As Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan’s Education Minister, has noted, “During the Taliban era the percentage of girls of the one million students that we had was 0 percent. The percentage of female teachers was 0 percent. Today 38 percent of our students and 30 percent of our teachers are female.”
Not surprisingly, those educational successes have also coincided with a decade of some remarkable progress made by Afghan women in other spheres, including the rise of women’s advocacy groups; election to government office; and training as military pilots and Olympic athletes.
Unfortunately, their incremental educational gains are being violently jeopardized by an unrelenting Taliban campaign of terror, a campaign which has subjected Afghan females to acid attacks and shootings; the destruction of their schools through arson, rocket and mortar attacks; and the killing of their teachers.
Examples of that campaign of violence includes ten Taliban fighters arrested for squirting acid onto 15 girls who were walking to school in the province of Kandahar, an assault which caused severe burns and disfigurement to many of the girls; Taliban gunmen beheading the headmaster of a girls’ school in Kabul: and insurgents destroying over 240 girls’ schools throughout the country.
Of course, it should be noted that while the Taliban are the most overtly lethal opponents of educational opportunities for Afghan women, they have been abetted in their efforts by the nodding assistance of Muslim men in the region who more often than not treat women little better than livestock.
As Farooq Wardak has acknowledged, historical opposition to schooling for girls extends beyond the Taliban to the “deepest pockets” of Afghan society, a patriarchal society that remains heavily stacked against Afghan women and girls.
For example, Afghan females are subjected to the widespread and socially accepted practice of forced child marriage; honor killings; and the traditional Afghan practice known as “baad,” whereupon women are given away to pay family debts or settle disputes.
Not unexpectedly, the result of these and other abuses has made Afghanistan one of the world’s most dangerous and unforgiving places for women, where the life expectancy of an Afghan woman is just 44 years, where 31 percent suffer from physical violence and another 30 percent suffer from psychological trauma.
Now, a sustained terror campaign by the Taliban against their burgeoning educational aspirations threatens to add to those nightmarish woes.
More disturbingly, it also comes as US, Afghan government officials and the Taliban have been engaged for several months in an effort to initiate peace talks that could lead to the Islamists playing a role in the Afghan government once the American-led Coalition forces completely withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.
While the Taliban suspended the peace talks in March and instead have reignited a spring offensive — highlighted by well-orchestrated attacks on Kabul and three provincial capitals in eastern Afghanistan — the haunting specter of its potential return to power is cause for fear among Afghan women.
As Manizha Naderi, who heads the civil rights group Women for Afghan Women recently said, “If there are negotiations with the Taliban, women’s rights will be the first to go, and women will be forced to stay at home all over again,” adding, “Dark days are in Afghanistan’s future.”
Unfortunately for Afghan schoolgirls, those dark days are already here.
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