Afghan Women: Enduring American “Freedom”

Based on Conference Presentation at Afghan Women’s Mission Conference, October 2002. Published in Frontline Magazine (India), Z Magazine, and Foreign Policy in Focus

In January 2002, George W. Bush told us in his State of the Union address, “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free …” Almost a year later (11 Oct 2002), Bush again congratulated himself: “We went into Afghanistan to free people, because we believe in freedom. We believe every life counts. Every life matters. So we’re helping people recover from living under years of tyranny and oppression. We’re helping Afghanistan claim its democratic future.” The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was called “Operation Enduring Freedom”. With all this talk of freedom, it is important to ask the question, how are Afghan women enduring American-style freedom? When we think of women’s rights in Afghanistan, we think of the imprisonment of the Burqa, the traditional Islamic head to foot covering that the Taliban forced women to wear. George Bush certainly seems to subscribe to this view. But many Afghan women wore the burqa before and after the Taliban. In the rural areas of Afghanistan, the majority of women covered themselves. Contrary to what President Bush would have us believe, the problems facing Afghan women run far deeper than clothing. Food security, access to healthcare, and safety from physical violence are key aspects of women’s rights that the US intervention has largely ignored or even jeopardized.

Coming Winter Brings Starvation

By November, Afghanistan’s harsh winter will return and thousands of Afghans, devastated by three years of drought and 23 years of war and civil unrest, will be facing winter and starvation. Take the Badghis province of Afghanistan for example — one of the poorest. Roughly 50 percent of Badghis’s approximately 400,000 population cannot obtain enough food this winter. Fatema, a resident of Bagdhis, doesn’t know how she will feed her six children this year. Her 15 year old son is the only one in the family who can earn any money and he does it by selling grass for fuel and food. Two months ago they were refugees, but they recently returned. They are among the millions of refugees that have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, the millions who have been counted as a measure of success by the U.N. of the U.S.’s Operation “Enduring Freedom” (World Vision, October 17th).

When George Bush promised us that Afghan women were free he assuaged our guilt as the bombs rained down on Afghanistan, picking off wedding parties, cutting off crucial winter aid routes, delaying spring plantings of wheat. According to Bush, at least women can now walk around without a burqa if they want. But what good is an uncovered face if it is starving to death? Women’s rights are human rights: survival is more important than clothing and survival has been the most difficult challenge facing women both before and after the U.S. action in Afghanistan..

Women’s Health Still in Crisis

A recent report released by the US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) entitled “Maternal Mortality in Herat Province: The Need to Protect Women’s Rights”, said, “The rate of maternal mortality in a society is a critical indicator of the health and human rights status of women in a community.” The report documented 593 maternal deaths in every 100,000 live births, with the majority of the cases in rural areas. This maternal mortality rate is far worse than in all of the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The second worse neighboring country is Pakistan, with 200 deaths per 100,000 births. A researcher with PHR concluded, “What appears to be simply a public health catastrophe in Herat Province… speaks of the many years of denial and deprivation of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

Today one of the most vulnerable groups of women in Afghanistan are widows. In Kabul alone there are an estimated 40,000 widows who have lost their husbands in the decades of war in Afghanistan. Nationwide, the number of widows is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, since about 1.5 million Afghans were killed during the ten year Soviet occupation and the cross fire from warlordism that followed in the early 1990s. “While the plight of Afghan widows has improved psychologically, the main problems of finding shelter, food and income remain thesame,” says Awadia Mohamed , the coordinator for CARE International in Afghanistan. “Indeed, in some cases they have worsened.” Widows have very limited access to food and health services despite the absence of the Taliban. In fact, “51 percent of widows surveyed reported being unwell, of whom 57.6 percent had fever, 13.6 percent had diarrhoea and 10 percent leishmaniasis wounds…Furthermore, calorie intake was insufficient, with most of the women and their children subsisting on little more than bread and tea, resulting in malnutrition problems and micronutrient deficiencies”. (“Afghanistan: Focus on the plight of widows”, IRIN, 21st October, 2002).

Hunger and lack of healthcare indicate the deprivation of the basic rights of mothers, daughters, and widows. Where are the media and their cameras now?

Warlords Threaten Security for Women

Article 3 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” If the right to survival is a fundamental principle of women’s rights, freedom from insecurity is another. But insecurity is a euphemism for war, for conflict, for more violence and bloodshed. Unfortunately, “territorial skirmishes between heavily armed warlords” (“Fighting breaks out in troubled eastern Afghan province”, AFP, October 17th) are all too common.

Practically speaking, since the Taliban fell and warlords of the past returned to their old fiefdoms, they resumed fighting one another, exactly what they were doing when the Taliban first came to power. According to Agence France-Presse, “Northern Afghanistan remains plagued by factional and ethnic rivalries despite loose allegiances between warlords controlling the area, most of whom have offered pledges of support to the central Afghan government.” (“Violence in northern Afghanistan deterring refugee returns: UN”, Agence France-Presse, 20th October, 2002). Such clashes are frequent and deadly, in the northern and eastern part of Afghanistan.

The media fail to report prominently that many of these warlords, now members of the Northern Alliance, were first empowered by the United States in the 1980s to repel the Soviet invasion, and then again during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghansitan (RAWA) spelled out last year what empowering war lords will do for Afghanistan: “The Taliban and Al-Qaeda will be eliminated, but the existence of the NA [Northern Alliance] as a military force would shatter the joyful dream of the majority for an Afghanistan free from the odious chains of barbaric Taliban. The NA will horribly intensify the ethnic and religious conflicts and will never refrain to fan the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to retain in power.” (“RAWA’s appeal to the UN and World community”, November 13th, 2001). Rather than heed the words of RAWA and others,the U.S. engaged the services of the Northern Alliance, with the CIA paying warlords $100,000 each to gather armies (“Caught Off Guard, the CIA Fights to Catch Up,” Cloud, D. S., 15 April 2002, Wall Street Journal). Today, the three Vice Presidents of Afghanistan are all members of the Northern Alliance – General Mohammad Fahim, Karim Khalili and Haji Abdul Qadeer. And, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former Mujahadeen warrior, is now Defense Minister of Afghanistan.

The Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who recieved a plaque of appreciation from US forces for help against the Taliban last year, can add ethnic cleansing to his achievements. Dostum’s troops recently forced 180 Pashtun families (people who are the same ethnicity as the Taliban), from villages in northern Afghanistan in early October. Some of the women said they had been raped by his men and had their homes looted. (“Pashtuns driven from northern Afghan villages”, 7th October, 2002, Reuters).

While Afghan women are desperate for security and for the International Security Armed Forces (ISAF) to be expanded from Kabul to all of Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to deny this. Even Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, a puppet of the U.S., has asked for the ISAF to be expanded to all of Afghanistan, so that warlords can be disarmed and a transition to peace can begin. Instead the U.S. has been focusing on training a national army of Afghans which is undermined by the fact that Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim himself has a private army of 18,000 men. (“Afghans ask: ‘Whose army is it?,'” David Buchbinder, 17th October, 2002, Christian Science Monitor). With the U.S. empowering warlords, and undermining the ISAF expansion, there is little hope for peace and security in the country. Afghan women will pay the highest price as they have always done.

Girls Schools Still Under Attack

In March of this year the Washington Post happily ran a story headlined “The Girls Are back in Afghan Schools”. One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across America — the knowledge that our good war, meant to liberate Afghan women was working. But are the media reporting the recent spate of attacks against schools in Afghanistan? Schools have been burned down in Kandahar, Wardak and Sar-i-Pul. In the seventh incident in a series of attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan, gunmen forced a school in the Wardak province that served 1,300 girls to close. In recent weeks girls schools have been burned and bombed. (“UNICEF denounces violent attacks on schools in Afghanistan, 17th October, 2002, UN News Service).

“Saving” Afghan Women

It is crucial for us to understand that women’s rights are always politically manipulated by the powerful, to justify almost anything. In the late 70s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and claimed to be saving Afghan women. Then, they began assassinating men who opposed the invasion, leaving thousands of women widowed. The U.S. backed Mujahadeen (many of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance) claimed to be saving women, from the “godless” communists. Then, they simply raped women, forced them into marriages, and tortured their husbands. The Taliban took over from the Mujahadeen, claiming to save Afghan women. Then they forced them to stay at home (for their own good), stop going to school, and be denied access to medical care. And finally, George Bush came riding on a white horse to save Afghan women. Perhaps it is time to rethink promises made by powerful men to save Afghan women.

Afghan women don’t need saving. They know perfectly well how to save themselves: the brave work of RAWA in the fields of education, health care, political agitation and demands for secularism, democracy and women’s rights, is a testament to this. The West does not hold a monopoly on these issues. What Afghan women need is for the U.S. to stop imposing freedom through bombs, stop backing human rights violators and warlords, and stop hindering the security forces from expanding to the rest of the country.

The struggle of Afghan women has been reduced here in the United States to a simplistic discussion about the Burqa. Don the burqa and you’re oppressed, take it off and, lo and behold, you’re free. But what does this really mean? It means that to constantly portray Afghan women as weak, covered up, defenseless, needing our help, makes us feel good about helping Afghan women, about saving them. To express solidarity with Afghan women, we need to understand what affects them, starting with what we are responsible for and have the power to change — the use of bombs and warlords as tools of US policy. We need to begin treating Afghan women with dignity and not reduce them to a piece of clothing. Afghan women’s rights are a crucial part of the equation of Afghanistan. One year later, it is clear that Afghan women are not “free” — they are simply enduring American freedom.

Outwardly Progressive, Internally Corporate: Pacifica’s Next Challenge

Published on Znet online ( in September 2002

In an article on Pacifica entitled “Gloves Off”, Michael Albert wrote: “progressive organizations should employ participatory and self-managing rather than corporate structures … advocating self-managing structures has not only long-run but also short-run relevance to Pacifica, because Pacifica activism will grow quicker and be stronger and wiser if it pursues positive aims.”

As a listener and subscriber to KPFK, Pacifica’s Los Angeles station, I kept a close watch on the campaign to “save Pacifica” and wrote letters, and supported efforts to reclaim Pacifica. At the height of the crisis I heard Juan Gonzalez resign on the air on Democracy Now! and began withholding my donations from KPFK.

Today, I find myself in a unique position: from a listener/subscriber to a worker at KPFK. Since March 2002, soon after the lawsuit was won and the “old regime” replaced, I began hosting and co-producing KPFKs Morning Show on weekday mornings. As the months have passed, I have grown into my new job and have fallen in love with journalism, radio, and production for the purposes of raising progressive awareness and motivating to action. I have seen and continue to see Pacifica as not simply reporting on the movement for social and political justice, but as an integral part of the movement. I have grown to appreciate my fellow workers who are as passionate as I am to be a part of this station. Excited as everyone else was about the changes heralding a new era at KPFK, I embraced our new General Manager and new Local Advisory Board (LAB) with enthusiasm.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that there are several aspects of KPFK and Pacifica that have changed for the better. Listeners have more power and input into station policies, new bylaws are being debated by listeners, there are plans for elections to the Local Advisory Board, etc. But, where working conditions and internal management structures are concerned, KPFK retains the structures that were designed to “corporatize” the stations in the first place.

While the players changed, the game remained the same. I should have been wary from the start about an essentially hierarchical structure working for progressive goals. Hence, the realization that KPFK, in my opinion, is replicating the very structures it replaced saddens me. A progressive organization like KPFK must reject corporate structures and “employ participatory and self-managing” ones. But that has never been the case. If anything, in the last seven months that I have been employed at KPFK, I have seen only a reaffirming of corporate structures. When I first came into the station, I was assigned an “executive producer”, a “professional” who, I was told, was ultimately responsible for the show I hosted and would be the one responsible for the show. This executive producer was hired after the lawsuit was won, and was not a product of the previous management. This acceptance of mainstream media power roles came as rather a surprise to me. I imagined that as the person on the air, the words I spoke were my responsibility. I spent months battling the philosophy that I thought died with the previous regime. Egalitarian in theory, authoritarian in practice.

Eventually the executive producer finally had enough of my resistance to this philosophy and asked to be taken off the show, much to my relief. The Morning Show is now run by myself and one other producer and newsreader. We make every attempt to share power and decision making on the show. About half our stories are pitched to us by members of the community whose lives are affected by the prevailing power structures in our society.

The experience with “professionalism” was only a taste of things to come. One of the actions by our new General Manager only weeks after her arrival at KPFK was to fire a beloved and dedicated staff member on impulse as a result of a dispute over a financial transaction. I have gathered that the official reason given was “insubordination”. The staff at KPFK was shocked. The event galvanized us and, over the course of several long meetings, collectively decided upon a course of action. The attack on one staff member empowered the rest of us to collectively demand that the fired staff member be immediately re-instated and that financial transactions be made transparent. It was this part of my tenure at KPFK that has been the most exciting. We were exercising workplace democracy and cooperation based on consensus-based decision making! Our solidarity reaped rewards: the fired worker was immediately re-instated. However, closed-door mediated sessions between the GM and that worker ensured that eventually no blame was assigned to either party even though one had the power to fire and used it, and the other had no say in the matter. We, the staff, were told to move on.

In 4 short weeks, an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment has returned to KPFK when the GM suspended the same worker. This time “for her own good” as the worker was apparently too stressed to work – a fact that was not supported by her or anyone else’s observations on the staff. We’re back to business as usual and old timers on the staff are reminded of the striking parallels between then and now.

When KPFKs new GM came on board, as part of her speech at the National Board Meeting in Berkeley she said her goal was to “take the hierarchy out of management”. Unfortunately her actions are vastly different. Staff members at KPFK have been derided for having unauthorized meetings to plot against the GM and for showing disrespect to the GM. Lately the GM has asked that she be informed when staff members have lunch together outside of the station premises. Even a small gathering of staff members in the parking lot for 15 minute breaks is questioned. When management meets without larger staff permission and summarily fires and suspends highly respected and hard working staff members, somehow that is not “disrespectful”. Staff has been told that the GM “does not report to them”. Of course, what she means is that staff reports to the GM and the GM reports to the National Board – that is how it works within a hierarchical system.

Some might say, so what? She is the General Manager; someone has got to have the power to make decisions unilaterally for the good of the station, for “practical purposes”. If I have learned anything from my six month tenure here, it is that many progressive thinkers find it disturbingly easy to separate political ideals of workplace democracy, egalitarian thinking and non-hierarchical decision making, from the actual workings of their own institutions.

Sadly our new General Manager not only has problems with challenges to her authority, but also seems to be bearing the weight of previous workplace conflicts. Various people have raised numerous questions about her background and the National Board promised to review any findings from an investigation. A month ago, the Pacifica Executive Director Dan Coughlin visited KPFK and happened to be in town when our fellow worker was first fired. As he tried to quell the staff over the firing, I asked Coughlin about this investigation. His response was that it had revealed nothing of concern. However, a few days ago, the person who conducted the investigation revealed to a few other staff members and me that this was a lie. This person’s inquiries, which were thorough and came from a geographically diverse array of sources, were a devastating indictment of the suitability, skills and honesty of our new GM. A pattern of mismanagement, quite consistent with her current behavior at KPFK also emerged – enough to raise red flags. I was more shocked to realize that the top management at Pacifica was protecting their political investment in this GM on whom their reputation was staked. We, the staff, and the listeners were lied to.

There seems to be growing participation between listener activists and management on a national level, and this is indeed a step in the right direction. More needs to be done, however, to engage the larger listening community who may not be activists. On the station level, a replacement of the General Manager seems to be the length to which reform has gone. A search committee that was representative and democratic picked the current GM. But, once she was picked, the functioning of the station was left up to her, just like it was left up to her predecessor. The figurehead has changed; the system has stayed the same. It is akin to imagining that the state of our country will change if a Democrat replaces George W. Bush. Predictably the same abuses of power are being seen today. Staff members who stand up to the General Manager are being fired or have their hours reduced. Staff meetings are conducted by the GM through intimidation and authority.

So remarkable is the parallel between what is currently happening and the previous struggle to reclaim Pacifica, that sometimes the same language is being used that the previous regime used in trying to undermine the “save Pacifica” campaign. A February 2000 letter by Saul Landau was entitled “An Appeal to All Progressives: Stop the Pacifica Bashing!” In a GM’s report to the listeners at KPFK, a caller began criticizing the station’s output saying that nothing had changed. The GM’s response was to berate the caller for “bashing Pacifica” and dismiss him without hearing him out. The parallels are clear.

Additionally, a few listener activists who are involved in rebuilding the station are vehemently opposed to airing dirty laundry and assert that it would only serve to prove the previous regime correct. It would just “play into their hands”.

If Pacifica and its network stations are to recover from this very difficult period, the most destructive path it can take is to follow in the footsteps of the previous management. And it seems to be doing just that. Have things really changed?

One can imagine a major corporation undergoing internal upheavals where the top brass has an embarrassing closet of secrets, which, if exposed, would require an entire re-organization of structures and a re-evaluation of transparency and accountability. The corporate world is based on hierarchical top-down style management of workers that is geared toward maximizing production and minimizing risks at the expense of workers rights and human rights. Why are Pacifica stations continuing to adopt structures where a lone person at the top makes decisions? Don’t we need to honestly assess our progress and risk exposing mistakes so that a truly revolutionary media institution can be rebuilt?

An excellent example of bottom-up structures is the Indymedia movement. The Independent Media Centers that span the globe first began in 1999 in Seattle, Washington when tens of thousands demonstrated against the World Trade Organization. Since then, there has been an explosion of these Indymedia Centers throughout the world from Los Angeles to Jerusalem. While I’m not suggesting that Pacifica needs to emulate this structure in order to be a truly progressive institution, I think many lessons can be learned. Namely that decision-making among those who create the output can be horizontally rather than vertically designed.

Ultimately internal honesty and a bottom-up structure are the only things that can build a station resistant to outside attacks. We need to move toward the “participatory and self-managing structures” that Michael Albert spoke of. Mimicking the very structures we criticize in our political analysis should never be an option. Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and co-producer of KPFKs The Morning Show, a daily drive time public affairs and political show on global and local issues. She was one of KPFKs Union stewards when she wrote this piece and subsequently resigned as steward.

A Green Party Unlike Others

Invited Talk at Green Party of Orange County event, GEM Theater in Garden Grove – September 2002

I’d like to start with a subversive thought – a quote from a Jello Biafra poem entitled, “I Blow Minds for a Living”. He said:

How many out there think this country is a Democracy? Or is it more of a one party state masquerading as a two party state? The Democrats are on the inside what the Republicans are on the outside. Each having almost identical financial backers. . . Did you vote for the Pentagon? (NO!) Did you vote for Wall Street? (NO!) Did you vote for a nuclear arms race? (NO!) Did you vote for the CIA? (NO!) Ever try reading the Bill of rights to a cop? (No, LOL.) People didn’t vote for star wars, people didn’t vote for drug wars, no one voted for acid rain, no one voted for being homeless.

I think Jello hit it on the head. We didn’t vote into place so many of the ills in today’s America.

There are two major parties, and, on the national level at least, these two parties work very well in preserving the status quo. In other countries where the Green party has a lot of power on the national level, such as in the case of Germany, they do so because of the coalition style government allowed by the state. In effect, the party, Republican or Democratic, is a coalition for the purpose of campaigning for office. With two major parties of similar views and of approximately equal strength competing for control of a government, it is possible for governmental control to alternate between the parties without shifts in policy so radical as to incite minorities to resistance. And we see that to be true in the US.

Well, so much of that is mirrored on the state level with the Republicans and Democrats duopolizing almost all the power in the form of state senate and assembly seats and of course, the governor’s seat. But, there is a little more promise on the state level for positive change. And so we are here today. I think it is crucial that in today’s world where in the state of California we are seeing a housing crisis, an education crisis, a state where the prison system is better funded than the school system, and where in Los Angeles, a 2 year old baby has breathed more carcinogens than the threshold for an entire lifetime because of a smog filled atmosphere resulting from a car-centric corporatized society, it is crucial that we provide some good alternatives than what those in power provide.

That is why the Green Party is so crucial today. A real viable alternative, on a practical level alone, makes enormous amounts of good sense and provides the institutional basis for a progressive agenda. The huge apathy on a local and national level when it comes to voting is based necessarily on the belief that we have no power to change anything. I think one of the greatest challenges to the Green Party and any other third party, is how to reach out to those most affected by the abuses of power by the two major parties. That includes youth, people of color, low-income folks, etc. How will they be engaged in a process to build the Green Party and represent their communities, while balancing their lives, working from day to day. So many people who are marginalized today work two jobs, and have little or no time to spend on building a movement based party. How will those people be engaged in this process? In other words, how do you convince enough people to put faith in a process that will truly work only when enough people put faith in that process?

But of course, the true power of a third party can be manifested well before winning elections. The Green Party must be a tool for movement building, rather than simply building power.

What do I mean by movement building? I mean that foundation of ideology that is perpetuated, that multiples and diversifies and upholds values common to us. A movement based on progressive values that continually builds between elections, and not just before elections. There has to be a serious movement upholding the ideology behind the Green Party or else it will simply mimic the major parties.

What does it take for a gubernatorial candidate in California to actually win a seat? Some would argue the same as it does for a presidential candidate to become president – money, money and more money. The more money the more power. According to state records, since 1998, Gray Davis has taken in $550,000 from Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric — that’s his share of the $7 million the state’s top utility companies have doled out to politicians from both parties during that time. Of course, Davis’ spokesman said “There is no connection between contributions and policy.” Right.

Ariana Huffington in an article about the power of influence of big money over Davis’s campaign said, “.. the governor’s office proudly announced that Davis had turned down an offer by a group of independent energy producers to hold a fund-raiser for him last month. Putting aside the ludicrousness of painting the rejection of a fund-raising opportunity as an act of great strength and moral leadership, why would Davis stop accepting utility contributions if, as he claims, there’s “no connection between contributions and policy”? And if he wants credit for turning the money down when the lights — at least the media ones — are on, why won’t he accept the implications of taking the money when they were off?” Good question. In fact as of mid-February Davis had already raised $29 million. Raising money is obviously his strength. So, should third parties such as the Greens simply join in the game, or work to change the rules? If Gray Davis’s track record is any indication, I think the answer is obvious.

When we critique our own institutions, marginalized as they may be at the moment, we emerge all the stronger. Hence, I ask those of you gathered here to reflect upon the question, what should the green party be doing to ensure it doesn’t reproduce the same power structures that the democrats and republicans have now, once it gets into power? This is a legitimate question to ask. Just look at the country where the Greens do have some power. Germany, where the Green party supported the bombing of Afghanistan, supported the transportation of radioactive nuclear waste through residential communities, supported the latest bombing of Afghanistan in the US’s so-called war on terrorism! Enough to make a Green blush pink.

So if Peter Camejo wins this gubernatorial election, and I do hope he does, as unlikely as it may be, we need to be asking the question about what Peter and other Green candidates will do once elected. Because winning an election is just the beginning of the battle. Take this example. So California supports one of the largest defense, aerospace and technology industries in the country. The economy of California is based on an industry which fuels war and the push for war. How would the Green Party handle this aspect of running the state, if they were in power? It would mean reconciling the machine that drives this economy with the ideology of the Green Party. I don’t know the answer to this, but I think we really need to ask the question and other difficult ones like it. California has one of the largest economies in the world! And yet we have so many disempowered people. We need to contemplate these issues now, before the Green Party gets into power.

You know, I’m new at this, I don’t have the right to vote, I’m an immigrant – what they call a resident alien. So I have not paid as much attention in the past to state laws, except of course when they become very politically charged and are so egregious like some of the propositions that people get to vote on (187, 21, etc). Now that I find myself a journalist of sorts, I spend my time researching ways in which people can make a difference in a variety of ways from organizing demonstrations, to using the power of their vote. So you know I recently did a show on the large number of state bills that were on Gray Davis’s table for him to sign into law. It seemed to me to be the educational and important thing to do – educate his constituency on the bills that had passed the California Senate and Assembly and were all but law except for this one little signature. Wow – that’s a lot of power for one individual. Way too much power. And that is just one example of his power. I think that when we talk about introducing alternatives to the two parties, we need to also think about introducing alternatives to the structure of political power in order to ensure that there is no reproducing of the same corruption of power that currently exists.

To close, I want to talk a bout this play that I recently watched which is based on one of my favorite books: Animal Farm by George Orwell. You may know the story. The animals on the farm who were oppressed initiated a revolution to change their lives and professed, “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad”. Before long however, since there wasn’t any attempt to distribute the power, after the revolution, the exact same power structure was rebuilt and the animals in power began saying, “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better”. I think there is a lesson in there for all of us, no matter what struggle we are talking about. Whether it is about how to break into the two party system, whether it is about the serious labor struggles in KPFK where I work and the attempts to rebuild Pacifica, or whether we are talking about how to counter the world’s greatest superpower. Thank you very much.

“Saving” Afghan Women

Published online at Znet and various publications

As I got ready to be interviewed by Helen Caldicott, the famous Helen Caldicott, activist and feminist, I remarked to my fellow interviewee how exited I was to be speaking with one of my heroes. I had heard Helen on the radio and read articles about her and her brave campaigns to fight nuclear weapons and environmental degradation. Helen was late but it didn’t matter — I was elated about being interviewed by her. About forty five minutes after we were suppose to begin, we finally did. She began by asking me about my work with the Afghan Women’s Mission and Afghan women’s rights. Despite my nervousness, I answered calmly, but Helen wouldn’t let me finish my sentences. She kept asking me to talk about why Afghan men treated women in the way they did. I tried to talk about the US empowerment of misogynist fundamentalists in Afghanistan and how US support had raised a generation of men who abused the power of their guns on women. But she angled for another answer and kept pushing me to try to read her mind and tell her what she wanted to hear. Thrown off balance by her aggressive questioning, I finally gave up and she proceeded to tell me all about female genital mutilation which the Feminist Majority had apparently told her, took place among Afghan women. Aghast at this information, which in my years of carefully studying the issue of Afghan women’s rights, I had never come across, I mumbled that it was not something I was aware of. The interview ended as I took the headphones off and walked out, angry and frustrated with Helen ranting about the barbarity of women’s vaginas being sewn up and that Afghan men did not want women to be able to have orgasms.

I raced over to my computer to do some research. Could I have been wrong? Was FGM really prevalent among Afghan women? I couldn’t imagine it. I had known of it happening to women in some African countries. Surely I would have heard of it happening in a country geographically and culturally close to my home country of India, a country I had studied closely?

Well it turns out Ms. Caldicott was wrong. Female Genital Mutilation is not practiced in Afghanistan. I learned two lessons from my experience: 1) No pedestal is well deserved: greatness is an overrated perception, and, 2) Feminists like Helen Caldicott and the Feminist Majority, approach the women of the Global South with short sighted preconceptions of feminism and their superiority. Helen Caldicott, was more interested in exploring the fascinating desire of Afghan men to treat women like dirt, than in examining those forces (most often Western male dominated governments) that have fostered misogynist religious extremism at the expense of women’s rights.

It is easy to condemn the “barbaric” men of Afghanistan and pity the helpless women of Afghanistan. It is this very logic that drives the Feminist Majority’s “Gender Apartheid” campaign for Afghan women. Far more interested in portraying Afghan women as mute creatures covered from head to toe, the Feminist Majority aggressively promotes itself and it’s campaign by selling small squares of mesh cloth, similar to the mesh through which Afghan women can look outside when wearing the traditional Afghan burqa. The post card on which the .swatch of mesh is sold says, “Wear a symbol of remembrance for Afghan women”, as if they are already extinct. An alternative could have been “Celebrate the Resistance of Afghan Women” with a pin of a hand folded into a fist, to acknowledge the very real struggle that Afghan women wage every day, particularly the women of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who are at the forefront of that struggle. Interestingly enough, 50% of all proceeds go toward helping Feminist Majority in promoting their campaign on “Gender Apartheid” in Afghanistan.

On almost every image of Afghan women in the Western mainstream and even alternative media, images of shapeless blue clad forms of Afghan women covered with the burqa, dominate (Amnesty International’s poster of Afghan women, the cover of Cheryl Bernard’s new book on RAWA, etc.). We all know and understand the reactions which the image of the burqa brings, particularly to Western women and feminists. That horror mixed with fear and ugly fascination like knowing the site of a bloody car wreck will make you want to retch but you do it anyway. Whose purpose does this serve? How “effective” would the Feminist Majority’s campaign be if they made it known that Afghan women were actively fighting back and simply needed money and moral support, not instructions? It if for this reason, I have gathered, that the Feminist Majority is not interested in working with RAWA “RAWA is too independent and politicized. What good is it to flaunt images of Afghan women marching militantly with fists in the air, carrying banners about freedom, democracy and secular government? Those women wouldn’t need saving as much as the burqa clad women seem to. We may realize that groups such as the Feminist Majority are not necessary to tell Afghan women how to help themselves from their oppression. We may gather that Afghan women are perfectly capable of helping themselves if only our governments would stop arming and empowering the most violent sections of society. After all, it was the US CIA which armed and trained the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1970s, even back then famous for mutilating women with acid for failing to cover themselves up. Hekmatyar was known by the CIA for being a “fascist”. Where is the criticism of the CIA’s barbarity in Helen Caldicott’s remarks on Afghan women?

It is not just white women feminists in the US who seek to control the message of women’s movements in the Global South. This March, I excitedly obtained the endorsement of the board of the Afghan Women’s Mission for the Global Women’s Strike which happens each year on International Women’s Day. This was a three-year movement spanning tens of countries where women walked out of their homes and jobs to demand equal pay and compensation for child rearing among other things. This year’s theme was “Invest in Caring, not Killing” and, appropriately, the strike was dedicated to condemning the US War in Afghanistan. The local organizer, Margaret Prescod, was initially pleased that the Afghan Women’s Mission was signing on. However, Prescod and the main organizers of the strike who resided in England, objected to the language of our flyer only two days before the planned march in downtown Los Angeles. The main message on the front of the flyer was a condemnation of fundamentalism and an indictment of the US support for it, embedded in a quote by a RAWA member. It included the following sentence: “We welcome the combat against terrorism. In fact, this combat should have started years ago in terms of preventing incidents like September 11. But this combat against terrorism cannot be won by bombing this or that country. It should be a campaign to stop any country that sells arms or supports financially the fundamentalists’ movements or fundamentalist regimes”. Undoubtedly the bombing of Afghanistan was and is a large concern to the Afghan Women’ Mission and RAWA in whose support we work (AWM and RAWA have both released public statements condemning the bombing), but fundamentalism and the very real terrorism of the Taliban and Northern Alliance is a large part of the on-going problem that Afghan women live with every day, that kills them every day, before and after the bombing. Perturbed that our anti-war message was not clear enough, the organizers of the strike threatened to not allow AWM’s endorsement. This coalition of women was condemning the bombing while demanding equal pay and compensation for child rearing but could not fathom or appreciate that some women on the other side of the world had slightly different problems. Afghan Women’s Mission ultimately participated in the march while leaving our flyer largely intact.

RAWA has also faced some consternation from the progressive left. Upset at RAWA’s criticism of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, groups like the International Action Center, a.k.a. the Workers World Party, have silently ignored RAWA’s contribution. A friend at the Worker’s World Party claimed some years ago how she had seen pictures of Afghan women being beaten by Afghan fundamentalists in the 1970s and was so relieved when the Soviet Union went in to save them. Sounds similar to George Bush’s claim to have “saved Afghan women”. If one examines the various propaganda methods used to justify invasion of Afghanistan in past decades, a similar pattern emerges: saving Afghan women has been cited by the Russian, the US backed Mujahadeen fundamentalist war lords as well as the Taliban (!). In fact, the entire US war against Afghans has been made more palatable to Americans who were told by the President that it was those Afghan women we were going to be saving by bombing. First Lady Laura Bush developed a sudden interest in Afghan women’s rights and began spouting Feminist Majority-like rhetoric. George Bush claimed that we had saved Afghan women from oppression as he showed off his poster child, Sima Samar, the new head of the Women’s Affairs Department in Afghanistan. And the US State Department used RAWA’s images from their website without their permission, in their propagandist leaflets that were scattered over Afghanistan, to justify the bombing.

Of course, it’s not just women in the US who have exploited or misunderstood RAWA’s message. At a recent anti-war forum, I spoke alongside well known activist and writer Michael Parenti, who claimed that the Soviet Union was invited into Afghanistan in 1979, that it didn’t really invade. After I contradicted him in my speech, citing that the vast majority of the Afghan population were fairly united against the foreign domination and imperialist motives of the Soviet Union, Michael angrily asked me after the talk why RAWA does not concede to some of the good that the Russians did in Afghanistan. Wow. Do we ever dwell on the good that the US may have done in Vietnam? How could he ask this of a group whose leader was brutally assassinated by a Russian KGB operative in collaboration with an Afghan Mujahadeen, for being outspoken against the occupation and fighting for women’s rights?

Today, as the US sponsored government in Afghanistan which legitimizes the same Afghan fundamentalist war lords supported by the US throughout the 1980s, gets ready to convene a government, over a thousand Afghan refugee women have applied for a scant number of seats reserved for them in the Afghan grand assembly! Clearly Afghan women are tirelessly struggling. in the face of a fundamentalist tilted government which has already promised Islamic Sharia law, misogynist in its formulation, even before the assembly has met.

From Helen Caldicott to Michael Parenti, isn’t it imperative and a little bit obvious that when we speak of Afghan women and their rights, we must listen carefully to what they themselves have to say about it? As the admirable struggles of women of color, particularly in the Global South, come to the knowledge of the West, we must remind ourselves of the validity of their views and hopes, over our perceptions of what they should say and do, how they should dress and whether or not their oppression stems from being able to have an orgasm.

By Any Standards, This is a War Against Afghans

Published online at Znet Online and on 12th December, 2001

The bombing of Afghanistan by the United States is being reported in the press as “The War Against Terrorism”. That war was never initiated by ordinary Afghans whom we are reportedly saving from terrorism (and yes, they are certainly the victims of Taliban and Mujahadeen terrorism). Even American citizens were not included via their congressional representatives, to decide if the US should initiate a war in Afghanistan. It was an executive decision, made with only the justification that it was a War Against Evil, a War Against Terrorism. Let’s call it what it is, not a War Against Terrorism, but a War Against Afghans.

Let me explain why this is a more appropriate title. More and more reports are coming out each day about “errant” bombs destroying whole villages full of Afghans. As early as October 22nd, reports of US bombing whole villages, were surfacing. Human Rights Watch reported that the village of Chowkar Karez, 40 km north of Kandhahar was bombed at night by US planes. According to that report, “Many of the people in the village … ran out of their homes, afraid that the bombs would fall on the homes. All witnesses stated that aircraft then returned to the area and began firing from guns.” – they were bombed and then gunned down.

When asked to respond to this report, the Pentagon spokesperson said on November 2nd, “The people there are dead because we wanted them dead”. These people had nothing to do with the Taliban or Al Qaeda – the ruins of the leveled village revealed nothing of military value. This pattern continues with the one difference – Pentagon officials have taken to completely denying the existence of Afghan civilians.

The British media recently published an eye witness report of the village of Kama Ado being destroyed by US bombs in which at least 40 people were killed. When asked to respond, a Pentagon spokesperson vehemently said it simply didn’t happen. He said “Nothing Happened” – those were the exact words (The Independent). We are told “nothing happened” when evidence of the war’s real victims is presented. Afghan civilians do not even have the distinction of being called co-lateral damage anymore – they are now non-existent, simply standing in the way of our war.

On December 5th we heard – once more in the British press – “For the fourth consecutive night, American warplanes targeting al-Qa’ida fighters in the White Mountains also bombed nearby villages, killing and injuring unknown numbers and forcing thousands to flee to the regional capital, Jalalabad.” (The Independent). There is not enough room to details all the reports of Afghan deaths from bombs here. And you can be sure that we do not hear about all of them given the restrictions on the press in Afghanistan.

Every day thousands are forced to leave their homes in at least three major cities: Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandhahar, and become refugees for fear of their lives. A refugee who left Kandahar said of the victims of US bombing: “There are a lot of casualties, they are martyrs, and they are mostly civilians,” (Christian Science Monitor). If the West can claim responsibility for the joy of the citizens liberated from the Taliban in Kabul, then it must also admit responsibility for the misery of the civilians fleeing the bombs into dismal refugee camps in southern Afghanistan.

One American government adviser, Richard Perle, said of US responsibility “I don’t think any outside power has a responsibility in Afghanistan. People have to take responsibility for their own destiny” – as though the people whose villages had been leveled should have known better, anyway, than to live in downtown Kandahar or Jalalabad or Kama Ado or Chowkar Karez. Would we have held those who were killed in the World Trade Center responsible for their fates? Of course not. Then why are Afghans responsible for the bombs dropping on them, for the starvation inflicted on them?

Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin reported back from her recent trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan: “Everywhere we went, both in Afghanistan and in the external refugee camps, we met people who lost loved ones or were injured by US bombs… Little is known about the actual numbers of innocent civilians killed. The US says the casualties are few. Afghans we spoke with said there are probably thousands of dead.”

Sadly, this War Against Afghans is very much in line with the US’s historical role in Afghanistan. In the 1970s, the US hired seven different political parties of fundamentalist men called Mujahadeen. These were extremists hired by the CIA during the Cold War, to “draw the Soviet’s into the Afghan trap” as expressed by former National Security Advisor for Carter, Zbignew Brzezinsky. The CIA empowered the mujahadeen, many of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance, with billions of dollars of weapons, including American made Stinger missiles, knowing well their fundamentalist and misogynist nature. Using these weapons and sophisticated training in the art of terror, these men successfully drove out the Soviets, but also waged a terrible war on their own people. Their fight for power over Afghanistan initiated a blood bath in the early 1990s before the Taliban took over, during the so-called Civil War. 45,000 innocent Afghans were killed in Kabul alone between 1992-1996, by men who now comprise the Northern Alliance, with guns and training bought and paid for by the United States. I think President Bush said it best: “If you feed a terrorist or fund a terrorist, you’re a terrorist” (The Guardian).

The pursuit of destruction in Afghanistan continues with the bombing campaign. There are reports of the US intention to invade Afghanistan months before September 11th 2001. The CIA had been in Afghanistan for three years before Sept 11th as reported by the New York Times. As BBC reported on September 18th, Niaz Naik, a former Pakistani Foreign Secretary, was told by senior American officials in mid-July “that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October”. For ordinary Afghans, the bombing campaign was the worst thing that could have happened.

On the one hand they were living under the most fundamentalist regime in recent history, who were legalizing their oppression especially for women, not to mention the hideous accompanying disasters such as landmine infestation, eradication of agriculture, a terrible drought, a destruction of infrastructure from previous wars, and the largest refugee population in the world. And now on the other hand, they have to contend with the most powerful country in the world waging a war against them.

But the War Against Afghans has an additional dimension to accompany the bombing from above: starvation from below. Several weeks ago, international humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam International made a public plea to the United States to pause the bombing in order to allow food supplies to be taken into Afghanistan while winter drew ever closer. UNICEF had estimated that an additional 100,000 Afghan children would die of starvation and cold this winter because of the effects of the bombing. The response of the US government was stubborn refusal to let little things like civilian deaths come in the way of their “War on Terrorism”. Soon afterward, Red Cross warehouses storing food and other supplies were “inadvertently” bombed, not once but twice, a week apart. Twice.

When five countries (including Britain and Canada) recently offered to send multinational troops to Afghanistan to provide security to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghans, the only thing that stood in their way was the US government. Not Taliban, not the Northern Alliance, but the US government who claims that these troops could interefere in their military campaign in Afghanistan. It seems that Afghans and their rumbling empty bellies are too much of a nuisance in our War Against Terrorism. Instead of at least providing the troops needed themselves, the US unbelievably declared that it would not provide security and not allow anyone else to do so either. So there is now food and other aid on the ground but the US is ensuring that it doesn’t reach Afghans – some how feeding innocent hungry people interferes with our efforts to target terrorism.

Conclusion: the military operation which we are told is saving Afghans from the Taliban, is more important than saving Afghans. One of the leaflets being scattered over Afghanistan by the United States, says “We do not want to take over your nation; we want to give it back to its rightful owners, the people of Afghanistan.” Am I the only one who sees the gruesome hypocrisy of this operation? If deliberate starvation from below and deadly bombings from above is not pure terror, I don’t know what is. Somehow this strategy will give back Afghans their nation.

To add to the US War Against Afghans, Afghans are seeing a new terrible stage of the conflict developing with the re-gaining of control by the Northern Alliance. Having worked with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), I had the privelege of being educated about the Afghan situation by people who experienced daily the realities of fundamentalist dominated life. RAWA warns us consistently of the crimes committed by those who now comprise the Northern Alliance, contrary to what we read about in the US media. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have detailed their crimes, especially in regard to women’s rights (see HRW report “Crisis of Impunity”). In Northern Alliance controlled territory, women had little access to education, little access to decent jobs, and were treated very similarly to women under the Taliban (New York Times). This is in addition to the earlier mentioned record of tens of thousands of civilian murders during the civil war, which accompanied rapes, and forced marriages which drove women to mass suicide and depression. Recently, the Northern Alliance prevented a march by women in Kabul, apparently because they couldn’t provide security, a hollow claim.

Of 30 members of the cabinet of the new so-called government in Afghanistan, which came out of closed-door talks in Bonn, Germany, 18 are affiliated with the Northern Alliance, which bodes ill for democratic forces in Afghanistan. How can a group responsible for death and destruction, rape and women’s oppression before, during and after the civil war, espousing similar ideologies as the Taliban, be taken seriously as a step toward peace in Afghanistan? They simply joined forces to fight off the Taliban but are an ever-defecting set of men who opportunistically lust for power. Even now, while the whole world is watching them, they are resorting to power grabs, dividing up the country into slices and encouraging lawlessness, looting and pillaging. Anuradha Chenoy said on December 7th in the Times of India “If the terms of peace are written by the very people who wrote the terms of war and who have been indicted for war crimes and gender abuse, then for many in Afghanistan, war will continue under the cloak of an unjust peace”. How ironic that the Taliban were initially welcomed in Afghanistan by the majority of the Afghan people because they were seen as an alternative to these groups the UN and US are now presenting as leaders in a new Afghan government.

The Northern Alliance representatives in Bonn may appear to be a highly sophisticated set of men dressed smartly in dark suits and red ties. The token women appear happy and smiling. In this war, they have all gotten what they always wanted. Benjamin says, as part of her report back from Afghanistan, “While it is a positive development that several women were asked to participate in the Bonn talks on the transition government, the women were selected by the male delegates in a completely undemocratic fashion. We met many women who felt that several of the women delegates were selected primarily due to family connections. Women’s groups that have been on the forefront of defending women’s rights under the reign of the Taliban were not invited.”

Such groups include the women of RAWA who have had over 2 decades of experience in community building, educating, organizing, who are pro-democracy, pro-women’s rights, and non-violent. There is no scarcity of experienced, able women to help run the country. It is not that ordinary Afghans are not ready for women to run the country – General Suhaila Siddiqui who is heading the interim Dept of Public Health, is being warmly received (despite her connections with the past Afghan pro-Soviet government of Najibullah). She too is affiliated with the Northern Alliance ofcourse.

By any international definition, the men comprising the Northern Alliance are guilty of war crimes. Their illegitimacy in a majority representation in the delegation at Bonn makes a mockery of international law. Let us not forget that these negotiations happened in the context of the US’s active bombing campaign. Ordinary Afghans suffer the consequences of the bombs and deliberate starvation, while powerful Afghans with dirty pasts are put forward to represent their government. In fact, the chairman of this new government, Hamad Karzai, was once working for the Mujahadeen and then closely working with the Taliban before defecting back.

There is little hope left for ordinary Afghans to regain their dignity and their nation. In a recent interview with a local channel, the reporter asked me what the US should do to end the suffering of Afghans. My response was “What has the US not done to ensure that Afghans suffer?” His retort, the standard one, was “well what was done was in the past. We make mistakes and it’s no use crying over spilt milk, what can we do now?”

If what’s in the past does not deserve accountability, why are we lamenting the fact that thousands of innocent Americans were killed in terrorist attacks? Is that not in the past? Yes it is, but it is a horrible crime that must be accounted for, whose perpetrators must be brought to trial. By the same standards – and here I make the leap that the same standards be applied to Americans as to others – the US’s crimes, past and present, in Afghanistan, must be accounted for and addressed.

What can we do about it now? Stunningly simple in it’s logic but fully within our power to do so: end the War Against Afghans. Stop bombing them, stop facitlitating their starvation, stop promoting criminals in the interim government. Why is that so difficult?

“Oh, but there will be a power vacuum now if the US just leaves”, said the same reporter. Well, it was quite convenient that the US created a situation where their bombs would be an adequate replacement for peace and democracy in Afghanistan. There is an alternative which groups like RAWA have proposed for years and which has been completely ignored – the intervention of a UN peace keeping force – one which will disarm all the armed factions in Afghanistan and set the stage, as it did in East Timor (no thanks to the US which was actively selling arms to Indonesia to continue their massacres of Timorese) a few years ago. Afghans who are not armed, Afghan women and the elderly, freedom-loving Afghans, need to be actively playing a role in rebuilding their country and lifting it from the ashes of foreign sponsored destruction. They need the help of the United Nations for that. But I’m being idealistic here, am I not? Madeliene Albright said “we will act multi-laterally when we can, and uni-laterally when we must”. This reflects the US’s position toward the UN and while we may harbor hopes of a UN-sponsored peace, it is not likely they will play out because of the active efforts of the US to thwart international law and UN legitimacy. There are solutions to ending this conflict. They involve changing the very nature of US intervention and engagement in the world. In the mean time, let’s listen to what Afghans are saying to us: On December 4th, Tribal and village leaders near Jalalabad, in a signed declaration said “Our demand to the United States Government and it’s coalition: stop the bombing in the name of humanity”. (New York Times).

Let’s end this War Against Afghans.

Is this What Democracy Looks Like? Welcome to the Police State

A commentary on this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, with a focus on the demonstrations that took place outside the convention written on 19th September 2000

LAPD excercising their weapons. Photo Credit: Independent Media Center, Los Angeles.

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) came to Los Angeles this past August and brought with it thousands of Democratic party delegates, thousands of activists, and thousands of police. If you followed the news about the DNC, chances are you may have missed the latter two groups of people – most of the media played their roles obediently, and dutifully covered what each speaker said on the floor of the Staples Center, knowing that speeches were written and rehearsed well in advance, knowing that everything that took place was pre-ordained and given the blessing of the Democratic PR machine before being staged for the benefit of the rest of the world.

However, while Al Gore’s coronation ceremony took place during the elaborate 4-day ritual within the secure confines of the Staples arena, thousands of citizens got trampled on by LAPD horses and shot at with rubber bullets and lead-shot-filled bean bags from LAPD guns. Wait a minute, did I say shot at with rubber bullets and bean-bags? Yes, you read right. It may not have been the live ammunition used by cops in the 1960s, but the spirit of police and government repression of the 60s was alive and well on the streets of Los Angeles in the year 2000. Several times during the week of protest police outnumbered protestors and often placed themselves between the protestors and the very people the protestors wanted to reach out to – the public by-standers. Once a person had decided to join the march, he or she could not leave it until the march was over. LAPD tried very hard to minimize the presence of dissenters on the streets in the months leading up to the convention by denying permits, preventing rallies on Pershing Square (a central open area in downtown LA, historically important for expressing first amendment rights), and declaring fenced-in “protest pits” which could be used for only 50 minutes at a time. With the help of a federal judge these tactics were thrown out as being unconstitutional and the right to express dissent prevailed. LAPD responded to this perceived infringement on their turf by tightening the reins on the activist events so hard that it seemed as if each march was encased by a thick lining of blue-clad militia carrying guns and other equipment intended to repress and control while patrol helicopters circled above menacingly.

Despite the police-state atmosphere the marches were an incredible expression of solidarity and resistance against the present two-party duopoly that dominates major decision-making in the United States and world. Having progressed many steps from the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization last November, the LA marches contained widely diverse citizens in its ranks. There were older folks who had seen the 60s come and go, younger students who had never known such power could exist in thousands unifying, immigrants and labor unions, Black and Latino Americans, disabled people and high school youth, religious ministers and working mothers, gay and lesbian activists and more.

One of the things that struck me was that most of the activists in the fore front of organizing were women – women of color, lesbian women and even grandmothers. Another thing that jumped out at me as indicative of the power of this movement was the incorporation of art in political expression. The creative energy of protestors was fueled by careful creation of hundreds of papier mache puppets – some up to 10 feet in size – street theater and music, all of which played an important role in the activities. The main puppet, crafted by protestors at the “convergence center” (a four story run-down building rented by activists as a gathering place for preparation before and during the convention) was the Goddess of Democracy. Well aware of a criticism that activists only pointed out flaws and never suggested solutions, the Goddess of Democracy was intended to express both, ills and answers. Her enormous benign face and hands perched atop a giant red skirt on which were painted thousands of faces of people of every color, size and shape (hand painted on by the hundreds of activists that filed in and out of the convergence center the week before the convention began).

The Goddess of Democracy Photo: Courtesy of David Hanks/Global Exchange

Each morning during the convention people presented a skit at Pershing square which involved displaying props representing the ills in today’s society. These included the state of the prison industrial complex and the world-record-breaking 2 million Americans behind bars, most incarcerated for non-violent crimes, the racism of that system and the corrupt law enforcement system that accompanies it, poverty and sweatshops in LA, the bloated defense budget, the poor state of public schools, the growing income gap, the monopoly of corporate kingdoms in everyday human life, and more. Following this, the Goddess of Democracy was displayed during a song and dance after which activists brought out hand painted signs in the shapes of puzzle pieces which represented their vision for the solutions to these problems. Solutions included empowering youth, allowing third party candidates to run for office fairly alongside the Demolican and Republicratic parties, campaign finance reform, citizen oversight of law enforcement, improving schools instead of building more expensive weapons, improving health by ending privitization of health care, etc, etc. The images were the most powerful visual expressions of progressive political solutions that I had ever seen. It turns out that the LAPD thought likewise for the puppets were targeted by them during the demonstrations (in Philadelphia the Philly police successfully confiscated all puppets before they were even used). At the end of the first days demonstrations, LAPD surrounded and confiscated the puppets outside of the Staples Center for no apparent reason. After much ruckus and chanting of “Free the Puppets”, LAPD returned them to avoid a scene.

Apart from the morning puppet processions, each day was filled with marches describing a huge multitude of issues organized by a vast array of networks, coalitions and other grass-roots organizations which included the Direct Action Network, the Southern California Fair Trade Network, the International Action Center, the Bus Riders Union, the East Timor Action Network, Billionaires for Bush (yes, it’s a joke), Global Exchange, the International Socialist Organization, International Black Women for Wages for Housework, Campaign to end the Death Penalty, some local chapters of Amnesty International, Amazon Watch, the Los Angeles Green Party, Queers for Racial and Economic Justice, several union locals such as PACE, ACORN, etc and more. The press often complained that there were too many issues for them to disentangle. Perhaps if the activists had bee dictated to by a leader about what should have been said and done so as to present a clear, well-rehearsed political protest for the purpose of easy reporting, we would have had “better” coverage of our distilled issues. The fact that there were so many issues expressed in the marches – and these were not narrow, special-interest issues – they included police brutality, racism, the genocide of Iraqis, the occupation of Puerto Rico, the faile so-called drug war, homelessness, the exploitation of sweatshop labor, the corporatization of human needs, the selling off of politicians, the list is long and serious – the fact that there were so many issues ought to have clued the press in on how timely and necessary these demonstrations were and that they are an indication of deep dissatisfaction among those majority of citizens that aren’t seeing the fruits of a supposedly civilized and prosperous nation. While I would commend some media outlets such as LA Times and Channel 2 on providing pretty balanced coverage, I would say to the rest – sorry folks, well-rehearsed, “politically-correct” staged plays by the two parties were clean and easy to report. But real democracy is messy and cannot be compartmentalized into one neat little sound bite. What the corporate media lacked in depth of coverage, an ad-hoc collective of activist-journalists calling themselves the Independent Media Center, made up for with intense minute-by-minute street coverage using an impressive combination of radio, video, print, photographic and web media with a focus on the protestors rather than delegates.

In addition to the marches there were also a number of parallel conferences that took place, organized by activists, to provide the intellectual fodder for progressive political dialogue. These included the Shadow Convention, the Homeless Convention, the North American Anarchist Conference, the People’s Convention and countless teach-ins, lectures, presentations and workshops. While I was able to attend only a fraction of these, I was impressed by the variety of exchanges that were occurring in such a short span of time. It is obvious that the current explosion of political dissent has been brewing for a while and was long overdue.

In the end, several hundred activists were arrested and many more were shot at and injured by the police. And we heard corporate reporters and delegates sigh in relief at a week of activities (planned for over a year) that had been carried out with little disruption thanks to the well-coordinated repression of the LAPD. No one attributed the relative calm to the reserve of the thousands of people who demonstrated peacefully. Al Gore was crowned king and no one inside the Halls of the Staples Center had to face the ugly reality of thousands of disgruntled citizens on the streets except when making their way from the Convention to their hotel rooms. Perhaps they can ignore the cry for real democratic change for now. But then again, it has only been ten months since Seattle.

Proposition 21: Further Degrading a Flawed System

Published in the California Tech on March 3rd 2000

What is Proposition 21?

Proposition 21 is the “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Initiative” on the ballot for California this March. This 25 page initiative details new laws that are all aimed at Californian teenagers between the ages of 14-16, specifically to allow teenagers charges with crimes to be treated as adults within the legal system. It also expands the targeting of “gangs” and increases penalties for felonies. Despite it’s “tough on crime” appeal to Californians, Proposition 21 is a dangerous initiative which would further degrade a flawed justice system.

Top 10 Reasons Why YOU Should Vote NO on Proposition 21

10. Proposition 21 could increase your taxes. The California Department of Corrections estimated that this initiative requires 22,000 new prison spaces over the next 30 years at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. The Initiative provides no resources to pay for these prisons, and the burden will ultimately be borne by taxpayers.

9. Proposition 21 has been undemocratic from its inception. This initiative has NOT been the result of grass-roots campaigning. Rather it has been bankrolled and sponsored by former Governor Pete Wilson who spent $1 million (from a remaining presidential campaign fund) on professional signature gatherers to qualify this Initiative after the state legislature rejected his initial juvenile crime package.

8. Proposition 21 pledges more jails than schools. 20 years ago California pledged to be a leader in public education but today it is ranked 41 out of 50 states in education spending. Since 1984, the state has added 21 prisons and only one university campus, and is the #1 state in prison spending in the country.

7. Proposition 21 strengthens an out-of-control incarceration rampage. In February 2000, the prison population of the United States reached 2 million (more than any country in the world). While US prisoners comprise 25% of the world’s prison population, Americans comprise only 4.5% of the world. Proposition 21 is in the spirit of California’s existing draconian Three Strikes Law which requires citizens to serve life sentences upon their third conviction, most of which are non-violent offenses, better addressed by rehabilitation.

6. Proposition 21 will strengthen the corporate-sponsored prison labor industry. In addition to state-owned enterprises, private corporations have begun taking advantage of the low-production costs of prison labor. “Currently more than 90,000 state and federal convicts work in a variety of public and private enterprises while serving time.” (Washington Times, April 96). Those private corporations include Boeing, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood, etc,who hire a non-unionized work force for a tiny fraction of normal wages. It is no surprise then than some of the sources of funding for Proposition 21 include huge corporations like Chevron, Union Oil, TransAmerica, etc (California Online Voter Guide) in whose interests it is to expand cost-cutting prison labor by increasing the prison population.

5. Proposition 21 will destroy the lives of convicted Californian youth. If Proposition 21 passes, 14 year-olds will be tried as adults subject to the death penalty and sent to adult prisons where youth are 5 times more likely to be raped and 8 times more likely to commit suicide than adults. Proposition 21 will eradicate due process for juveniles and weaken confidentiality rules making it more difficult for reformed juveniles to acquire jobs after serving prison sentences.

4. Proposition 21 gives police more power. Proposition 21 requires youth to be tried in adult courts if the prosecutor CHARGES the youngster with certain crimes and prosecutors will rely on the police to determine those charges. Proposition 21 will extend the three-strikes law, grossly expand wiretapping rights, and allow police units such as the corruption-ridden LAPD CRASH unit to identify any group of youth from the same ethnic background and wearing similar clothing to be labeled a “gang” (This definition will not extend to mostly white college campuses such as Caltech).

3. Proposition 21 will support an already racist justice system. 2/3 of the two million imprisoned Americans are black or latino Americans who comprise less than 1/4 of the US population. If this is not enough evidence that the justice system has a racist bias, a recent Color of Justice study in California shows that after transfer to the adult system, black youth are 18.4 times more likely, Asian youth are 4.5 times more likely, and Latino youth are 7.3 times more likely than white youth to be sentenced by an adult court for similar crimes.

2. Proposition 21 just isn’t necessary. Crimes by minors in California declined 30% over the last decade and 7% in 1998 alone, while adult offenses dropped by 6% in 1998. Yet news reporting of crime stories has steadily gone up. For example, while homicides declined by 13 % between 1990 and 1995, on the network news during the same period, coverage of murders increased by 326 % (Center for Media and Public Affairs).

1. Proposition 21 is relying on Californians to blindly vote yes. The Proposition 21 initiative is one of the longest ever proposed. Its framers are confident that Californians will not read through the tedious details and will blindly vote yes. Exercise your democratic powers and send a message to the likes of ex-governor Wilson that you don’t believe in creating a future of hopelessness to California’s youth. Vote NO on Proposition 21!

Depleted Uranium: A Review of its Properties, Potential Danger and Recent Use in Yugoslavia

Presented at the 1999 Independent Commission on War Crimes during the Bombing of Yugoslavia

The issue of depleted uranium (DU) has been a source of intense debate since it’s first major use in the Gulf War in 1991. While the governments of the United States and other “Allied Powers” steadfastly maintain that DU is safe enough to eat in small quantities, the public and especially those likely to have been exposed to DU such as Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians plagued with mysterious illnesses, have opposed this view with justified suspicion and reasonable claims. There is no clear answer to the suspicion that DU is hazardous substance. The largest obstacle to ending this debate is a lack of rigorous scientific testing and data analysis. As this paper is being written, new investigations and analyses are seriously tainting the claim that DU is a safe product. This paper introduces the reader to the origins and sources of DU, the potential internal damage that could be caused by DU, the use of DU in Iraq, current research findings, and the most recent use of DU weapons in Yugoslavia.


Table 1. Summary of Uranium Isotopes
Isotope Percent in natural uranium Percent in depleted uranium No. of Protons No. of Neutrons Half-Life (in years)
Uranium-238 99.284 99.800 92 146 4.46 billion
Uranium-235 0.711 0.199 92 143 704 million
Uranium-234 0.0055 0.0010 92 142 245,000

Based from Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, May 9, 1996. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER

Uranium is a radioactive element found in trace quantities all over the earth and has many different forms or isotopes. Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three isotopes: 99% U238, 0.7% U235, and 0.005% U234 (see Table 1). In 1938, German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann showed that the uranium atom could be split into parts to yield energy. Today, uranium is the principal fuel for nuclear reactors and the main raw material for nuclear weapons manufacturing. Used in the form of metallic uranium, or uranium dioxide (chemical symbol UO2), a large number of civilian and military nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons manufacturers require that the UO2 fuel be “enriched” prior to use, that is have a higher proportion of U235 present than in natural uranium. It is the process of uranium enrichment which results in byproducts, the bulk of which constitutes depleted uranium (DU). Hence DU is a form of uranium that is “depleted” of its U235 content. It consists of 99.8% U238 and 0.2% U235 and U234.

Figure 1. Depleted Uranium storage cylinders

A May 1999 report by Peter Diehl on DU as a by-product of nuclear fission says “Most of the depleted uranium produced to date is being stored as uranium hexafluoride (UF6) in steel cylinders in the open air in so-called cylinder yards located adjacent to the enrichment plants. The cylinders contain up to 12.7 tonnes of UF6. In the US alone, 560,000 metric tonnes of depleted UF6 have accumulated until 1993; they are currently stored in 46,422 cylinders. Meanwhile, their number has grown by another 8,000 new cylinders (see Figure 1).” While nuclear reactors, keep functioning ever-increasing quantities of waste DU pile up. Efforts to recycle DU have been taken up by various metallurgical laboratories in the United States. DU is an extremely dense metal, twice as dense as Lead (19.07 gms/cc). Its extreme hardness and density makes it an excellent candidate for objects such as airplane counter-weights and armor penetrating weapons such as high-energy ballistic projectiles.

Properties of Depleted Uranium

1. Radioactive Properties

Radioactive elements such as uranium decay by the emission of any or all of three kinds of radiation: alpha particle radiation, beta particle radiation, and gamma radiation. The time taken for a radioactive sample to decay to half its original amount is called the half life. DU is a mildly radioactive metal with an incredibly long half life of 4.46 billion years. It decays mainly by the emission of alpha and beta particles. (See Table 2 for a chart of all the stages of radioactive emission of DU, mostly U238, and the corresponding half lives of radioactive decay into the final stable product, lead). In fact, in terms of energy of radiation, DU is about half as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium. Additionally, alpha and beta particle radiation have very limited ranges of penetration and hence are not expected to cause very serious damage to living tissue via external exposure. However, it is the internal damage to tissue that makes DU a potentially extremely hazardous metal. In the following sections I will describe how DU can enter the human body and potentially cause damage.

Read from left to right. Arrows indicate decay.
Uranium-238 ==>
(half-life: 4.46 billion years)
alpha decay;
Thorium-234 ==>
(half-life: 24.1 days)
beta decay;
Protactinium-234 ==>
(half-life: 1.17 minutes)
beta decay;
Uranium-234 ==>
(half-life: 245,000 years)
alpha decay;
Thorium-230 ==>
(half-life: 75,400 years)
alpha decay;
Radium-226 ==>
(half-life: 1,600 years)
alpha decay;
Radon-222 ==>
(half-life: 3.82 days)
alpha decay
Polonium-218 ==>
(half-life: 3.11 minutes)
alpha decay
Lead-214 ==>
(half-life: 26.8 minutes)
beta decay;
Bismuth-214 ==>
(half-life: 19.9 minutes)
beta decay;
Polonium-214 ==>
(half-life: 163 microseconds)
alpha decay
Lead-210 ==>
(half-life: 22.3 years)
beta decay;
Bismuth-210 ==>
(half-life: 5.01 days)
beta decay
Polonium-210 ==>
(half-life: 138 days)
alpha decay

Taken from Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, May 9, 1996. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER

2. Flammability and Aerosolizing

DU is a highly flammable metal. As a powder it is a pyrophore, which means that at temperatures in the range of 6-700 degrees Celsius, it can spontaneously ignite. At such high temperatures, easily reached during the impact of DU fortified bullet through armor plated tanks, DU will ignite, part of it combining with oxygen to form a series of complex oxides such as uranium dioxide (UO2), uranium trioxide (UO3), and triuranium octaoxide (U3O8). Any remaining particles of uranium will oxidize over time due to weathering (UNEP2). Particles of the resulting oxidized DU that are small enough to inhale (< 5 microns in size - AEPI) are also light enough to float and travel long distances via air currents: "This was discovered in 1979 by workers at the Knolls Atomic Laboratory north of Albany, New York. While investigating the National Lead Industries, reportedly fabricating DU penetrators for 30 mm canon rounds and airplane counter weights, they found DU contamination on their own air filters 42 kilometers from the factory (BERTELL1)." A 1999 study by the RAND Institute found that on average 10-35% (with a maximum of 70%) of a DU bullet becomes airborne or aerosol on impact or when the DU dust catches fire. The more rocky or stony the area of impact, the greater the extent that DU will be aerosolized (NELLIS).

Path of DU through the human body and potential damage to organs

Figure 3. Diagram comparing the penetration depths of different types of radioactive emission. Taken from No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, 1984 (BERTELL2).

Despite the fact that it is mildly radioactive, it is important to remember that while there is DU present inside the body it will emit alpha and beta particles along the way and the longer the organs and tissue are subject to this radiation, the greater the chance of developing any of several pathological complications such as metabolic disease, tumors, kidney disease, leukemia, immune deficiency etc. In her 1984 book, No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell discusses the damage that alpha and beta particle radiation can cause (see Figure 3):
“Alpha particles can be stopped by human skin, but they may damage the skin in the process. Both alpha and beta particles penetrate cell membranes more easily than they penetrate skin. Hence ingesting, inhaling or absorbing radioactive chemicals capable of emitting alpha or beta particles and thereby placing them inside delicate body parts such as the lungs, heart, brain or kidneys, always poses serious threats to human health”.

As mentioned earlier DU radiates mostly alpha and beta particles, which have short penetration ranges in live tissue. Hence, being present in the vicinity of solid DU for a short time can mildly damage to the human body. However, the internal presence of DU has potential for great damage by radioactive emission, particularly if the DU stays internally lodged for considerable amounts of time. Figure 2 shows a schematic diagram of the various possible paths that DU can take within the body and cause problems.

Figure 2. A schematic view of the path of DU through the human body. Taken from RAND 1999.

One direct way in which DU directly enters the human body and can cause health hazards is from embedded shrapnel of DU fortified bullets. A simple X-ray can reveal the presence of DU fragments in the human body. In fact, in ‘friendly-fire incidents’ during the Gulf War, there were “at least twenty-two [US] veterans with DU shrapnel embedded in their bodies (NATION2).” Any sample of DU or naturally occurring uranium is partly soluble and partly insoluble. The soluble portions of the shrapnel can dissolve in the blood stream and then be transported to various organs. The insoluble portions of the DU will continue to radioactively decay and potentially damage surrounding tissue.

In addition to being hit by shrapnel, there are two important ways in which DU can enter the human body: ingestion and inhalation of aerosol DU particles. Via ingestion, insoluble DU particles will pass through the digestive and gastro-intestinal systems fairly quickly with a fairly low rate of absorption by the intestinal lining. They will then be egested in the feces. However, soluble DU particles have a higher rate of absorption and can linger in the human body for longer periods of time, irradiating tissue cells while they flow through the blood stream. While little is known about the actual internal effects of soluble DU particles, it is well known that naturally occurring soluble uranium is a chemical toxin, affecting the kidney and causing heavy metal poisoning. In fact, once ingested, soluble metals will in general be absorbed rapidly into the blood stream and eventually concentrate in various organs, for example, Iodine to the thyroid and Lead to the kidney and bone. Taking into account the potential internal damage by ingestion of DU, it should be noted that only about 0.05% of aerosol particles are usually absorbed by ingestion (AWTG).

The inhalation of DU particles raises the greatest health concerns and is the most likely link between internal tissue damage and an environment polluted with DU dust. When insoluble, or ceramic DU particles are inhaled, some will be exhaled out and some will be deposited within the lungs. To a some degree DU can reach the gastrointestinal system via inhalation too because “some of the uranium originally in the lungs ends up in the gastrointestinal tract as a result of mucociliary clearance from the respiratory tract and subsequent swallowing (RAND).” Once DU has entered a human body via ingestion or inhalation, it may initially be circulating in the blood stream or retained in the lung tissue, or both. If circulating in the blood stream a large portion of it will be excreted in the urine. The remainder will be deposited in the bone tissue and soft tissue organs such as the kidneys. Soluble DU in the lungs can enter the lymph nodes and the blood stream via absorption through lung tissue. Although it is unknown what percentage of inhaled air containing insoluble DU particles could be retained within the lung tissue, even a single DU particle that gets lodged in the lung will remain indefinitely. As the half life of DU (see Table 1) is extremely long, the lodged particle will irradiate the surrounding lung tissue continuously over time, decaying into its daughter products which include radon, an established cause of lung and other cancers.

War Time Use of Depleted Uranium

1. Proliferation of DU Weapons

Several countries including the United States, Britain, and France have DU fortified weapons in their arsenals. Additionally, “Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. (NATION2)”.

Figure 4. Armor penetrating round used by the US A-10 Warthog attack planes. Taken from UNEP Report, Oct 1999.
The primary weapons employing DU are A10 seven-barrel battling guns manufactured by General Electric which can fire 3900 rounds of ammunition a minute. Each bullet (see Figure 4) contains a conical DU penetrator (UNEP2). These bullets can penetrate armor so efficiently that they render ground troops in armor plated tanks virtually defenseless. While the long and short term health risks associated with the aerosol DU dust left behind have not been conclusively assessed, the US military use of DU weapons in international conflicts continues.

2. DU in the Gulf War

Their low cost and extreme effectiveness at penetrating armor plated tanks have made DU fortified bullets one of the US army’s most valuable weapons. While federal regulations dictate strict terms under which DU is to be safeguarded in storage within the United States, the use of this radioactive waste product on the battle field remains unrestricted. According to the Ministry of Defense, the first military use of DU was in 1991 in Iraq during the Gulf War.” US planes and tanks fired 860 000 rounds of ammunition containing 290 tonnes of DU. British tanks fired 100 rounds containing less than 1 tonne of DU (NEWSCI).” In the immediate aftermath of the war Preventative Medicine Command health physicist, Doug Rokke and his team were charged with the “clean up” of battlefields in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, littered with rounds of DU bullets. Rokke’s team was never informed of the possible health risks associated with DU, nor did they ever receive any special training or protective gear to handle the bullets containing DU. In fact, “within two weeks of his return from duty in the Middle East, Rokke and the other members of his DU assessment team began developing health problems (MJONES1).” While some of his team members have died, Rokke himself suffers from what is now called Gulf War Syndrome, a set of inexplicable immune system and tumor afflictions affecting a large number of US Army veterans of the Gulf War.

A January 1999 San Fransisco Examiner article explains that “the Pentagon over the years has steadily increased the number of vets exposed to DU during the Gulf War. In 1993, the estimate was 35, but by 1998 when the Pentagon, under pressure, unveiled a map of the Gulf War battlefield, the new estimate was thousands.” Increasing pressure on the Pentagon from Veterans groups, environmental, and anti-nuclear weapons activist groups around the country has had limited success in addressing the deplorable health status of veteran soldiers. While the lack of definitive research makes a pronouncement on DU’s health risks elusive, some constructive steps such as conferences, publications, independent testing and research on DU and connections to Gulf War Syndrome have been taken. For example, a December 1998 Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium” paper shows increasing registration of different types of cancer cases and change in the epidemiological pattern of there occurrence with time among military personnel who were in the southern region of Iraq during the war.” According to them “there is a significant correlation and association between these cases and DU exposure.” Additionally, a March 1994 article in the Nation Magazine reported that the Veterans Administration “conducted a state-wide survey of 251 Gulf War veterans families in Mississippi. Of their children conceived and born since the war, 67% have illnesses rated severe or have missing eyes, missing ears, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.” This alarming rate of birth defects suggests that soldiers were exposed to some kind of toxin during the war.

In addition to Gulf War Veterans, the population of millions of Iraqis now living near areas riddled with DU fortified bullets, are at an even greater risk. With no more clean up of spent DU rounds or DU dust scheduled, Iraqis face the possibility of exposure to DU on a daily basis. As summarized in the previous section, aerosol particles of DU can theoretically travel large distances and be inhaled and deposited into the lungs where irreparable damage can occur as a result of radioactive emission. Cases of birth deformities as a result of genetic defects, and cancer are showing alarming elevations in the civilian population of Iraq. “The occurrences of cancer were recorded in four hospitals and/ or medical centers … in Mosul city from August 1989 to March 1990. The same work was repeated in the same hospitals and medical centers during August 1997 to March 1998. Type of cancer, sex of patients, and type of therapy was studied. The two most prevalent types of cancer diseases were also examined and statistically analyzed. The frequency of incidence of cancer diseases … [such as] lung, leukemia, breast, skin, lymphoma and liver cancers elevated 5-fold after the war. The elevation in these could be due to the depleted uranium weapons used by the allied forces against Iraqi troops and citizens (CHEC).” Also, in Basra alone, the Iraqi province south of the battlefields where DU bullets were fired, leukemia rates have risen by 56%, according to a study by Dr. Muna Elhassani of the Iraqi Cancer Registry.

The similarities in the symptoms between Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians strongly suggests a common origin of the afflictions. In addition to DU, some have suggested experimental vaccines, chemical warfare pills, as well as smoke from oil well fires as being responsible (NATION1). However, the radioactive nature of DU, mild as it may be, is theoretically the most likely cause of the types of diseases that have developed. Only rigorous scientific research can rule out or confirm its effects.

3. Research on the effects of DU Exposure in the Gulf War

In a response to pressure by activist and veteran groups, the US government initiated “A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses” by the RAND Institution. Although RAND professes to be a private non-profit organization, it is important to note their affiliation with the defense industry in the United States. For example, a title in their publication list includes “The Cutting Edge, A Half Century of US Fighter Aircraft R&D: A Government-Industry Partnership” and a major research area at RAND is defense planning and operations. The RAND report on DU, although mostly scientific in its approach, fails to address the issue of exposure to insoluble DU particles which can become trapped inside the lungs upon inhalation and stay lodged for years, irradiating the surrounding tissue. A dismissive statement in the report is reflective of their approach to the controversial link between DU and Gulf War Syndrome : “insoluble compounds, such as oxides are more toxic to the lung because their longer residence in the lung produces a larger radiation dose. As previously discussed, many of these compounds are laboratory reagents and industrial chemicals and are absent from the military environment. As such, they are not relevant to the discussion of health effects related to the military use of DU.” This blanket statement does injustice to the scientific literature on the aerosolizing of DU upon impact and ignition and thereby ignores one of the most important ways in which DU can cause damage inside the human body.

Another aspect of DU contamination which was not properly addressed by the RAND report was the adverse effect of embedded DU fragments inside the body. The potential mutagenic effects of DU are unknown and so the Applied Cellular Radiobiology Department of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute began carrying out experiments on rats implanted with DU fragments. The urine and serum of these rats and control rats implanted with inert metal were tested for “mutagenic potential”. Preliminary results showed that “In depleted uranium-implanted animals, urine mutagenicity increased in a dose- and time-dependent manner demonstrating a strong positive correlation with urine uranium levels” (Medline inquiry, 1998). However, a more recent study by researchers at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Baltimore, published in the Health Physics Journal in November 1999 contends that there are no adverse outcomes from radioactive shrapnel embedded inside a human body. The study carried out tests on the urine samples of veterans with embedded DU shrapnel using “a laser induced phosphorescence analysis for total uranium”. Dr. Rosalie Bertell observes that in the Baltimore study “no attempt was made to do an isotopic breakdown of the uranium. There is no indication whether the excluded samples were from vets with or without shrapnel on X-ray. Those with shrapnel had very small pieces, most less than 1 millimeter scattered throughout muscle. There were a few pieces of shrapnel as large as 20 millimeter.” It is clear that a more rigorous analysis of uranium in urine samples is needed. At present there is no well established connection between embedded DU shrapnel and uranium contaminated urine or any physiological symptoms.

In addition to the controversy surrounding DU shrapnel, no well-accepted evidence exists on the effects of inhaled or ingested DU particles. The pronouncement of the RAND report that the “the body is very effective at eliminating ingested and inhaled natural uranium” and hence exposure to DU particles does not result in adverse health effects, has not encouraged any steps toward a moratorium on the use of DU fortified weapons. However, aside from government sponsored research, various independent research programs have recently tackled the issue of DU aerosol inhalation or ingestion. Among them are Dr. Hari Sharma’s study of British Gulf War veterans. Dr. Sharma is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and his approach of direct testing of urine samples from veterans show results that are startlingly incriminating of DU. He found “traces of DU in the urine of 14 out of 30 British veterans” (KIRBY). Critics of Dr. Sharma’s work have claimed a lack of scientific rigor in his methods. However, another independent study by geochemist Patricia Horan supports Sharma’s results. Horan used a technique that “is said to achieve results between 50,000 and 500,000 times more accurate than Dr Sharma’s” (KIRBY). Her mass spectrometer analysis of the urine of Veterans also showed that eight years after the use of DU bullets in the Gulf War, veteran soldiers were still passing DU in their urine, pointing to an anomalously high DU exposure during the Gulf War.

An overall complication associated with this research is the difficulty of doing an isotopic separation between naturally occurring uranium and DU is necessary in order to accurately determine DU exposure. Since naturally occurring uranium is all around us, measuring total uranium levels is not conclusive evidence of the presence of DU. A new research approach which looks promising is the method of neutron activation analysis adopted by Miriam Ripley, a Uranium Medical Project Coordinator. This method discriminates between naturally occurring and depleted uranium (presented at the Conference on Low Level Radiation sponsored by the New York Academy of Medicine and the STAR Foundation, February 1999). The project is in its preliminary stages and can hopefully lead to an end to the controversy over DU in urine samples.

At the theoretical level, research on how aerosol DU particles could enter and damage the human body, are being spearheaded by physicist Dr. Leonard Dietz. Dr. Dietz has developed a physical model of exposure to DU based on a biokinetic model developed by the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) that describes the behavior of uranium within the human body by accounting for aerosol particle size, the chemical forms of the particles, and excretion rates of absorbed uranium. The model points out that large numbers of Gulf War veterans could have been exposed to aerosol DU particles in Iraq (IAC).

Figure 5. A faxed memorandum from Lt. Col Ziehmn to Doug Rokke in 1991 expressing his stance on DU weapons used in the Gulf War

It is difficult to do a complete review of all the research being carried out independently on the subject of DU. Despite the potential health hazards of DU highlighted by the flurry of studies in the past and present, no action has been taken by any of the governments of the Allied powers to halt the use of DU munitions in war time. The reasons for this are probably best expressed in a faxed memo from Lt. Colonel Ziehmn of Los Alamos National Laboratory (a federally funded laboratory) to Doug Rokke in 1991 (see Figure 5) which states that “There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable … If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DoD proponency.” In the mean time hundreds of Gulf War Veterans and thousands of Iraqis continue to suffer from immune system disorders, cancers, birth defects and other inexplicable symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, nausea, etc. In reality, there are no widely accepted reasons for the afflictions and yet, there is no conclusive research to rule out exposure to DU aerosol as the source of these physiological disorders. It seems that DU bullets have indeed proven their worth by destroying tanks so efficiently and being produced at such low cost that they were employed with enthusiasm during the next military undertaking of the US, namely the war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

4. The use of DU Weapons in Yugoslavia

In spring of 1999 the United States along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) carried out a brutal 78 day bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over the issue of alleged “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo by Serbian military forces. During the bombing the use of DU munitions was strongly suspected and first brought to notice on April 1 1999 in a bulletin by the International Action Center in New York, an activist group opposed to DU weapons. In a Washington press briefing during the bombing Major General Charles Wald, vice-director for strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, specified that A10 Warthog aircraft had fired DU munitions against Serbian forces. This was eventually supported by the “Pentagon [who] has confirmed that it used DU in Kosovo. It has also confirmed it has no plans to clean it up.”(MJONES1). In addition to the A10 battling guns, AV-8 Harriers and Abrams battle tanks in the Balkans also carried DU munitions (NEWSCI).

Despite the verbal confirmations to news media of the deployment of DU weapons, there has been no official written acknowledgement of the extent of DU weapons use in Yugoslavia by the US government or NATO. A recently published United Nations report makes an estimate however: “by taking into account the number of sorties the A-10 Warthogs (the planes firing the DU bullets, according to the Pentagon) were flying per day, the estimated percentage of those sorties which actually fired DU rounds, and the number of rounds their guns hold, it is possible to arrive at an estimate. According to John Pike, a well-respected defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists ‘one could reasonably assume that we have fired at least 10,000 of [DU] rounds (UNEP2).” This estimate, although almost 100 times less than the amount of DU fired in the Gulf War, is likely cause for great concern. Even the Ministry of Defense thinks so, warning their “personnel in Kosovo … to stay clear of areas which have been affected by depleted uranium weapons unless they are wearing full radiological protective clothing (HERALD).” All returning refugees in Yugoslavia were issued no such warning.

To date NATO and the US have refused to reveal information of exactly how much DU was used and exactly where it was used. The UNEP Balkans Task Force program to assess the environmental damage to Yugoslavia carried out an investigation using soil and water testing in areas that were suspected to be contaminated with DU. No widespread DU contamination was found. However, the radiation measurement and sampling was not systematically performed and this was admitted to be the most serious drawback of the UNEP study. The report does make the recommendation that places where localized contamination has been confirmed, should be subject to restricted access and local residents warned of the potential hazards. The lack of information from NATO about the sites of DU weapons deployment was stressed as being the largest obstacle to assessing dangers of DU exposure to the civilian population.

The present situation in Yugoslavia can perhaps be best summarized in the words of Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), “NATO has undertaken actions that could put large numbers of people at risk in Yugoslavia as well as in other countries. It is imperative that NATO provide a full accounting of why these plants were bombed, and what assessments have been undertaken of their direct and indirect consequences for present and future generations.” If indeed the estimate of 10000 DU rounds fired is accurate or even a lower limit, and if the rounds were those that were mostly deployed for the purpose of damaging civilian infrastructure, then it is plausible to say that civilians in Yugoslavia are at risk of potentially hazardous exposure to DU.


DU is a mildly radioactive combination of uranium isotopes and is stored in large amounts as radioactive waste from nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons manufacturing plants. Its high density and ease of availability have made it a valuable ingredient in “tank-busting” weapons used by mainly the US government. DU has much greater potential for causing damage to humans internally than externally. Its pyrophyric properties cause a fraction of it to ignite and form DU oxide particles of respirable size that are easily airborne. In addition to DU shrapnel embedded in the body as a result of a direct or peripheral hit, DU aerosol particles can enter the body via ingestion and/or inhalation. Once in the body, a small portion of the soluble DU can enter the blood stream and collect in soft organs, muscles and bone while some insoluble DU can be retained in the lungs, passing to the lymph nodes, irradiating the surrounding tissue indefinitely.

Despite its potential to cause internal damage in humans, DU weapons were used for the first time in the Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait, and more recently in Yugoslavia. In the 8 years following the Gulf War, veteran soldiers have been plagued with a series of inexplicable physiological symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, weight loss, etc, as well as cancers such as leukemia and lung cancer, and an alarming rate of birth defects in their children born after 1991. Very similar symptoms have been discovered in Iraqi civilian populations. The Iraqi landscape bombarded with DU bullets in 1991 remains contaminated with no future plans for cleanup by the Allied Powers.

While there is no widely accepted cause-and-effect relation between exposure to DU and the development of what is now called “Gulf War Syndrome”, a significant body of research, some Government motivated, some independent, now exists on the potential hazards of DU. There is no conclusive evidence to either implicate or rule out DU. However, urine analysis of Gulf War veterans by independent researchers Dr. Hari Sharma and Patricia Horan, strongly suggest that military personnel in Iraq were subject to large doses of DU.

Instead of exercising caution with respect to DU weapons, the US army deployed A10 battle guns which use DU fortified bullets in Yugoslavia during its 78-day bombing campaign in early 1999. The use of DU has been confirmed by the Pentagon. However, the Pentagon refuses to provide any information about the the total number of rounds fired or sites at which they were fired. As a result the UNEP program was unable to determine the extent to which the civilian population were being exposed to the radioactive metal. Estimates put the number of DU rounds used at about 10000, which, if true, and if fired within populated areas, could pose a significant risk of exposure to civilians.


The controversy surrounding DU is one whose end is far overdue in light of the serious physiological effects on people suffering from Gulf War Syndrome in the US and Iraq. With respect to Yugoslavs living near sites of DU contamination, a quick conclusion can help address problems before they become serious: a finding that indeed exposure to DU results in Gulf War Syndrome can initiate an immediate clean up of Yugoslav sites that are contaminated with DU. Conversely, a finding that there is no link between DU and immunological and cancerous disease will allow attention and resources to be diverted to any other possibly responsible toxins. I therefore recommend that:

  • Scientific peer reviewed research on the extent of exposure to DU dust and the internal damage directly resulting from any internally retained DU is imperative to ending the debate over DU is imperative.
  • A complete disclosure by the US and NATO must be made of all the sites that DU bullets were fired at and the total number of DU rounds fired which will enable the UNEP Balkans Task Force to thoroughly investigate the sites in question and proceed accordingly with a civilian evacuation and cleanup.
  • An immediate testing must be carried out on urine samples of all Gulf War veterans and a continuous monitoring of uranium levels measured. Additionally, it is imperative that the newly proposed method of neutron activation measurement be pursued to strengthen such a study by being able to distinguish between naturally and depleted uranium levels in urine samples.
  • An immediate and comprehensive ban on DU munitions of any form and foreign sales of DU munitions must be imposed by the US, NATO and any other country possessing the weapons, until and unless it has been scientifically and conclusively proven that DU is entirely harmless.
  • A complete cleanup of all spent DU rounds in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Although far more expensive to perform, a complete cleanup of DU aerosols in the environments of the two countries in light of the strong possibility that DU dust ingestion and inhalation can cause significant internal damage.
  • A contingency plan for addressing health concerns of Yugoslavs who may develop similar symptoms to Gulf War Syndrome in the near future.


  • ACRD: Urinary and serum mutagenicity studies with rats implanted with depleted uranium or tantalum pellets, Miller, A. C., Fuciarelli, A. F., Jackson, W.E., Ejnik, E.J., Emond, C., Strocko, S., Hogan, J., Page, N., Pellmar, T., Applied Cellular Radiobiology Department, Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, Nov 1998.
  • AEPI: Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. Army, U.S. AEPI (Army Environmental Policy Institute) Technical Report, June 1995
  • AWTG: Atomic Weapons Training Group, “Basic Health Physics”, Field Command, DASA, Sandia Base, Albuquerque, Dec 1965.
  • BERTELL1: Depleted Uranium is a Chemical and Radiological Warfare Agent Used Extensively in the Gulf War, Dr. Rosalie Bertell President, International Institute of Concern for Public Health Toronto (, Nov 1997.
  • BERTELL2: No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, 1985.
  • CHEC: Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium used by U.S. and British forces in the 1991 Gulf War, Baghdad Iraq, December 1998.
  • DIEHL: Depleted Uranium: a by-product of the Nuclear Chain, Peter Diehl, Laka Foundation (, May 1999.
  • HERALD: Depleted uranium warning only issued to MoD staff, Felicity Arbuthnot, Sunday Herald, Aug 1999.
  • IAC: Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers Civilians with DU Weapons, 2nd Edition, edited by the Depleted Uranium Education Project International Action Center, 1997.
  • ICRP: International Commission on Radiation Protection Publication 54, book, Individual Monitoring for Intakes of Radionuclides by Workers: Design and Interpretation, Pergamon Press, 1988.
  • IEER: Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, May 1996.
  • KIRBY: Depleted uranium study ‘shows clear damage’, Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby, Aug 1999.
  • MILTOX: Environmental Assessment of Depleted Uranium, Military Toxics Project (, 1999
  • MJONES1: Depleted Uranium: The Invisible Threat, Mother Jones Magazine, June 1999.
  • MJONES2: Hot Shot Uranium, Mother Jones Magazine, January 1999
  • MORGAN: Hazards of Low-Level Radiation, Morgan, K. Z., Yearbook of Science and the Future, Supplement of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980.
  • NATION1: Mal de Guerre, Flanders, L., The Nation Magazine, March 1994.
  • NATION2: The Pentagon’s Radioactive Bullet, Bill Mesler, The Nation Magazine, Dec, 1998.
  • NELLIS: Resumption of Use of Depleted Uranium Rounds at Nellis Air Force Range, Target 63-10, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nebraska, June 1997.
  • NEWSCI: Too Hot to Handle, Rob Edwards, New Scientist, June 1999.
  • OBUS: It Is Not Depleted Uranium, Max Obuszewski, Baltimore Chronicle (”), Feb 1999.
  • RAND: A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Harley, N. H., Foulkes, E. C., Hilborne, L. H., Hudson, A., Anthony, C. R., RAND ( 1999.
  • RCHDU: Radiological and Chemical Hazards of Depleted Uranium, Defense Radiological Protection Service Report (, July 1993.
  • SULLIVAN: Gulf War map a clue to vet ills?, Kathleen Sullivan, San Fransisco Examiner, Jan 1999.
  • WRRI: Modeling Erosion and Transport of Depleted Uranium, Yuma, Proving Ground, Ward, T.J.& Stevens, K.A., Arizona, WRRI Report No. 286 (New Mexico Resources Research Institute) (, June 1994.
  • UNEP1: The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements, UNEP/UNCHA BTF Final Report (, 1999
  • UNEP2: The Potential Effects on Human Health and the Environment Arising From Possible Use of Depleted Uranium During the 1999 Kosovo Conflict: A Preliminary Assessment, United Nations Environmental Program(UNEP)/UNCHA Balkans Task Force (, October 1999.

What about Iraq? Stop the Bombing, End the Sanctions

Published by the California Tech on 26th October, 1999

It seems we have all forgotten about that far off country called Iraq. Our senses have been dulled by catch phrases such as “no-fly zones”, “weapons of mass destruction”, etc etc which are as nauseatingly overused in the press as terms like “ethnic cleansing” or “national security”. Today we barely see or hear anything in the newspapers about the regular air strikes by the United States and the United Kingdom or the continuation of the economic sanctions against Iraq. Is it not shocking to the majority of normal, compassionate individuals in the world that a country torn by poverty over nearly a decade of economic sanctions and ravaged by the after effects of anti-tank bullets suspected to be toxic, is being bombarded daily from the skies by the bastions of “Western Civilization” within their self-declared “no-fly” zones? Since January 1999 the US and UK have performed well over 200 air strikes against Iraq, routinely killing and injuring civilians. The very civilians who the so-called Allied Powers claim to be protecting from Saddam. Among the targets destroyed by US bombs were the UN World Food Program warehouse holding 260,000 tons of rice, Qurnah hospital in Basra, a cotton factory in Baghdad, a main water system in Karrada, a secondary school in the Northern Kurdish region, and a grain storage building in Salahiddin (taken from a UN survey of bombing damage, January 1999 Reuters report ). Additionally, over 50 civilians have been killed by bombs, and nearly 200 wounded since this January alone. Over the last year I have constantly heard the following response to any arguments against the bombing of Iraq and the sanctions against it: “well if only those Iraqis would oust that tyrant Saddam, everything would be wonderful, the sanctions would be lifted, the bombs would stop.” The implication of this evasive position being, “And while they allow him to stay in power, the Iraqis are suffering a well-deserved fate”.

What does the world gain by imposing sanctions on Iraq, a country devastated and falling apart under the weight of 8 years of US/UK aggression? Perhaps one can discern the massive Western concern over an Iraqi threat by examining some of the items banned to the Iraqi people as part of the sanctions which include an oil embargo. Among them are : ambulances, basic medication, books, magazines (including scientific and medical journals), bicycles, toys, cameras, chessboards, tissue paper, toilet paper, candles, carpets, chairs, children’s clothing, bathing suits, combs and hairpins, hats, shoes and sandals, paints, computers, watches, flower pots, forks and knives, pens, shampoos, thermometers, petroleum jelly, and even waffle irons (Compiled by Davidsson, E., December 1997). And this is just a fraction of the entire list.

If the list of banned goods seems to imply something other than a way to render harmless the Iraqi dictator, one could examine the direct effects of the sanctions on Iraq in order to assess their efficiency at subverting possible aggression by Saddam Hussein. One year ago, a Reuters report (August 1999) quoted 1.4 million Iraqis were dead as a result of the US/UK backed sanctions. Former United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Dennis Halliday, who resigned in protest of the sanctions last year, reported that 5-6000 Iraqis are dying each month (London Guardian, January 1999) and pleaded “We must find another solution”. Most analysts admit that the sanctions strengthen the Iraqi leadership and further weaken the people of the country. A 1998 UNICEF report on the effects of the sanctions imposed on Iraq finds that the alternative solution, a UN sponsored “Oil-for-Food plan has not yet resulted in adequate protection of Iraq’s children from malnutrition/disease. Those children spared from death continue to remain deprived of essential rights.” Meanwhile Saddam Hussein stays firmly in power.

The countries most responsible for the suffering of Iraqi people are the United States and the United Kingdom who have openly defied the UN Security Council’s unanimous rejection of their use of force by continuing air strikes against Iraq and vehemently supporting the economic sanctions. A March 22 1991 New York Times article explains the United States’ reasons for keeping the sanctions in place: “… by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.” This attack on the people of Iraq is in direct violation of numerous international agreements, among them the Geneva Conventions, the International Conference on Nutrition, the Constitution of the World Health Organization, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of genocide, the Convention of the Rights of the Child (which the United States alone refuses to ratify), the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, ironically, satisfies the conditions that define international terrorism according to the United States Legal Code (Title 18′ 2331). Additionally, according to Noam Chomsky, a leading US foreign policy critic, “It costs the US/UK nothing to keep a stranglehold on Iraq and to torture its people — while strengthening Saddam’s rule, as all concede. There is a temporary oil glut, and from the point of view of the oil majors (mainly US/UK and clients), it’s just as well to keep Iraqi oil off the market for the moment; the low price is harmful to profits.” (Taken from Znet Commentary, early 1999).

It is clear enough who benefits from the effects of the bombing and the sanctions and who suffers. That this world allows such an atrocity to occur is shameful. That the United Nations allows and sponsors it is testimony to the free reign of terror in today’s world. It is clear that the sanctions and bombing are not hurting Saddam. It is clear that the only victims are the millions of Iraqi citizens who are being bombarded illegally by bombs from above while being legally starved to death. This is nothing less than an all-out war against the people of Iraq, authorized and carried out by the US and UK, and tacitly approved of by the rest of the world.

So what can you as a member of the Caltech community do to help bring
an end to the war against Iraqi people? Educate yourself and others
about the issue via alternative media sources – the mainstream US
media is not discussing the issue in any detail at present and this
article cannot do justice to the entire issue. Two of the many
excellent sources of information on the internet are: The Iraq Action
Coalition at, and Z Magazine Online at Write to President Clinton at The White House, 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20515, or call him at
(202)456-1414, or fax him at (202)456-2461 and let him know that you
oppose the bombing and starving of millions of innocent
Iraqis. Contact your elected representatives and urge them to support
an immediate end to bombs and sanctions. Take some time out to join
activist groups in the Pasadena and Los Angeles area such as our very
own Caltech Progressive Coalition (, or
the International Action Center in Los Angeles ( when they organize demonstrations to express opposition to the US/UK policies on Iraq. Join the women and men of Voices in the Wilderness ( who send delegations bringing food and medicine to the people of Iraq by openly defying the travel ban to Iraq in protest of the sanctions. Let us not wait before it is too late. As informed and educated citizens and students it is our duty to speak out against the crimes committed by the US government against Iraqis in our name.

Where is the Real Feminism?

Published in on 30th November, 1999

Sometime ago my husband and I were in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed live-music capital of the world, and also one of my favorite cities. We stopped at Ruta Maya Coffee house, it being known as the “kewl” place to hang out. Having had interesting musical experiences there before I hoped we would witness a memorable show. As we stood in line to get our coffees we realised today was poetry slam night. There was an impressive looking blonde spouting her poetry on stage, sounding like she was confidently making it up as she went along. Following her were two more pretty women (was it Women Only Poetry Slam night?) who poured similar tales and had similar styles. Of the few choice gems I remember, there was one that lamented that as a woman the poet should be able to have bright red luscious lips whether she was fat or thin, sagging or taut, old or young, tall or short, and that men should just deal with it and so on and so forth. Another gem was about the poet finding a man to love her for who she was whether she could dance or not, cook or not, etc, etc. A third I remember (at this point wondering if it was Women Who Have a Problem With Men Only Poetry Slam Night) was about the poet being allowed to wear blue satin pyjamas to bed, not red or marron ones, but baby blue ones, etc, etc. Jim and I half heartedly clapped for each poem, wondering if the next poem was going to be about something else other than targeting men or by someone else other than young white pretty women. We were disappointed and left in betweeen poems, practically running out.

As we walked to the car we discussed what we found so infuriating about the poems and the poets we had just heard (other than their aesthetic quality or lack of) of the poems. Jim’s contention was, for women to specifically blame men for their troubles was just as stupid as men regarding all women inferior. Not a single one of these women had the insight to look beyond the superficialities of their lives or their percieved realities and question the entire system within which men get away with what they do. Men who are jerks are so because they are allowed to be jerks. This is a result of the patriarchical society we live in. That all men are jerks and to be blamed for women’s problems is a shortsighted and wrongful accusation. It is like a black man blaming all white men, every single one, for racism, rather than attacking the system within which white superiority and black inferiority are allowed to exist. The way in which these women were fixated on men by simultaneously blaming and desiring them was an insult to the feminist movement.

My contention, I said to Jim, was that all these women talked about was men. It is as if women are not expected to have strong opinions on anything other than issues concerning mistreatment by men, societal expectations of women, and other aspects of sexism. Since sexism affects women that is all they are expected to talk about, and, as we sadly experienced, that is all they do tend to talk about. When there is a group of women on stage reciting their poems one expects a range of topics from oppression in general to sexist oppression of women, and perhaps to nature, war, poverty, social structures, family life, history, the future, religion, and an endless array of topics. Instead we hear only about how aweful men are to women and how all men want is the perfect wife who looks like a supermodel and cooks like Martha Stewart and how all we women want is a man who will love us with all our celebrated flaws. Let’s let men (specifially white men, because men of color will want to talk only about racist oppression) talk about those other interrelated issues of life that are important. That was the feeling I was getting listening to the women poets who received deafening and enthusiastic ovations for their poems.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. I believe in that notion and unless women start behaving as if in addition to being women they are humans, feminism will always be considered a radical issue. If women involved themselves in discourses that touch upon all matters of life they would finally begin attacking the system of patriarchy which suggests that only men are capable of making intellectual decisions and controlling their own lives.

That said, I have to say that it is very important that we, women and men, point out specific instances of men committing crimes or simply discriminating against women. But just as important to realise and attack the context within which this takes place for we will never be able to improve the treatment of women until we change the system of patriarchical domination which the world functions in. It is imperative that women be worthy adversaries to men in public discourses that include other human issues. Simply behaving like human beings, I think, is one of the most effective ways in which women can demand to be treated as human beings.