The Audacity of Being Female in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, you put yourself at risk just through the biological coin-flip of being born female. You put yourself in dangerous cross-hairs if you grow up to be a girl that would like to go to school.

Yes, Afghanistan. The country that our country invaded a decade ago. We went in to oust an oppressive regime that encouraged radicalism and terrorism outside of its borders, and we stayed to support a democratic regime that recognized fundamental freedoms and human rights inside of those same borders. At least, that was and has been the story, although there are lengthy footnotes that question both the introductory chapter and – especially – the ones that follow.

Almost immediately after the US-led campaign in Afghanistan began, former First Lady Laura Bush became a champion for Afghan women. With the Taliban on the run, Mrs. Bush remarked that Afghan women were “rejoicing”. She explicitly linked the war on terror to the “fight for the rights and dignity of women”. Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, assumed this particular bully pulpit on behalf of the Obama administration.

During the period the two women shared the proverbial baton, they could and did point to modest gains in the lives of those women. Pre-invasion, the Taliban notoriously and severely restricted women’s access to education, health care and work, and deprived them of any power or legitmacy even in their own homes. Post-invasion, there were at least some examples of progress: women moved into positions in government and business, some girls started going to school, and legal protections were extended to women  – at least in some form, and at least as written.

But all of that was when the US was a visible and sometimes large presence in the country. In 2014, the US is to be no presence in the country. And as the US prepares to withdraw, Afghanistan prepares to undo many of the even modest gains it “allowed” for women. One Kabul-based nonprofit predicted that “[m]ost of women’s important achievements over the last decade are likely to be reversed.”

Recent news from Afghanistan challenges whether we even helped Afghan women as much as we’d hoped, and indicates that the reversal of Afghan women’s meager fortunes is well underway.

It is suspected that as many as 74 girls at a school in northern Afghanistan were deliberately poisoned by gas this past Thursday. You can imagine the chaos that broke out as the students began falling unconscious. You cannot imagine why anyone would seek to poison a child for the mere fact of being a girl trying to learn something. Unless, of course, you are one of the “ultra-conservative elements of Afghan society that believe[s] girls should not be educated.”

Even during the years of “progress” for Afghan women, more than half of Afghan girls still did not attend school. Those that did try to attend might have been shut out: hundreds of schools were closed due to security concerns – closures that affected 300,000 students in eleven provinces.

The security concerns for girls trying to go to school has taken on a specific tenor: poisonings like the one at the Bibi Hawa Girls High School referenced above. Just days before that poisoning, in fact, there was a similar one, in the very same province, that sent a dozen girls to the hospital. There were four similar instances in May and June of 2012 alone. In those cases, 700 girls were poisoned through contaminated drinking water and poisonous gases.

Questions abound.

How can anyone believe their religion compels them to engage in these human-on-human atrocities?

What can be done for the girls – and women – of Afghanistan that could not be accomplished by decades of war, international condemnation, and dogged activism?

Who looks at a child and sees an enemy?

And this one:

Why is it so threatening, so incendiary, so provocative to be a girl, even a girl who knows how to read?

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