On being ... a tragedy in the works

By Ingrid Sapona 

For the past two weeks I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for this column. But, I’ve been unable to think about much of anything other than the plight of the women and girls in Afghanistan. I was reluctant to write about Afghanistan because I try to avoid writing about politics. I decided, however, that I have to write about it because I feel those of us who care have speak up for those who can’t. 

I have a very vivid recollection of getting many emails in the late 1990s written by groups like the Afghan Women’s Network. The emails that were circulating were trying to draw attention to the treatment of Afghan women and girls. At the time, I didn’t even know where Afghanistan was, much less that there had been a civil war that brought the Taliban to power. 

So, I found some of the things mentioned in the emails a bit hard to believe. How could Afghan women who were doctors and professionals suddenly be forced to stop working? Or how could it be that women could not leave the house unless they were accompanied by a male relative? Or how could a government simply say that girls were not allowed to go to school? I didn’t necessarily think it was all made up, but I imagined that if some of those things had happened to some women, they must be the exception, not the rule. To this day I feel ashamed about not even signing a petition to support Afghan women back then. Of course, in the late 1990s, like most people, I hadn’t heard of the Taliban. 

Then, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to remove the Taliban from power, videos that ranged from maltreatment to barbarity emerged. We saw ghostly apparitions that turned out to be women covered from head to toe in bourkas, barely able to see where they were going. And then there were videos of the stoning of women accused of adultery – never any men so treated, though clearly women can’t commit adultery on their own. 

Though going to war with Afghanistan was controversial, without a doubt, one positive result was that the lives of women and girls there improved. As New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in a recent column, “In 1999, no Afghan girls attended secondary school. Within 4 years, 6 percent were enrolled, and as of 2018 the figure had climbed to nearly 40 percent.” That says a lot.  

The fact that for nearly 20 years Afghan women have enjoyed at least some basic human rights makes the west’s abandonment of them now even crueler. As Ruth Pollard eloquently said in an opinion piece in Bloomberg News this past week: “A generation of Afghan women who have taken their place in society are now watching that space shrink before their eyes. They entered public life as lawmakers, local governors, doctors, lawyer, teachers and public administrators, working for two decades to help create a civil society and generate opportunities for those who come after them. Now the Taliban are going door-to-door in some areas, compiling lists of women and girls aged between 12 and 45 years for their fighters to forcibly marry. Women are again being told they cannot leave the house without a male escort, they cannot work, study or dress as they please.” If I’m in shock at the fact that this is happening – imagine the shock and utter fear Afghan women must be feeling. 

There seems no end to the amount of suffering in the world these days. Currently over 206 million people have Covid and 4.3 million have died from it. Wildfires are burning out of control in Europe and North America, while other parts of the world have suffered devastating floods. Just this morning Haiti was hit with another 7.2 magnitude earthquake. All these phenomena have brought untold suffering. But, unlike all the natural disasters that are wreaking havoc in the world, the humanitarian crisis developing in Afghanistan is that much more tragic because it’s 100% caused by human behaviour: the cruelty of the Taliban and the willingness of the rest of the world to sit by at it happens. 

Afghan women may be forced into silence under bourkas, but we are not. Now, more than ever, we must speak up for the human rights of Afghan girls and women. 

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona 


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