Schoolgirls in Afghanistan

Stephen DeAngelis

January 27, 2009

Most people are aware that the conflict in Afghanistan is not going well. Upon taking office, Barack Obama has pledged to turn his attention to the situation there and try to develop a strategy that can help the Afghanis turn the corner and recapture the future of their country. Part of that future belongs to some heroic young women who have continued to attend school in spite of terrific persecution and physical attacks [“Afghan Schoolgirls Undeterred by Attack,” by Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 14 January 2009]. Filkins focuses on the story of some schoolgirls in Kandahar who survived such an attack.

“One morning [in November 2008], Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question. ‘Are you going to school?’ Then the man pulled Shamsia’s burqa from her head and sprayed her face with burning acid. Scars, jagged and discolored, now spread across Shamsia’s eyelids and most of her left cheek. These days, her vision goes blurry, making it hard for her to read. But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 others — students and teachers — was meant to terrorize the girls into staying home, it appears to have completely failed. Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including even Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. Perhaps even more remarkable, nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well — about 1,300 in all.”

What struck me about this story — in addition to the amazing courage of these young women — was the fact that their parents encouraged them to go back to school despite the dangers. In America, parents often pull their children from school at the slightest hint of trouble. I’m not faulting U.S. parents for their caution or Afghani parents for their lack of it; no one wants their children hurt. So what’s the difference? In the U.S., parents know that the danger will pass and that their children’s education will continue once it does. In Afghanistan, parents understand that a better future for their children — especially their girls — requires that they receive an education. If they prevent their children from attending school, the school may not be there when the danger passes. In fact, they are not even sure right now that the danger will pass. The truth is that Afghani parents did at first keep their girls out of school, but, as explained later, were convinced to send them back.

“‘My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,’ said Shamsia, 17, in a moment after class. Shamsia’s mother, like nearly all of the adult women in the area, is unable to read or write. ‘The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.’ In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built here by the Japanese government, it appears to have set off something of a social revolution. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to the school each morning. Many of them walk more than two miles from their mud-brick houses up in the hills. The girls burst through the school’s walled compound, many of them flinging off head-to-toe garments, bounding, cheering and laughing in ways that are inconceivable outside — for girls and women of any age. Mirwais has no regular electricity, no running water, no paved streets. Women are rarely seen, and only then while clad in burqas that make their bodies shapeless and their faces invisible.”

If Afghanistan is ever going to achieve peace and prosperity, it will need the talents and efforts of every one of its citizens. Ignoring the potential of half its people — the women — is not in the country’s best interests. Yet the Taliban and their supporters are willing to throw away the future to enforce their warped interpretation of Islam. Filkins describes last November’s attacks.

“Three pairs of men on motorcycles began circling the school. One of the teams used a spray bottle, another a squirt gun, another a jar. They hit 11 girls and 4 teachers in all; 6 went to the hospital. Shamsia fared the worst. The attacks appeared to be the work of the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that is battling the government and the American-led coalition. Banning girls from school was one of the most notorious symbols of the Taliban’s rule before they were ousted from power in November 2001.”

The Taliban’s legacy was one of fear, destruction (they infamously destroyed some historical images of Buddha carved into an Afghani mountainside), intolerance, and misogyny disguised as religious belief. The new Afghan government, and the international coalition supporting it, has been trying to blot out that legacy and provide the country with a new start.

“Building new schools and ensuring that children — and especially girls — attend has been one of the main objectives of the government and the nations that have contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Some of the students at the Mirwais school are in their late teens and early 20s, attending school for the first time. Yet at the same time, in the guerrilla war that has unfolded across southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have made schools one of their special targets.”

As noted earlier, Afghani parents at first reacted as any parent would and they kept their daughters home.

“In the days after the attack, the Mirwais School for Girls stood empty; none of the parents would let their daughters venture outside. That is when the headmaster, Mahmood Qadari, got to work. After four days of staring at empty classrooms, Mr. Qadari called a meeting of the parents. Hundreds came to the school — fathers and mothers — and Mr. Qadari implored them to let their daughters return. After two weeks, a few returned. So, Mr. Qadari, whose three daughters live abroad, including one in Virginia, enlisted the support of the local government. The governor promised more police officers, a footbridge across a busy nearby road and, most important, a bus. Mr. Qadari called another meeting and told the parents that there was no longer any reason to hold their daughters back. ‘I told them, if you don’t send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins,’ Mr. Qadari said. ‘I told them not to give in to darkness. Education is the way to improve our society.’ The adults of Mirwais did not need much persuading. Neither the bus nor the police nor the bridge has materialized, but the girls started showing up anyway. Only a couple of dozen girls regularly miss school now; three of them are girls who had been injured in the attack.”

Although Afghanistan remains filled with more fear than hope, it is hope for a better future that motivates parents and students.

“For all the uncertainty outside its walls, the Mirwais school brims with life. Its 40 classrooms are so full that classes are held in four tents, donated by Unicef, in the courtyard. The Afghan Ministry of Education is building a permanent building as well. The past several days at the school have been given over to examinations. In one classroom, a geography class, a teacher posed a series of questions while her students listened and wrote their answers on paper. … At a desk in the front row, Shamsia, the girl with the burned face, pondered the questions while cupping a hand over her largest scar. She squinted down at the paper, rubbed her eyes, wrote something down. Doctors have told Shamsia that her face may need plastic surgery if there is to be any chance of the scars disappearing. It is a distant dream: Shamsia’s village does not even have regular electricity, and her father is disabled. After class, Shamsia blended in with the other girls, standing around, laughing and joking. She seemed un-self-conscious about her disfigurement, until she began to recount her ordeal. ‘The people who did this,’ she said, ‘do not feel the pain of others.'”

Hopes and dreams — even distant ones — are enough to motivate people. Any activity that supports hope and reduces fear is worth supporting. Standing for something rather than opposing something is always a better course to pursue. In an op-piece about the on-going situation in Gaza, New York Times‘ columnist Thomas Friedman asked the leaders of Hamas, “Are you about destroying Israel or building Gaza?” A similar question could be posed to the Taliban — are you about destroying those who see things differently than you or about building Afghanistan? The Taliban are clearly not about building Afghanistan. Taliban members in Pakistan are now trying to spread their twisted theology there [“Pakistani Taliban blow up schools in Swat,” by Junaid Khan, Washington Post, 19 January 2009].

“Pakistani Taliban insurgents blew up four schools in the northwestern Swat region … hours after a cabinet minister vowed that the government would reopen schools in the violence-plagued valley. … As with Afghanistan’s Taliban, their Pakistani counterparts oppose education for girls and they recently banned female education in Swat altogether.”

Teachers in Swat have indicated that they will not return to the classroom until the government can guarantee their safety and peace and security are restored to the region. As a result of the Taliban’s actions, those who could afford to flee have left the area. For those who could not afford to move, daily life is filled with terror and a generation of young Pakistanis is watching their future literally go up in smoke. I’m reminded of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The “good men and women” of Kandahar are doing something. Let’s hope they triumph over evil.