Did it Mean Nothing?

Guest post by authors, Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl

As authors of the book The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, which examines how US foreign policy came to “see” women, and what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accomplished by emphasizing women’s empowerment during her 2009-2013 tenure in office, we were left thunderstruck by a major article in the New York Times this month surveying six possible American options in Afghanistan.

The author, columnist Max Fisher, managed to write over 1400 words on the subject without once mentioning the word “women.”  Fisher made no effort whatsoever to consider what each of these six options might mean for fully half the population of Afghanistan. They are not even on his radar screen, even though what’s happening with Afghan women affects the future of the entire nation—including the future of its men.

Did it mean nothing, then?  

Have we so quickly smashed the lens that allowed us to perceive the linkages between the repression of women and the repression of human rights, of peace and of basic democratic values?  And why would we prefer to remain blind, when such blindness diminishes the possibility of building a society free from violence and terror?

Consider Iran. Foreign policy experts consider the Iranian regime one of the greatest threats to US security. But it’s not American threats that are the greatest weapon against that repressive theocracy.  Rather, what Iranians now appear to understand is that the oppression of women forms the very foundation of the regime’s power.

This understanding originally began to dawn on demonstrators who took part in failed Iranian “Green” Revolution of 2009. Many of the male dissidents began to don women’s headscarves, the rusari, during photos and public appearances. While the backstory is complex, one dissident stated something remarkable. He said, “We Iranian men are late doing this . . . If we did this when rusari was forced on those among our sisters who did not wish to wear it 30 years ago, we would have perhaps not been here today.”

This young man’s words spoke to a deeper truth regarding the origins of nationalism, of religious fundamentalism, of militarism and all of the other ‘isms’ that promote human misery. The character of male-female relations within the society helps determine that society’s horizon for democracy and peace. His was an observation, that commends the Hillary Doctrine not only to all women, but to every man as well.

Men who approve or even simply acquiesce to the domination of women are approving and acquiescing to something more. What such male-bonded groups do not recognize until much later—if at all—is that if their leaders allow or encourage men to attack and degrade women with impunity, they will also do the same to men.

This is the great and hidden truth behind nationalism, religious fundamentalism, terrorism and militarism: a social order based upon the subordination of women will always subjugate all but the most powerful men. The tactics used to repress women will also be used on other, less powerful men; by bonding over the subordination of women, men wind up subordinating themselves.

One would think, then, that at some point men would realize that the only revolution capable of leading to true freedom would be one in which women were simultaneously empowered to progress forward from their subordinate status.

This almost never occurs; in all of our years of study, it is almost impossible to find cases where male revolutionaries recognized or acted upon this truth. (The Marxist revolutions in Russia and China come close, but the aim of these was the imposition of totalitarian rule, not the achievement of liberty or democracy, and women were never accorded real power in either country. Ditto for other supposedly women-friendly Marxist or Maoist movements such as the PKK and Shining Path.)

And why is this? It is because even in the most abjectly unequal societies, the most powerless of men can still rest assured that they will remain master of their own household and indeed, of one half of humanity. That is why hegemonic masculinity remains so intoxicatingly attractive to the men who will themselves be repressed through their support for this system of social order.

It also speaks to why the ‘strong man’ —the ultimate paterfamilias who will make a nation ‘great again’—is once again in ascendance almost everywhere we care to look. Turkey, the Russian Federation, India, The Philippines, throughout Eastern Europe, North Korea and, we would argue, here in the United States.

And that is also why the events beginning with “the girl of Enghelab Street” may be only a trivial “human interest” story to some experts, but to those with eyes to see, represent the potential for the overthrow of the powerful Iranian regime.  This young woman, and the almost three dozen and counting that have been arrested since for following her example, frighten the regime.  Photos of these women, some with rusari and some without, holding out a scarf on a stick in front of them, have gone viral in Iran, as has the online “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign featuring women with their hair flowing freely.  These women are doing nothing that could be considered threatening to the regime—they have no guns, no mobs, no slogans.  All they are, are defenseless women holding a piece of cloth or letting their hair fly free.  And yet we would argue they are the most terrifying force in Iran today.

And that is why the more we are capable of seeing the linkages, the more we see the real levers of power and the effective path to security.  

Let’s take an example closer to home; the US.  Americans are troubled by the mass violence in their country, whether perpetrated by a political agenda or simply anomie. The linkage between domestic violence and mass violence is only now coming to light, but the mounting evidence is still treated in the media as little more than a human interest afterthought.  And that is too bad, because regardless of the political orientation of America’s home-grown terrorists—be they right wing or Islamist—all of the perpetrators seem to have two things in common: they are males and they have a history of domestic violence and/or misogyny.

For example, well before police in Virginia arrested 20-year Alex Fields after he ploughed into a group of activists in Charlottesville last year, killing one and injuring 19 others, he had already run afoul of authorities. In 2010, police records show, his mother called 911 to report that her son had hit her and threatened to beat her. During another 911 call, made the following year, Fields’ mother told the dispatcher that her son was “very threatening toward her”.

And then there is Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, who killed 49 people in Orlando in 2016. His ex-wife described to police how he used to beat her and pull her hair. Robert Lewis Dear killed three people and wounded nine others when he opened fire on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in 2015. Two of his ex-wives accused him of physical abuse and in 1992, he was arrested for rape.  

The list is exhaustive and transcends ideology and geography. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who drove a truck through a Bastille Day crowd in Nice in 2015, also fit the profile with allegations of domestic abuse, as did Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon Bombing. Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean expatriate who shot and killed 32 people at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007, had previously been charged with stalking and harassing female students.

When we extrapolate from individuals into broader social and political movements we witness the same misogynistic forces at work. Hindu nationalists, Islamist ideologues and white supremacists might be separated by ideology, race and geography, but they are united in one thing: they think of women as lesser beings whom they feel justified harming.  And that is why they think of you as a lesser being whom they feel justified harming.  The school of misogyny is also the school for terror.

The good news? A few nations do get it: both Canada and Sweden are each unrolling their own ‘feminist foreign policy’ that explicitly recognizes the link between the empowerment of women and more peaceful and stable societies.  If the American election outcome had been different, the US would now be a member of that clear-eyed club.

And that is why when Max Fisher cannot even see one half of Afghanistan’s population, he undermines the future of all Afghans and he diminishes the effectiveness of any US foreign policy options toward that nation.


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/08/15/the-persistent-crime-that-connects-mass-shooters-and-terror-suspects-domestic-violence/?utm_term=.4f9c0bf2c10e, accessed Feb 5, 2018

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