NYT OP-ED COLUMNIST, By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: October 23, 2010
Pari Gol, an illiterate woman from Helmand Province, prayed for the fall of the Taliban back in 2001. But since then fighting has cost the lives of her husband and daughter, and she has been driven from her home. She lives in a camp for displaced people in Kabul.
For those of us who favor a sharp reduction in American troops in Afghanistan and a peace deal with the Taliban, the most vexing question is: What about Afghan women?
Time magazine framed the issue in a wrenching way with a cover this summer of Aisha, an 18-year-old woman who ran away from an abusive husband. The article said that last year the Taliban had punished Aisha by having her nose and ears hacked off — a traditional punishment for women considered disobedient or promiscuous. Her husband did the cutting.
Time quoted Aisha as saying of the Taliban, as she was touching her disfigured face: “How can we reconcile with them?”
It’s a fair question, as is: Are those of us who favor a military pullback in Afghanistan sentencing more women to be brutalized? Those are questions that I came to Afghanistan to wrestle with.
Women are fearful, no question. Here in Kabul, far fewer women wear the burqa today than on my previous visits. But several women told me that they were keeping burqas at home — just in case. The gnawing fear is that even if the Taliban do not regain control in Kabul, fundamentalist values and laws will gain ground.
Still, it seems to me a historic mistake to justify our huge military presence in Afghanistan as a bulwark to protect the women. In fact, most women I interviewed favored making a deal with the Taliban — simply because it would bring peace. For them, the Taliban regime was awful, but a perpetual war may be worse.
Take Pari Gol, a woman from Helmand Province whom I met here in Kabul. She despises the Taliban and told me on this trip that back in 2001, “I prayed that the Taliban would be defeated, and God listened to my prayers.”
Yet in the fighting since then, she said, her home was destroyed and her husband and daughter were both killed by American airstrikes. She is now living in a mud hut here — fuming at the Taliban, the Americans and the Afghan government. “I hate all of them,” she told me.
Remember also that while women in Kabul benefit from new freedoms, that is not true of an Afghan woman in a village in the South. For such women there, life before 2001 was oppressive — and so is life today.
One man from Helmand Province, Wali Khan, told me that there would be no difference for women in his village, whether the Taliban rule or not, because in either case women would be locked up in the home. He approvingly cited an expression in Pashto that translates to: “a wife should be in the home — or in the grave.”
In other words, oppression is rooted not only in the Taliban but also in the culture. The severing of a woman’s nose and ears occurs not only in Taliban areas but also in secure parts of Pakistan. Indeed, I’ve come across such disfigurement more in Punjab, the most powerful and populous province of Pakistan, than in Afghanistan — yet I haven’t heard anybody say we should occupy Pakistan to transform it.
The best way to end oppression isn’t firepower but rather education and economic empowerment, for men and women alike, in ways that don’t create a backlash. As I wrote in my last column, schooling is possible even in Taliban-controlled areas, as long as implementation is undertaken in close consultation with elders and doesn’t involve Westerners on the ground.
Often the best place to hold girls’ literacy classes is in the mosque. And the insistence of Western donors that they get credit with signs on projects they finance is counterproductive. Buildings might as well have signs reading “burn me down.”
One impressive force for change is BPeace, which encourages female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Soora Stoda, one of the entrepreneurs I met, is building a potato chip factory. Another, Shahla Akbari, makes shoes. Her mother, Fatima Akbari, has 3,000 (mostly female) employees around Afghanistan, working in jam-making, furniture building, tailoring, knitting, jewelry and other lines.
Fatima Akbari is now expanding her women’s businesses and literacy classes in Taliban-controlled areas, always working closely with mullahs and elders to gain their support and protection. “When you go and win their hearts, you can do anything,” she said.
“I’m not threatened by negotiations with the Taliban,” she added. “In fact, it would be good for the Taliban to be involved in the country, to see that there’s nothing wrong with women leaving the house. And once there’s a deal with the Taliban, security will be better.”
So let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that we’re doing favors for Afghan women by investing American blood and treasure in an unsustainable war here. The road to emancipate Afghan women will be arduous, but it runs through schools and economic development — and, yes, a peace deal with the Taliban, if that’s possible.