Part 2 – Real Housewives of Afghanistan

Part 2 of a series about a peace trip to Afgfhanistan. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

In a mud-brick building on the outskirts of Kabul, 25 women are sitting on a faded red carpet, learning to read. They’re barefoot and their palms are dyed orange with henna. We visit the class on our first day in Kabul and find the students, who range from their 20s to their 50s, on fire for learning.

Ninety per cent of Afghan women are illiterate, we’re told by Farida Faqiri, head of Women for Women, an NGO that teaches women to read and trains them for jobs. “Our mission is to give them confidence, let them know they have rights and can play important roles in the community,” Farida says. The first thing her organization does when starting a class in a village is talk with the local mullahs and assure them, “Everything will be done according to Islam. The prophet Mohammed said women should be educated, so please allow them to go to school.”

“And the Mullas agree?” I ask.

“For the most part, yes,” Farida says.

Women for Women has graduated 20,000 women since the Taliban fell. But the program only lasts a year and the women we meet say they need a place to continue studying after the program ends.

Rais, who has green eyes so light that they’re startling, says “We want a better life, a safe life. Please, we want the U.S. to talk with the Taliban and stop the war.” The Afghan women burst into applause.” Jodie Evans, a founder of Code Pink, hands out peace buttons and tells them, “If you keep using your voices, that will come to be.”
The Prophet Mohammed, in addition to saying women should be educated, taught that men and women are equal and that men should not harm their wives because if they do, they may be harming something Allah has blessed. Why then, we ask, are women subjugated across the Islamic world?

A teacher who’s lived and worked in the Middle East would tell me later that the Koran, like the Bible, can be interpreted to support almost any position. If people can’t read – and 70% of Afghan men are illiterate – they don’t know what’s in the Koran. They only know what the mullahs, their parents and grandparents have taught them. And the common teaching, except in urban areas, is that women should not leave home. In rural Afghanistan, where most of the population lives, women will leave home only twice: when they get married and when they die.

The most severe problem they face, according to Farida, is domestic violence. The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) asserts that the majority of Afghan women are beaten regularly – by husbands, fathers and brothers.

I ask Farida why violence is so prevalent. She lists three factors, starting with lack of education. UN studies show that the more educated a man is, the less likely he is to beat his wife. Second is unemployment. “When men have no work and are angry, they often take it out on their wives,” Farida says. Third is tradition and culture.

Her views are echoed the following day when we meet with a UN project director, who says she can’t be named because of the risk. “We have a problem that’s not getting press coverage: the assassination of Afghan women who take public roles, whether it’s a police woman, a teacher — anything outside the home.” She says they’re being tracked, targeted and killed in drive-by shootings from motorcycles, and “the rising acceptance of this is alarming.”

In almost every case, she says, the women are forewarned. “I got a call last week saying I would be killed unless I resigned my job and denounced the U.S. occupation.” She changed her cell phone and went home in an armored car. She says the belief that women shouldn’t leave their homes “is so tightly knit into the fabric of society that it’s like a blanket—a blanket of fear. And it’s not just the Taliban who’re against women in public. That’s the norm.”

Jodie asks the director the question she asks every person we meet: “Do you want the U.S. to send 40,000 more troops?”

“People here are not clamoring for troop withdrawal,” the director says. “But as an individual, I would say: All troops out now.”

Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, asks, “Won’t the Taliban come back and women will be stuck in the dark again?”

The director shuts her eyes and rubs the bridge of her nose. “This is the struggle I go through,” she says. “There is no solution on a white horse. This is not just about the Taliban. It’s not about troops in or out. Karzai in or out. It’s so multifaceted, we have to be honest about the contradictions.”

She wishes we could travel outside Kabul, which is impossible because the roads are embedded with explosive devices. “If you sit in farm houses with women, you’ll hear: their main concern is security. We can build a hospital for them but women aren’t free to walk to it.”

She tells us about a Pashtun woman in the south who was referred to her by the U.S. Special Forces. The woman fell sick and tried to walk to the hospital but had to be chaperoned by a male relative, so she took her 8-year-old son. She was wearing the Afghan burqa — a light blue garment that covers the woman completely except for a mesh grid over the eyes. “She stumbled and when she put out her arms to break her fall, she accidentally touched a man. Her son ran home and told his father that she’d had `relations with a strange man.’”

The UN director has to stop to compose herself. “Her husband called his neighbors to hold his wife down while he chopped off the tips of all her fingers. Then he told his son to punch her in the eyes. When we found her, she was unable to see.” The director shakes her head. “If your neighbors witness something like that, they’ll think twice about going to a hospital.”

We’re subdued as we ride away from the UN office. We’re hearing numerous stories like this, which makes us probe and question our assumptions. Ann Wright, 63, a former army colonel and State Department officer who has kind blue eyes and speaks with a Southern lilt, says, “I have changed a little bit. Before this trip I was leaning toward: let’s get the hell out! Accept the inevitable! Now I feel we have a responsibility—to be part of a security strategy and help provide education and jobs. That’s a far better way to deal with terrorism.”

But the Pashtun woman wasn’t maimed by terrorists, she was maimed by her family. Education will alleviate this, but how can we provide classes for people when the roads aren’t safe?


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: What do you think is the best way to help women in Afghanistan? Should this be an objective of U.S. effort, or should we, as Medea Benjamin suggested, leave the women to “find ways to liberate themselves?”



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22 thoughts on “Part 2 – Real Housewives of Afghanistan

  1. Ed

    Hi Sara,
    I just wanted you to know that I appreciate the work you're doing, the quality of your writing, and the way you are using the internet.
    Hoping all is well with you,
    Ed Bastian

  2. Jayne Martin

    I am so grateful that you are now using your amazing talent to bring this very important story to us. I don't know what the political answer is, but I do believe that education efforts for both men and women need to be a top priority. These stories make my heart ache.

  3. rick lanning the celestial cowboy

    after having lived in the caribbean five years — nevis, st. kitts and st. maarten — i will tell you this: america has no right to tell any nation or government to change anything.

    people must be free to travel, however, and if the women of afghanastan cannot live with what their leaders condone, they should move to another country, whether that nation by the united states, australia, england or the south pacific.

    america and its elitist groups have fouled up all the ground they have walked on. they go into countries like mexico, spain and the caribbean and try to ban cockfighting or bullfights because of alleged 'cruelty' to animals, without taking into consideration that these pasttimes and sports employ many people who would otherwise be going to bed at night hungry if not for the money spent at these events.

    america declares a war on drugs and tries to make it worldwide. we then go into countries around the world and poison their soil for decades or even hundreds of years to come, as we defoliate the cocoa plant, marijuana and other plants that grow naturally and provides millions of people in third world countries with jobs.

    no, sara, you and your friends should get out of afghanastan. you will not make a difference there until the people insist their government change. like it or not, you are not wanted or welcome in afghanastan and you should — sorry — leave it at that. it is the type of government people have and the cultures they embrace that make a people, not the other way around. you are fighting a hopeless cause.

    rick lanning
    the celestial cowboy

  4. Dan Benavidez

    Hola Sara,

    I feel very deeply for the plight of the women in Afghanistan however I am also hard at work in my Latino community, working hard to help stop the high Latino school drop out rate of our children, working hard to deal with the high Latina teen pregnancy rate, working hard to deal with Latino gang violence, working hard with our young Latinas to hopefully alleviate the fact that one out of three Latinas contemplate or attempt suicide, working hard to alleviate the hungar and poverty in my own Latino community

    So I have to ask you and ask others even though it is not so spectacular as Afghanistan to first help us with dealing with the problems in our own neighborhoods and then maybe someday we can can help others. Bottom line is mi gente primero.

    Tu servidor,

    Dan Benavidez

  5. Anonymous

    US military should all leave tommorrow morning, crack of dawn.

    If a military is needed, then it should be from a Muslim country.

    If US feminists wish to go against Islamic rules and Westernize Afghan women, then US feminists should leave how to un-jam a Kalashnikov, how to haul heavy ammo over rough ground, and form a women's brigade, and teach the Afghan women to load, shoot, and un-jam an automatic rifle. Although Kalashnikovs hardly ever jam compared to the crappy & expensive AR-15s the US makes it's men use. How to fund all the guns & ammo? The feminists who are traveling appear to have above average wealth for Americans, which makes them pretty well off.
    If Islamic women aren't willing to fight and die for their freedom, why should working-class US boys?

    Ken, UCB, class of 1968

  6. RLS

    So powerful. So sad for these women, and when there is no easy solution. Thank you for writing this article and showing this side.

  7. Anonymous

    Oh my gosh after reading these blogs, I'm just shaking my head. Sara you keep on keepin on…….. As far as Medea, ignorance is bliss
    Yes we need to do whatever we can to help these women, of course always first respecting their cultural ways. Don't people realize this has been going on since the time of Abram, when he laid with the handmaiden and Ishmael was born, it is written. Life is so much easier if you have some belief and faith, it helps you to see things with clarity and helps one to understand the history of this situation. For even they believe.
    ddp AZ

  8. Kathryn

    The only comment that I will make about Afghanistan is that it seems crazy that we are trying to establish a centralized democracy in a part of the world that has been ruled by tribal leaders for centuries. How can we ever expect Karzai – or whoever else might be elected as president – to rule over the various tribal lands with any authority? Of course, there are no easy or obvious answers, but trying to impose a centralized authority over the various tribal lands doesn't seem to be working.

  9. AsburyHardcoreCandy

    I also value your writing. I have to only respond to the comments in this room.

    We are all Americans, Some of us just out of luck of the draw born here and EDUCATED as a part of this. This is not an entitlement situation.. AS AMERICANS, we can sometimes forget that. Has anyone grown up in a situation so destitute that they saw no way, because there is virtually no way out.

    for someone to sit at his/ her computer and type that this is a hopeless situation OR that these women should just move someplace else..I have one thing, no two things to say to this wacked boxed idea!

    Put yourself in those woman's shoes. You cannot read or write. You just used these skills to post your opinion .. These women cannot write a letter to someone who left their village to tell them they want to leave. ASSUMING there is even a person out there to receive those words if

  10. Peter S

    I feel so badly for the women over there…shocking stuff. But a part of me wonders whether sending our troops, etc., could ever change an ancient culture like that in any meaningful way….or even if we should try. There are SO MANY countries/cultures that are thusly equal rights challenged….should we try to save/change the world – inch by inch & row by row…..especially as our deficit grows by the trillions, and a 5th of our population lives below the poverty line?….just thinking and wondering what's right……

  11. AsburyHardcoreCandy

    I am so annoyed with the comments in this room.. apparently I left my laptop open to this page and I was sadly reminded again of this blog and its readers and comments! UHH

    First of suicide and depression is a sad reality no matter where you go!

    I am white and I grew up in an Urban Neighborhood where I was outnumbered by Hispanics.. I had a very rough upbringing and I would probably not trade this in for the world. But, It saddens me when I see these groups that reach out to certain minorities in these neighborhoods. What cultures are finding in these neighborhoods, Dan? Are you in Hoboken or something?? where it is so mixed or NYC?? I just do not get why people have to be singled out because your race is really the luck of the draw.

    I just know one thing.. I was a white kid in a predominantly Spanish Neighborhood and Poor in the long run.. I was short changed.. I grew up speaking weird, people looked at me odd and I had to literally reteach myself. I almost wish that bussing kids was never outlawed since we are going to voice out ignorant opinions.. Maybe then I would have gotten the education that every other white American Kid gets..

    Yet, I can say as a white person, OH YES!! Hispanics and the schools they go to stink! Because I know Go to Hudson County New Jersey – Take a peek -EEK!

    So, go anywhere on this earth and teach any woman who wants to learn to read HOW TO READ!!



    WE JUST SEEM TO HAVE FORGOTTEN THAT.. In our cushy little American little homes on our soft little lives, haven't we?

  12. Dan Wakefield

    I fear we are in for the endless war scenario we got into in Vietnam. Obama is responding like all U.S. presidents – even those who promise peace. Once they are in office, they are cowed and controlled by the military.
    We will not see “peace in our time.”
    Dan Wakefield

  13. Bill L

    So confusing, who is to say that even if we send in these troops that they will even pay any attention to the problems you highlighted?

    So sad, I just think that the more guns we send around this crazy world, the more havoc they create.

    There has to be a better way.

  14. Betty

    thanks for your perspective based on personal experiences and identifying the different strands of this issue.

  15. amazingsusan

    This is SUCH a difficult issue.

    And the comments here reflect some of the challenges to finding solutions.

    I believe that change, both on an individual as well as on a national level, must come from within.

    I'm a Canadian expatriate who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for 17 years. I have traveled extensively, though not yet to Afghanistan. I have experienced first hand many of the difficulties inherent in living in a multi-cultural environment. I am also a committed peace activist. I know there are not easy solutions, but that doesn't mean we should give up trying to find better ways to live in harmony.

    One of my contributions is a website to inspire and celebrate women around the world. I have quite a few stories related to Afghanistan; they can be found at this link:

    I also support peaceful resolution of the political turmoil in Iran. Stories related to that issue may be found here:

    Thank you for your investigative reporting on Afghanistan. Surely the first step to change is awareness…

    Susan Macaulay, Founder,

  16. Me

    Why is it that liberal white women have to go all the way to Afghanistan to discover who they are. She could easily gone to New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Atlanta, New York to name a few and discovered women of color that could used her help, and would not need a translator or travel guide. Going to Afghanistan was a cop out!

    This was the same phenomena in the 1960s and 70s where white liberals would work in “the ghetto” and then dash back to the safe cocktail suburban lifestyles while writing by use of justifications. The women in Afghanistan are not in a zoo for Western white women to come and grieve over.

    This Thanksgiving, there were many young people who gave up their turkey dinner to work in soup kitchens and feed the hungry right here.

  17. BEVKAI

    The Muslims of Southeast Asia have such a different take on Islam and women!! When they gained their independence from the Dutch, the Brits, and the Japanese conquorors, they realized that they needed all the brainpower available to build modern countries and catch up with the West. This is decades before Asian Muslim women began to wear head scarfs.
    Asian women have always worked, and the colonists and conquorors were bureaucrats. Women learned to read, do paperwork, and start their own small businesses because the jobs were there for them, and their emerging nations needed their skills. Islam didn't tie down the women, having arrived in Asia a few centuries after it swept the Arab nations. The women were already relatively free, and have remained so.
    So the main reason that Asiam Muslim women are not nearly as oppressed as Arab women is that their society values their work, and their governments know that they need their labor to make things happen.
    Just as Western Women woke up as Betty Friedan and Gloria Stinem gave them voices….it is economic contributions by women… the NEED for them in the workplace, that changed our cultural norms in about one generation. There is no longer debate here about whether women “ought to” work.
    It is this same need for women in the workplace in Southeast Asia which gives them relative freedom. Example, a man can't take another wife unless Wife #1 assents. And she usually doesn't. She gets a divorce.
    Economic reform and jobs needing to be done by women could make such substantial changes over time. . .even in the Middle East. It is amazing how a little cash on hand can change a person's religious belief.
    I lived as an expat in Southeast Asia for a couple of years. . . but it got more expensive than the US, so I came home. Now, that is success!!!
    As for this country and the all-volunteer military; it wasn't enlightenment which caused our all-male armed forces to recruit women. We need those feminine brains and bodies to get the job done.
    I would love to see SE Asian Muslims take on the job in the Middle East….they would be as shocked as we are.
    Bev in Honolulu

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