I can still remember sitting in a computer lab at the University of New Hampshire early in my college career — and two years before the Sept. 11 attacks — reading the first of what would turn out to be many mass emails about atrocities being committed against women in Afghanistan. The plight of Afghan women under the Taliban and other assorted Mujahideen groups running their country had become the cause du jour on campus, and with good cause. Some of the tales culled from Amnesty International reports were so terrible and heartbreaking they can never be forgotten.
I could not have then imagined the confluence of events that would finally free the women of Afghanistan from decades of rape, torture, murder, forced prostitution, or the public scarring, beatings and humiliation, all done with impunity throughout the 1990s. Likewise, as I’ve already written elsewhere, the country’s nascent experiment with global capitalism is beginning to change the way Afghan women look at themselves and their role in the world with a surprising alacrity.
I certainly never dreamed, even in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war that followed, that I would wake up one morning in March 2005 to learn that the democratically elected president of Afghanistan had just appointed the first female provincial governor in the country’s history. Even as we mourn every woman who was robbed of the privilege of seeing this day, the progress of recent years is astounding.
Nevertheless, this monumental event was not accompanied by any flurry of emails to my inbox. I saw no coverage of it on the morning news. In fact, if I hadn’t read the one paragraph blurb about the appointment on page A10 of the Boston Globe, I may never have even realized it had occurred.
The future governor in question, Habiba Sarobi, currently one of three female ministers in the government of Harmid Karzai, is, as should come as no surprise, a quite brave woman. When Karzai recently offered her a cushy ambassadorship outside of Afghanistan, she turned it down.
“I want to be inside the country at the service of my people,” she told the Associated Press, adding when her governor’s appointment was made public, “Today is a very good day for me. It is another important step toward women’s rights in Afghanistan.”
It’s quite a contrast held up alongside testimonies gathered by Amnesty International during the Taliban reign. Here’s one particularly heinous bit:
“They shot my father right in front of me,” a 15-year-old Kabul girl told Amnesty investigators in 1994. “He was a shop-keeper. It was nine o’clock at night. They came to our house and told him they had orders to kill him because he allowed me to go to school. The Mujahideen had already stopped me from going to school, but that was not enough. They then came and killed my father. I cannot describe what they did to me after killing my father…”
“One night about five months ago [June 1994], armed guards came to our house [in Farah]. There were six to seven of them. They forced us to go to a corner of the room while they got hold of my husband. They kept beating him violently, saying he had been teaching girls at the village school. We all shouted for mercy but they did not stop. They then stood him in front of me and my four small children. One of them aimed a Kalashnikov at his heart and shot him dead. The guard then said he was going to stay in the house and marry me.”
There are many more such stories, and they should not be forgotten. Women murdered for failing to cover their entire bodies; for being raped; for learning to read. Families wantonly slaughtered attempting to protect their teenage daughters and sisters from being violated or, worse, claimed permanently by middle-aged men. Many of the fundamentalists who participated in these crimes still walk the streets of Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. The culture war to free these women permanently is an ongoing battle and there is nothing those who prefer a return to the caveman days would like better than to see the civilized world take its eye off the ball again.
Life as a woman in Afghanistan, as organizations such as Amnesty International continue to point out, is far from perfect. Many women have been liberated from the Taliban, but still live in the shadows of a culture that demeans them and curtails their hopes and dreams as a matter of commonplace tradition. It is the example of brave women like Sarobi that will plants the seeds of the mental liberation that is such a necessary compliment to their physical liberation. As some journalists, most notably Ralph Peters, have pointed out, this change is not a perk of civilization, but a prerequisite. No country that oppresses half its population can hope to prosper in the modern world.
So what does Sarobi hope to use her governorship in the central Bamiyan province to do? Promote tourism. It might seem a faraway dream to many considering the long, rocky road ahead. But Sarobi has already proven her ability to overcome much greater odds. Let’s not forget her and the other women fighting to make sure the horrors Afghan women suffered during the 1990s never come back again. I never want to feel so helpless reading my email again.
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