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?
TO BE CONTINUED.
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?”