Whenever women have organised successfully as part of a wider movement for change they have won democratic advances—the right to vote, to divorce, to control their sexuality, to work without being harassed, and so on.
But in the most advanced of liberal democracies women today are neither equal nor free.
Every state, whether religious or secular, attempts to regulate the “private” and “personal” world of the family.
There are laws on marriage and divorce, and controls on abortion and sexual behaviour.
Pornography, gay relationships and prostitution are variously banned or regulated.
There are huge differences in the global position of women. But it is important to grasp the common core of institutional oppression.
The Islamophobic notion that women in liberal democracies are free while women living in Muslim countries are in chains is used to justify imperialism and institutional racism.
So the French state justifies banning the hijab by claiming it is liberating women from patriarchal control.
During the First World War Britain issued propaganda about Belgian nuns being raped by Germans. Today Laura Bush and our own Tsarina Cherie explain that it’s necessary to bomb Afghan women into their graves in order to liberate them.
Such women are silent on the outcome of the imperialist adventures they back for women.
According to Amnesty International, it was during the occupation of Kosovo that, “a small-scale local market for prostitution was transformed into a large-scale industry based on trafficking.” UN personnel are involved.
The combined and uneven development of global capitalism has brought real contradictions to much of the Third World.
Tens of millions are ripped from their traditional lives and driven into cities. These cities are dominated by a ruling class which apes the values and fashions of Western capitalism.
At the same time they force through IMF and WTO agreements which further impoverish the masses.
In such conditions, some of the forces resisting imperialism argue that “traditional” lifestyles—two parents, extended families, conservative dress and morals—protect women from the false liberation offered by modern capitalism.
This argument is at its strongest in the Middle East, where US imperialism is sharpest.
In Afghanistan, just as the warmongers argued they would liberate women, the Taliban argued they protected women from the false liberation of single motherhood or the brothel.
After the war the vast majority of women continue to wear the burqa and conform to Sharia law.
But women have never been simply passive victims of either side of this process.
Time and again women have shown themselves capable of transforming their own lives—often turning traditional women’s roles into active resistance to imperialism or exploitation.
In 1970s Britain women factory workers in Manchester demanded time off to do the family shopping.
Since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, many women have looked to Islam and chosen to wear the veil. This has not stopped Iranian women playing an active role in all areas of public life.
Women in Palestine have been central to both intifadas—organising the boycott of Israeli-owned business, reconnecting water supplies, organising mass protests at the arrests of men and joining the armed resistance.
On big protests you see Palestinian women supplying men with stones to throw at Israeli forces—and throwing stones themselves.
Today in Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Indonesia women, some wearing the veil, protest and struggle against imperialism and exploitation.
But the greatest example of how women subvert their accepted roles as wives and mothers into effective active opposition to exploitation and oppression came in the Russian Revolution—against the background of another imperialist war.
They took to the streets, defying soldiers, demanding bread to feed their children and peace to bring their men home, and kicked off the greatest revolution we have ever seen.
In the process they won—for a few bright years—real liberation.