The Women of Afghanistan. (in Focus)

By Tell, Carol | Social Education, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

The Women of Afghanistan. (in Focus)


Tell, Carol, Social Education


FROM THE COVER OF TIME magazine to the top stories on CNN and other networks, Afghan women have caused a stir in the U.S. media. The White House, too, has declared them a "top priority," signaled by Laura Bush's mid-November radio address in which she told of their adversity. We read about their plight, long-suffering victims of the most appalling forms of human rights abuses. We marvel at their tenacity, their ability to organize themselves and to look to the future with courage and hope. We learn with pleasure that the new government has two women in its cabinet: Suhaila Siddiq as health minister and Sima Samar as women's affairs minister. As the U.S. public learns more about these women's lives-what they were like under the Taliban rule and what they might become-the role of the social studies educator becomes, once again, crucial.

That students need to know about the women of Afghanistan is dean The challenge for educators comes less from teaching the facts than answering and engendering difficult questions. How do we address such clear and abhorrent abuses of rights while maintaining respect for cultural differences? How can classroom discussions move beyond the sensationalized details of violence to a deeper understanding of social, political, and historical factors? Can Afghan women inform our students, not only about the need for human rights in their country, but also about the role of democracy and citizenship in our own?

Becoming "invisible"

Nasrine Gross, an Afghan American and a leading activist in the Afghan women's cause (see interview, page 13), remembers being a student at Kabul University in 1965:

   Many of us went there with a chadari or scarf, with full backing of our
   families and official authorities; we studied with boys in the same class
   and had many male teachers; we wore short skirts, pale nylons, high-heeled
   shoes, with make up on our faces and polish on our nails; we moved about
   freely and without an escort, and we chose our physicians ourselves. (1)

When Gross returned to Afghanistan in August 2001, everything had changed. Women were forbidden to participate in all these activities: forbidden to go out without their full-length burqa, to study with males (or to study at all after age eight), to wear make up or high-heeled shoes, to go outside without a male escort. How did conditions change so drastically?

Women's rights in Afghanistan have been eroded during more than twenty years of war, from the time that Social Education continues to present special articles focusing on events stemming from September 11, 2001. As a companion to these special focus articles, our website features lists of classroom tips and other resources at www.sociatstudies.org/resources. the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. With the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, civil war erupted, during which time law was almost nonexistent and women experienced much violence and discrimination. Between 1992 and 1996, under the rule of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the country continued in a full-scale civil war. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar, they established the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." The Taliban regime ended most factional fighting, but women's rights were restricted in ways that were severe, steadfast, and systematic.

The Taliban, which began as a religious movement of students educated in Pakistan and Afghanistan and emerged as a military force in 1994, justified all their actions as fundamental to the Islamic faith; their treatment of women, they said, adhered to the teachings of the Koran. But Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, argues that their edicts had no validity in the Koran; indeed, the Prophet Mohammed's first task was to emancipate women. (2) Rashid looks to other factors as the real causes behind their misogynistic policies.

   The Taliban leaders were all from the poorest, most conservative and least
   literate southern Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan. … 

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