Women’s Rights and Afghanistan: An Essential Lesson for Learning Right Now
With the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the United States and the world watch the painful and difficult withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the violent re-establishment of the Taliban also after twenty years. As a school administrator during this entire period, every year we always marked the tragic events of 9/11; however, I am finding it difficult to remember when we also led significant conversations and learning with the students about our national mission in Afghanistan. Did we ever really question whether that mission was being fulfilled?
Now, it is imperative that American high schools spend time linking the two events, and a worthy area of focus should be the impact that the allied presence in Afghanistan has had for women and school aged girls. Why should the status of women be the particular focus of high schools as they attempt to unpack what has occurred within Afghanistan over the past twenty years and beyond? Let me provide several critical reasons.
1. Why were we there and was it worth it? As mentioned earlier, there will be much debate about the value of the American presence in Afghanistan for the past twenty years. The study of feminism in the region provides a tangible understanding of what life for over half the country’s population was like with some degree of Democratic rule versus tyrannical authoritarianism.
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 meant a dramatic flourishing of women’s rights as a priority of the newly formed coalition government. In 2003, the new government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which required states to incorporate gender equality into their domestic law. The 2004 Afghan Constitution held that “citizens of Afghanistan, man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law”. These laws on the national level were followed by local and further national ordinances which protected women from physical assault and forced under age marriage.
Now, it is imperative that American high schools spend time linking the two events, and a worthy area of focus should be the impact that the allied presence in Afghanistan has had for women and school aged girls.
The United States and allies invested over seven hundred million dollars in equity programs in education and of the 3.7 million school aged children, sixty percent are girls. The most telling change is the future experience of a young woman who was born in Afghanistan in 2002. She most likely went to school for her entire life with a good chance that she is enrolled in some higher education or training program. She has voted in elections, is planning her future career, and made personal choices ranging from whom she will marry to how she will dress in public. This young Afghan woman has also seen older sisters, relatives and female friends become doctors and lawyers and educators, serve in government and play emerging critical roles in public life. This young woman knows no other reality.
2. Women’s and gender rights become a critical benchmark for students learning whether a culture is truly free. Feminism in general is not given the due it deserves as a critical narrative of the Democratic world and the subsequent revolution in social and political thought. Here is an opportunity to see its ramifications as they unfold on an almost daily basis.
The Taliban, after the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, quickly established a society and social order incredibly hostile to the freedoms of women. To boil it down to its essentials, it meant little to no public life and no autonomy over mind, body and self. No voting rights, participation or representation in government or decision making bodies. Formal education was out of the question and physical assault, torture, and punishment were the norm for women or men who violated the fundamentalist, anti-Democratic ideology of the Taliban.
All of the progress and freedom for women established over the past 20 years are being pulled back once again even more quickly than it unfolded under the democratically elected government. In cities and areas that have already been reoccupied by the Taliban, women in some provinces have been told not to leave home without a male relative escorting them. In Herat, in western Afghanistan, Taliban gunmen guarded the university’s gates and prevented female students and instructors from entering the campus. In the southern city of Kandahar, women’s health care clinics were shut down. In some districts, girls’ schools have been closed since the Taliban seized control of them in November. Women throughout the country report starting to wear the head-to-toe burqa in the street, partly in fear and partly in anticipation of restrictions ordered by the Taliban. The literal erasure of women has taken place in cities where posters of females have been defaced and beauty salons shuttered.
Feminism in general is not given the due it deserves as a critical narrative of the Democratic world and the subsequent revolution in social and political thought.
3. Opening the window for comparative understandings of natural rights. How do our students view gender norms and freedoms in the United States? While hopefully there is an appreciation for the hard fought gains of women in all facets of American life, do they see areas of unfulfilled promise? What does future national and global progress look like in regards to women’s rights?
We often discuss the importance of making the education of our students relevant. The events of the past month in Afghanistan are a critical reminder of how political decision making impacts people’s lives in very tangible ways. Certainly this immediate assault on civil and human rights by the Taliban not only includes the rights of women but will also include anyone who pushes back against their fundamentalist and authoritarian rule. The trajectory of women’s rights is a critical and clear lens to engage student learning about what is at stake when democratic institutions are left to fail.