rights because of the black gold beneath
the ground they traverse in their black shrouds—on
foot, or in a car driven by someone else, because they are
not allowed behind the wheel. From Michael Moore’s
Fahrenheit 9/11 to mainstream media reports, it’s well documented that the U.S. government has long been
cozy, if not outright deferential, to the Saudis.
Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at
the University of Michigan, sums up the U.S.-Saudi bargain
this way: “Since Saudi Arabia produces something on the order of 9 million barrels a day and is the largest, by far
the largest, exporter of petroleum in the world, enormous
amounts of U.S. capital are going into the Gulf. And the
way that this has been arranged in the past, so as to not
bankrupt the U.S. economy, has been to insure that the
Saudis recycle the funds into U.S. investments. … [Former President George H.W.] Bush and Cheney were pressing
the new King Abdullah [in a 2005 trip to Riyadh] to keep
that sweet deal going, whereby they sell us petroleum and
then they take the money that we give them and reinvest it
in the United States.”
This “sweet deal” to protect light sweet crude means the
U.S. not only turns a blind eye to the denial of basic rights
to Saudi women by their own government, but has forced
Saudi-style oppression on American military women
watching over oil reserves in the kingdom. Lt. Col. Martha
McSally, a decorated pilot and commander with the U.S.
Air Force, was compelled by U.S. military policy to wear
restrictive Muslim garb—a black robe and head scarf called
an abaya—and to sit in the backseat of service vehicles driven
by her male subordinates when off base. When she sued
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 for violating
her rights, the military tried to keep the requirements
in place by changing the policy’s language from “mandatory”
to “strongly encouraged”—still tantamount to an
order. Congress was forced to intervene, voting unanimously
in both Houses to prohibit the Defense Department
from requiring, or even urging, servicewomen to
wear the abaya.
Next up on the U.S. war-plan stage is Iran—with the
second-largest pool of untapped oil in the world—but
military action there will likely be delayed until after the
2006 midterm elections. Women—the population segment
most economically vulnerable to high fuel prices—
are also the majority of U.S. voters, and the majority of
those against a potential war (see Ms. Poll).
Although the ostensible reason for a U.S.-led invasion
will once again be weapons of mass destruction, the politics
of oil are peeking out from behind the WMD curtain.
A new building under construction in Iran’s free-trade
zone on the Kish Island is widely believed to be the future
home of a new oil exchange: the Iranian Oil Bourse (IOB).
If Iran realizes its alleged goal of becoming the dominant
center of Middle East oil commerce, the currency would
be the euro, not the dollar. The dollar has long been
supreme in international oil trade, and some analysts say
that if petrodollars become petroeuros it could lead to a
huge drop in value for American currency, potentially
putting the U.S. economy in its greatest crisis since the
depression era of the 1930s.
Venezuela, a major oil producer not under U.S. dominance,
has already announced support for the IOB. Even
more threatening for U.S. hegemony, China and India,
looming as the century’s largest global competitors for oil
that currently goes overwhelmingly to American consumers,
have signed on as well. William Clark, an American
security expert, says another manufactured war or some
type of covert operation is inevitable under President
Bush, and that the neoconservatives are quietly planning
for this second petrodollar war. Far-fetched? Maybe. But
it is interesting to note that right before Iraq was invaded,
Saddam had refused to accept dollars in the Oil-for-Food
program, insisting on euros instead.
Meanwhile, four years after the U.S.-led war to remove
the Taliban, the group is on the rise again in Afghanistan.
Women who criticize local rulers or who are merely active
in public life as political candidates, journalists, teachers
or NGO workers face increasing threats and violence.
Many women are still in the burqa, afraid to take it off because
of the returning Taliban and the lack of security, and
unable to travel without a male relative. Violence against
women and girls remains rampant, including domestic
and sexual abuse and forced marriages. According to the
Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, over
300 girls’ schools have been burned or bombed. In five
southern Afghan provinces, at least 90 percent of school-age
girls do not attend classes.
Men who support an equitable Afghan society aren’t
safe either: The male editor of Women’s Rights magazine
was convicted on blasphemy charges last year after a religious
adviser to President Hamid Karzai accused him of
publishing “un-Islamic” articles criticizing the sharia law
practice of punishing adultery with 100 lashes and the
punishment of death by stoning for conversion to a religion
other than Islam. He also contended that one woman
should be equal to one man as a witness in a case. His arrest
and conviction didn’t draw a public protest from the
U.S. government, but did draw protests from feminists
and journalists. He was finally released after a three-month
ordeal; the magazine, however, is still closed.
And a new pipeline deal has been signed in
Afghanistan, with construction to begin this year. Of
course American companies want part of the action. The
oil drumbeat goes on.
Robert Greenwald's new film, "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers," will make you sad. Then it will make you mad. Then it will make you furious. In a searing account of the most privatized war in history, Greenwald lays bare the collossal proportions not only of the proverbial waste, fraud, and abuse associated with government contracts in Iraq, but the callousness of the contractors toward human life, both American and Iraqi.
Viewed through a feminist lens, the most striking thing about the privatized war is that it's not only an all-male shadow military (let them have it), but it's all-testosterone, all-the- time. The only females in the film are grieving mothers and wives, General Janice Karpinsky (scapegoated for the Abu Ghrab scandal), Bunnatine Greenhouse (demoted for blowing the whistle on the ripoffs), and a single female soldier asking why KBR can't even provide clean tents for the troops. And oh yeah, there is one woman, Barbara McNamara, shown in the rogues gallery of dozens of former government and military men who now have megabuck jobs with the profiteers.
The film centers on Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), Blackwater, and Halliburton - the three companies with the biggest contracts and the biggest influence in Washington. Even though these firms have been shown time and time again to be cheating the U.S. government, they continue to be rewarded through ever more lucrative contracts. Technically a company should be suspended from doing business with Uncle Sam if it's caught breaking the rules. But obviously that silly notion is a thing of the past.
It's now pretty clear that this war was all about oil in the first place, and women's rights take a backseat to the oil interests where the U.S. government is concerned (see Ms. Summer 2006). Women's rights take a backseat to the privatized military interests as well. So it should be no surprise that Dyncorp, one of the major government contractors in Bosnia during the 1990s, is in on the action. Dyncorp's major business in Bosnia was policing. But the side business they had going -- prostitution and trafficking in women -- was undoubtedly as lucrative. Yet they're back, with $1.9 billion in contracts in Iraq.
That doesn't say the other companies involved wouldn't be as bad on gender relations - if they had any. It's doubtful KBR, Halliburton, or Blackwater have records of sex discrimination in Iraq, because women are completely absent from those operations (only two women contractor employees -- an executive secretary and a clerk-- are briefly mentioned but not shown). Whether females would want to be part of this shameful setup is a different discussion - like the rights of indigenous women in Iraq, it's simply not on the table.
But the war profiteers are hurting women in a much more fundamental way than not hiring them for jobs that shouldn't exist in a sane world anyway. Greenwald's film documents the burning of trucks that cost $100,000 because they have flat tires -- Halliburton makes more money on a cost-plus contract if the truck is destroyed instead of fixed. The money has to come from somewhere, and more often than not it's from programs that benefit women and kids. The Women Infants and Children program (cut back every year in the Bush budget) provides an average of $37.55 per month in food vouchers to poor women and children. That $100 grand (and that's just the cost of one truck) would pay for a whole year of help for 220 recipients. Another example Greenwald provides is contractor staff driving fully decked- out Ford SUVs at a cost of $250 thousand each (3 year leases at $7,000 per month per vehicle) used only to go around the plush contractor's HQ in Kuwait. That's more than adequate money to give 100 women on welfare enough education to get their families out of poverty and become taxpayers. But we can't afford to lavish such largesse on the welfare queens that would rip off the government like that. Just ask any Bush appointee the next time he signs another no bid contract for Halliburton.
DynCorp and sex trade: http://www.infowars.com/articles/us/mckinney_grills_rumsfeld.htm
Women Lead Anti-War Sentiment
Ms. wanted to know not just how public sentiment
stacks up about the ongoing war in Iraq, but how
Americans feel about potential military action against
Iran as well. Moreover, we particularly wanted to see
whether a gender gap in anti-war attitudes exists.
The polling was conducted May 19 through 22, with
1,023 adult respondents.
Iraq: Pull Out!
The responses reveal that while men and women share
disappointment with the war, they differ in what they think
should be done about it. Women are more likely than men
to favor withdrawing troops from Iraq immediately or in the
next year (55 percent of women, compared to 43 percent of
men). In fact, a majority of men would favor taking as long as
necessary to get out (39 percent) or increasing the troops
There is a gender gap for every group in support of troop
withdrawal within a year, but it is greatest between moms and dads (65 percent to 46 percent), followed by younger
women/younger men (62 percent to 45 percent), Midwestern
women/Midwestern men (59 percent to 41 percent),
blue-collar women/blue-collar men (58 percent to 41
percent) and older women/older men (49 percent to 40
Feminist women particularly stand out in their support for
withdrawing troops immediately or in the next year, at 62
Iran: Don’t Go In!
Both women and men solidly oppose the U.S. taking
preemptive, unilateral military action against Iran, with the
largest opposition among women at 67 percent (compared
to men’s 59 percent). Even among those who support
military action, barely 13 percent “strongly” support it.
Of women, those who are lower-income, Midwestern or un-married
maintain the strongest anti- military stance, closely followed
by older, childless, Northeastern and feminist women.
Instead of a preemptive strike, 48 percent of respondents
would prefer that the U.S. negotiate with Iran using the
United Nations and other countries to resolve differences on
Iran’s nuclear program, while 30 percent support international
diplomatic sanctions aimed at discouraging Iran from
developing nuclear weapons.
Even though the president of the United States has presented
bombing nuclear sites as a possible option in Iran,
almost no one in the U.S. agrees with that strategy. Only 7
percent would support bombing Iran’s nuclear development
sites, and only 6 percent would want to send in the U.S.
military to destroy the sites.
Women Started Sea Change
Polling by other sources has complemented and validated
the Ms. poll results, showing that there has been a sea
change in attitudes toward the president and his handling of
the war in Iraq—with women leading the way.
On the eve of the 2004 election, both male and female
voters approved of the president’s performance on the war,
giving the president significant advantages on terrorism, and
voted the security issue. Currently, however, the American
public is decidedly negative toward the president’s handling
of the war, with nearly two-thirds (61 percent) saying they
disapprove, according to a June survey by CBS News. But
it was women who first felt more disgruntled about the war:
In October of last year, according to a George Washington
University Battleground survey, only 43 percent of women
said President Bush would do a better job than the
Democrats in Congress of dealing with Iraq—while 53
percent of men still held that view.
Moreover, even as men have joined women on many
measures of anti-war sentiment, a recent ABC News-Washington
Post poll showed that women are significantly
more likely to think the U.S. made a mistake in going to war
with Iraq (63 percent to 55 percent).
Sources: Ms. magazine survey of 1,023 adults nationwide, conducted May 19-22, 2006
(margin of error +/- 3.1 percent); CBS News survey of 636 adults nationwide, conducted
May 15-17, 2006; Washington Post survey, May 2006; George Washington University
Battleground Survey, conducted October 9–12, 2005.
Martha Burk is author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination
in Corporate America and What Can Be Done
About It (Scribner, 2005).
Celinda Lake is a renowned pollster and strategist for
progressive groups and candidates. She is a nationally
recognized expert on women voters and women candidates.