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On the Backs of Women: The Politics of Betrayal

By       Message Elayne Clift     Permalink
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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H4 11/25/09

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From Afghanistan to America, to take two current examples, it's the same: When the chips are down, it's always women who get thrown under the bus.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai talks a good game, but what is happening to women there? For starters, his wife is sequestered, unable to leave home alone. Women exercising the least bit of autonomy or working within the confines of current law, have been kidnapped, tortured, and threatened with death. As one woman said, "I work every day hoping to return at the end of the day to my child and my husband." Yet, as Ann Jones reported recently in The Nation, "As for some hypothetical moral duty to protect the women of Afghanistan, that's off the table."

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In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, heralded as finally bringing women into post-conflict resolution and reconstruction. In 2002, Mr. Karzai proudly proclaimed, "We are determined to improve the lot of women after all their suffering under the narrow-minded and oppressive rule of the Taliban." In 2004, Afghanistan's new constitution declared, "The citizens of Afghanistan -- whether man or woman -- have equal rights and duties before the law." But an Afghan chief justice of the Supreme Court told Ann Jones that men have a right to work while women have a right to obey their husbands. Sharia law still trumps the constitution.

Afghanistan's Shite Personal Status Law, dubbed the Marital Rape Law, legalizes withholding food from a woman who fails to have sex with her husband at least twice a week. It denies women's right to inherit, divorce, or have guardianship over her children. It forbids women to marry without permission, and legalizes forced marriage, including marriage to and rape of minors. There's more, but you get the picture. And according to Ms. Jones, "no American official has said a word."

There wasn't much word either when Sitara Achakzai, a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council, was killed in April, or when Malalai Kakar, the highest ranking female police officer in Kandahar was murdered in September. So far, 31-year old Malalai Joya, called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan" and the youngest person ever elected to the Afghan parliament (later expelled), is still alive. "Women's situation is like hell," she said recently during a speech at Brown University.

Things aren't so hideous here, but you only have to think about the now-notorious Stupak Amendment to see how dispensable women are when it comes to public policy decisions.

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The amendment restricts abortion funding in dramatic new ways. Unlike the 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibiting spending federal funds for abortions, the Stupak Amendment prohibits private insurers from covering abortion services if they enroll individuals who receive government subsidies to buy insurance. In effect, the amendment targets poor women who will seek insurance through newly-formed "Exchanges".

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, explained the "outrageous blow to women's freedom and privacy" this way: "The Stupak Amendment makes it virtually impossible for private insurance companies that participate in [any] new system to offer abortion coverage. This would have the effect of denying women the right to use their own personal private funds to purchase an insurance plan with abortion coverage in a new health system -- a radical departure from the status quo."

Supporters of the amendment argue that women who require subsidies to help pay for their insurance plan will have access to abortion through the option of buying separate "riders" to their policy. But five states now requiring such a rider show no evidence that plans actually offer these riders. Further, what woman is going to anticipate needing an unanticipated abortion?

Diana DiGette (D-Colo.) led the opposition to the Stupak Amendment during the House debate. "To say that this amendment is a wolf in sheep's clothing would be the understatement of a lifetime. " If enacted, this amendment would be the greatest restriction of a woman's right to choose to pass in our careers. " Let's not sacrifice reproductive rights in pursuit of [a] noble goal."

Other women representatives quickly took up the call. Long-time Congress-woman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said, "We are driving poor women who cannot afford to buy their own insurance policy out of their own pocket back to the back alley."

Pro-choice members of the House vowed to oppose any final health care bill if it restricts a woman's right to choose any further than current law does. Reps. DiGette and Slaughter, co-chairs of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, released a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining objections to the intentions of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. The letter says in part, "The Stupak-Pitts Amendment represents an unprecedented and unacceptable restriction on women's ability to access the full range of reproductive health services to which they are lawfully entitled."

Advocacy groups were quick to react. CREDO Action's "Send a Coat Hanger" petition went viral as did the opportunity provided by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to sign onto the DiGette and Slaughter letter. The Committee also launched a campaign in Michigan to prevent Stupak from winning the governorship.

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Worry that the abortion issue could bring down the entire attempt at health care reform hangs heavy. But everyone knows, as Nancy Keenan has said, that "The fight is not over." For women everywhere, it never is.


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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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