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FEATURE | summer 2006

Crude Awakening
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 taxpayer dollars.


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.

Martha Burk is author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It (Scribner, 2005).