21 August 2012

Article on Afghan Women Published in Diplomatist July 2012

The Plight of Women in Afghanistan
By Cashmere

A couple of months ago I saw a friend’s two daughters fighting over which one gets to go with their father for a hockey match. The decision was left to the girls by the father who had two tickets and could take only one of them along. The teenager finally lost to the tweenie after a heated debate because the mother decided that she needed to complete her school project before she could go for an outing. There was a lot of grumbling but the decision had been made - school work took priority over play.

Recently Afghan school girls were poisoned  after drinking contaminated water in their classes. The all-girl school was located in the northern Takhar province of Afghanistan.  The incident was repeated barely one month later. The girls suffered headaches and vomiting as a result of the poisoning and several in critical condition being treated in a hospital. The act of poisoning the water supply of the school was considered to be the work of conservative radicals opposed to female education resorting to medieval  barbarism.

However the officials were not blaming any particular group due to fears of retribution. The incident brought home to me the relatively huge advantage that a girl child has in India compared to Afghanistan
Incidentally this school session marks the 10th Anniversary of the return of girls to school in Afghanistan. The Taliban had made education for girls illegal when it came to power in the late 1970s after defeating the Russian forces. The lifting of the ban  alone was not enough to support girl child education in Afghanistan .

The April newsletter for the Khaled Hosseini Foundation states on its website that for girls to be able to attend school in Afghanistan there are many obstacles that must be overcome. “ They must have the support of their families.  This is no easy task, as they often must overcome social stereotypes as well as the families’ potential for loss of income when their daughters are in school.  They often must walk lengthy distances, in inclement weather, to be able to attend a school, consisting of broken chalk board tablets with students huddled outdoors or in substandard shells of buildings listening to a teacher who may only come a few times a month.  When they return home they are still expected to do vital housework to feed, clothe and care for their families.”

 The Khaled Hosseini Foundation was started  by the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Perhaps it is over simplistic to say that all girls in India have an advantage over their counterparts who reside in Afghanistan. Surely there are areas in the tribal regions and in the rural parts of  India where the girl child has to overcome great obstacles to get an education. Not only do they have trouble attending a real school with text books, a chalkboard and a regular teacher, they have very limited freedom to do what they like.

 Afghan Minister for Education Farooq Wardak says that “Education is the fundamental cornerstone and a key pre-requisite for durable peace, stability and socio-economic development in every society—Afghanistan is not an exception. Development is about people, not infrastructure, aimed at bringing positive changes in behavior and attitude of people. Education makes people think, behave, act positively, and it promotes social co-existence.”  As per statistics released by the Central Statistics Organization the number of students in schools has steadily increased since 2009 to 2011.

The Taliban has been responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against women in recent times. Stoning to death for being unfaithful to your husband, having acid thrown on your face for daring to educate yourself, being abducted and whipped in public for defying the many bans that were imposed on women, were just some of the many means of punishment against women that the Taliban practiced. They were judge, jury and executor rolled into one. There was no one to appeal to and no guarantee of justice. Not that the punitive regime confined itself to the fairer sex, even the men felt the abuse of power in no small measure.

Many cases of extreme abuse of human rights have come to light in the last decade as global human rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Watch, were finally able to enter the nation to provide relief measures. The Taliban abused their religious values in the name of a cause opposed to the basic Islamic principles of peace, education and kindness. One of the most publicized cases was that of Aisha, a girl whose nose was cut off as punishment for fleeing her arranged marriage to a Taliban fighter. Today the 18 year old has left Kabul for the United States where doctors are assessing her case for  reconstructive surgery. This is a result of the intervention of an NGO, Women for Afghanistan, and the Grossman Burn Foundation .

There was no end to the barbaric acts that the Taliban undertook during the time that they were ruling Afghanistan.  To call the reign of the Taliban a nightmare for women would not even begin to describe their lives in that horrific period. The toppling of the Taliban ten years ago as the west began its war on terror came as a major relief to the female population of Afghanistan. Although women in Afghanistan have often been accused of moral crimes and convicted of them, their state truly deteriorated under the Taliban rule. Much has been done in the years since then to improve the plight of Afghan women and now as the NATO troops set the deadline to withdraw in 2014, the shadow of the Taliban again falls on the nation and its women.

 As a reminder of the rigid reign of the Taliban a recent execution style murder of a 22 year old Afghan girl accused of adultery was caught on video.  The video from Parwan province shows the unidentified woman being shot several times while the gunman is encouraged by people standing by and cheering.  Although the Taliban have denied police allegations that they were behind the killing, it was a chilling reminder of the deplorable abuse women still suffer in Afghanistan.

The current government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now making overtures of friendship to the Taliban in an effort to stabilize its own political position. As per the Western Forces the terror organizations are no longer a threat, but the locals know better. The government hopes to avoid more bloodshed once the NATO troops leave,  by sharing power with the Taliban, especially in the light of the simultaneous bomb blasts across Afghanistan last month which was termed as the launch of the “Spring Offensive” by the Taliban spokesperson . The bomb blasts were a message to the world at large that the Taliban may be down but it is not out of the reckoning. This is the reason that the government hoped to placate them with actions like releasing detainees from a military prison run by the American military near the capital city of Kabul in June 2012.

It is difficult to imagine what the Taliban will do if it is offered a position in the current government. Will it learn from its previous mistakes and realize that no nation can hope to progress by suppressing 50% of its population?  Will it ensure that it does not alienate the majority of the population with its rigid and fanatic interpretation of the Islamic religion? Or will it insist in returning to its old ways and begin oppression of the female population all over again?  The recent scaling up of attacks by the Taliban in Kabul show that they do not want to share power, they do not accept the “Puppet Government”, and they will liberate their country from whom they see as the foreign invaders.

The uncertainty looms large over the Afghan nation and no one can predict what the future will bring. In the meanwhile young girls walk great distances with a scarf covering their heads to attend school. They face possible persecution in the form of taunts, verbal and physical abuse and attacks from those who oppose female education, and yet they do not stop. They hear of attacks on other school girls, and still the brave little girls steel their resolve and do not quit. They are supported by their mothers who know that education is their ticket out of the poverty and oppression that they have to face. That alone gives them the determination it takes to stick it out in school for a better future. Staying in school may seem like a small thing to you and me, but for them it is the most vital achievement that they will have ever earned.

 The writer is Senior Correspondent, WordSword Features

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