Roundtable: Mideast Women Under Attack, Dems Court Blacks

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Monday's topics: the growing number of attacks against women in the Middle East and why Democrats say black voters seem disillusioned. Guests: Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the Boston TV show Beat the Press; Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University; and Robert George, editorial writer for The New York Post.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. On today's Roundtable, women in the Middle East and Africa speak out on their rights and pay a price. Plus, a Muslim cleric is under fire for saying women who don't wear the hijab invite rape. And why Democrats feel black voters are disillusioned.

Joining us today from our New York bureau is Robert George, editorial writer, New York Post. At member station WGBH in Boston, we've got Callie Crossley, social cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press. And Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University, is at member station WLIU in Southampton, New York. Thank you all for joining me.

And let's talk about politics first. You know, we've got a week left, a week and a day left until the big midterm elections. And there's a lot of evidence that African-American voters are feeling very uncertain about whether or not their votes are going to count. There has been, you know, notable resistance to some of the Diebold machines, also questions about why certain neighborhoods -poor ones and minority neighborhoods - have long lines when other richer neighborhoods and whiter neighborhoods don't have long lines.

And a Pew Center report found that blacks were twice as likely now as they were in 2004 to say they had little or no confidence in the voting system. So with all of this going on, Marcelo, should the Democrats who are, you know, traditionally getting the lion's share of the black vote be worried? And how does this pertain to our whole election system at large?

Professor MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO (Globalization and Education, New York University): Well, I think that there is - coming out of Florida, coming out of the recent experience - reasonable grounds to be very, very skeptical and to be concerned moving forward.

I think that it will boil down to a tension here between this no confidence in the voting system issue that few others have illuminated, versus the concern -versus really in many quarters the anger that people feel over the course of the nation, over Iraq, over the healthcare, over jobs - and the passion people feel to have their voices heard.

Many feel the country's in the wrong direction. So it's going to be, in a way, a tension between these two contradictory impulses. No confidence on the one hand, and really a longing to be heard.

CHIDEYA: Callie, you know, one person in an article on this just said, look. I'm not going to try to convince my neighbors anymore to vote, because they're just, they're convinced that it's not going to count. Is that really what the most dangerous thing is? And is that really what some opponents of open voting really want? They want the disillusionment?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (TV Commentator, Beat the Press): Well, obviously the folks that would like to do what the pollsters call voter suppression would like to keep folks away from the polls. That's the whole point of this. It's like the old poll tax when African-Americans had to pay some exorbitant tax in order to vote, or so to speak. They were told they had to anyway, or to go down to the courthouse and be told to the recite parts of the Constitution that even the people who were asking them to recite it could not do.

So these are just newfangled ways of trying to keep people away from the polls, and that's exactly what the folks want to have happen.

So back to your original question about whether or not the Democrats should be concerned about this, I think the way that they should express their concern is to make certain that folks get out to the polls. It's been demonstrated over and over again that the reason that the so-called very strong evangelical base is very important to some Republicans is that they will vote. They will get to the polls no matter what.

And so I think that's what has to happen. If the Democrats are concerned about it, then demonstrate to black folks that, yes, we're concerned about voter suppression. Yes, we want to make certain that there's no funny business at the polls, provide lawyers, make certain there are people on site to say, no, this is a correct site, don't ask people for, you know, some phony ID they don't need to have. Those are the ways to demonstrate concern, and also at the same time support folks' rights to vote.

CHIDEYA: Robert, you know, I was struck by some of the dirty tricks that are going on, people sending out letters saying that immigrants in certain parts of the country couldn't vote. That people who had parking tickets would be arrested if they went to vote. Should there be more attention paid to people who put out discouraging messages - illegal and discouraging messages around voting?

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): Well, I think there should be. I think you're referring to the candidate in California who's running for Congress, and he was trying to scare some immigrants from voting. There certainly should be, they should come down on anybody who does that, you know, with the full extent of the law.

Though I also, in a sense, have to fault some Democrats and some on the left for creating this atmosphere, because they, you know, they have been - 2000, admittedly, you know, was a one in a million election in Florida and it was a complete mess and we can understand that.

But the margin in Ohio, for example, was close, but it was a lot farther apart clearly than 2000. But amongst the liberal media, you had this idea that Ohio was stolen as well, so the presidential election was stolen. So I think you have this drumbeat on the left saying, you know, that oh, the machines are going to be hacked and so your vote won't count.

And so, you know, to communities that feel vulnerable and feel sensitive to some of these issues, and they're going to be listening to it, they're going to think, oh well, okay, that's right. Then my vote won't count. I won't show up. So, I mean, I really think that members on the left have to take a look at themselves and figure out - just as Callie said - how they could help safeguard the vote, while at the same time not sending these defeatist messages themselves.

CHIDEYA: Callie, though, I mean, if the message is accurate and we can discuss different aspects of what messages are out there about, you know, voter fraud and voter intimidation, are you really stuck if you are trying to inform people about what's going on and at the same time encourage them to vote? How can you do one without the other?

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think you're not stuck if you make this point. This is the point I would make to particularly any African-Americans: there is too much history with people literally dying to make certain that we could get to those polls. So I don't care if you think everybody in the world is trying to steal the vote. Then - think about it this way - it's volume. So if they steal three votes, then the more of us are there, there's three more they're going to count. That's how I'm looking at it.

I mean, if you want to go with the conspiracy, I'll go there with you. But that means get more folk to the poll, because they can't, you know, not count everybody's vote. So the point is get there, and get there because not only folks have died and made this a reality for all of us, but that you are taking your own lives back in your own hands when you do it. And whether or not you think that there are some shenanigans are going on, the fact that you show up in great numbers makes a difference.

CHIDEYA: All right. Going to move along to a related topic. If we think that we've got issues here in the United States - and we always do - let's take a look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the fate of women who try to get involved in the political process. You know, rape is being used as a tool of intimidation. Women aren't at the table when it comes to issues like negotiating peace treaties. And the U.N. Development Fund for Women is really saying that there can't be progress in these nations as long as women are shut out of, you know, any kind of decision making.

Robert, what can be done at this point?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, I think certainly to the extent that we have any continued influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, I mean, I think we need to certainly to leverage that influence. But, I mean, the fact is it really does go to underscore some of the real serious anti-woman, anti-democratic impulses that there are in a lot of these nations that are dominated by Muslim clerics.

And that's really the real struggle that the United States has had for the last few years in terms of trying to bring certain democratic values into this area. And obviously, you know, we're not going to argue about the Iraq War all over again. But that is one of the main issues. You know, how do you, you know, pull women out of this? Because in many of these nations, it's as if they're living in the, you know, the 16th, 17th and 18th century.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, rape is, we've seen recently, become a tool of war, a tool of domination and intimidation. And, of course, there are profound...

Mr. GEORGE: Not recently, unfortunately.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: ...social consequences. Well, we really saw it organized as a tool of war in the former Yugoslavia. And then more recent in the cases we're discussing. But, of course, this is very, very old. The point is that as a tool of war, as a tool of intimidation, of course, there is not only the physical damage but also the psychic and the cultural damage. Because, of course, women, these are societies in which the honor of the family resides in women and in the tradition within the family.

Mr. GEORGE: The purity.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: So this is really a tool of intimidating whole categories of people. And it's a shame. It's a horrible crime, and we saw the international criminal court in the Hague address this issue. We really need to put this very high up in the international agenda, how rape and shame are used for political ends here.

CHIDEYA: Callie...

Ms. CROSSLEY: I would also - if I could add - here in Boston, and it's been going on for a number of years, there's a program called Women Waging Peace, which comes out of the Kennedy School, organized by a former ambassador. And for years they've been bringing women in conflict-torn areas here to learn how to make certain that they can be at the table in negotiating these peace treaties. In fact, it's a U.N. resolution.

So the meeting that - in which much of this was, you know, brought to light yet again really is about supporting that resolution and about supporting those women who have risen to leadership positions - Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was one of those women very actively participating in this program.

And what it does is bring folks here and teach them some very formal negotiating skills, but also it's a way of raising the issues, not only about rape as a war tool but I think what also has to be paid attention to, which is happening increasingly, are the attacks on schools that are teaching women. I mean, if you continue to undermine education for women, what do you have there? You see what you have. And so I think it's incumbent upon those of us in the industrialized nations to continue to raise this and raise this and then support those kinds of programs that are happening here like the one in Boston.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: If I may add, the role of political healing - and healing really more generally in the role of women in that process in context of former conflicts - we have seen throughout Latin America, after the wars of Central America, the mothers of the disappeared all the way to Argentina.

So there are paradigms. There are very powerful examples in South Africa, in Latin America and other parts of the world where we can learn a great deal about gender and former victims mobilized to initiate a process of healing and bringing people together.

CHIDEYA: Very quickly...

Mr. GEORGE: I think it's really important to keep in mind, too, that while we over here are still struggling to figure to what we're going to do with Iraq and how do we keep Afghanistan from slipping back and so forth, that if the United States does, you know, too precipitously withdraw from either or both of those countries, the women there are going to be in a worse off situation than they were before because we've introduced education to them. We've introduced the schools to them. And if that gets, you know, the authoritarian forces are just ready to come in and destroy everything that's been put in place over the last four or five years.

CHIDEYA: You know, there's - I actually want to get to another important topic. There was something that came out today or came out last week about an Australian cleric who said that women who don't wear the hijab - which is the head covering - who wear makeup and sway suggestively incited men to rape them. I don't think we have time to go into that deeply, but it just points out the fact that this is not limited to developing countries.

That in, you know, what we call first world countries or developed countries, these issues are being fought as well. But very briefly, I want to get to the border barrier, this 700-plus-mile fence. Last week, George Bush signed a bill authorizing it, $1.2 billion as a starter. And here's what he had to say:

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our is a nation of immigrants. We're also a nation of law. Unfortunately, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders for decades. And therefore, illegal immigration has been on the rise. We have a responsibility to address these challenges. We have a responsibility to enforce our laws. We have a responsibility to secure our borders.

CHIDEYA: Almost twice as many Americans favor more U.S. agents as opposed to a fence. Marcelo, why are we building the fence then?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, because of the theatrics of our political season. It's clear that without a systemic, complete immigration package - the kind of package that the president, I should add, tried to get through - this is simply a band-aid approach. The new fence will not prevent undocumented crossings into the United States. It will make it go further underground. It will make it more expensive. It will trap people in the U.S. side of the border that would otherwise go back to their countries after a season of work in the U.S.

CHIDEYA: We don't have much time, so I want to move ahead to Robert. And what Marcelo was saying was that, you know, people who cross over as undocumented immigrants are going to stay and not risk going back and forth. And this is something that the Border Patrol has tracked, that people who cross tend to stay now as opposed to going back and forth. So what's the solution to that? Should there be a guest worker program, in your mind?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, I don't know - I think there should be some form of that. Exactly how it's going to be created, I don't know. But I do - am sensitive to my rather conservative friends on this issue, saying that if you keep on just basically giving a de facto amnesty, it, in a sense - it does not address the problem. It just encourages more to come and stay and become guest workers or extend their stay and so forth.

And as Marcelo said, you know, I credit the president for trying to come up with a comprehensive approach to this. But unfortunately, the more conservative elements of the party feel that the first thing that we need to do is try and stop the flow at the border and then try and address what we have to do on the inside. And many have been looking...

CHIDEYA: I have to move to Callie. Sorry. Very briefly: President Bush, 1.2 billion right now. If a Democrat gets in, this could all be, you know, 30, 50, 100 miles of fence and then defunded, because that 1.2 billion won't build the whole fence. So is this all for naught?

Ms. CROSSLEY: I hope it is. It's ridiculous. Even President Bush is not for it. He only did it from a political standpoint so it could get his Republican critics off his back so he can talk about the guest worker part.

CHIDEYA: All right. We've been talking to Callie Crossley of Beat the Press in Boston, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco of New York University and Robert George of the New York Post. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Farai.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And as always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on our Roundtable, you can call us at 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330. Or just send us an e-mail. You can log on to npr.org and click on Contact Us. And please be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name.

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