“In the first 100 days of the war, President George W. Bush increased homeland security and built a worldwide coalition that…began to destroy al-Qaeda’s grip on Afghanistan by driving the Taliban from power…helped the innocent people of Afghanistan recover from the Taliban’s reign of terror…helped Afghans put aside long-standing differences to form a new interim government that represents all Afghans — including women.” ~ U.S. Department of State Archive
On September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my Wall Street office five blocks from the World Trade Center. As I was on the 22nd floor where there was a row of large windows that faced the WTC, I had a front-row seat to the catastrophic events. As I also was the disaster recovery liaison for my sector, I had a busy and terrifying day ahead of me, as did my family. My husband’s office was just a few blocks south of my building, and he was evacuated from the area swiftly. He tried to enter the lobby of my building to find me, but was told that I was likely performing emergency duties and he was hustled onto one of the last subway trains out of the area. That left him and our teenage daughter to wait most of the day for an update from me. I was able to contact my best friend and neighbor, who in turn contacted my husband, daughter and my frantic mother who lived in the Midwest and had been glued to her TV since the news coverage had begun early that morning. The rest of the day was spent helping to get my colleagues to safety and contacting all staff members to ensure that they were somewhere safe. By late afternoon, the authorities gave us the all clear to leave the building and my coworkers and I trudged through what looked like a war zone to midtown Manhattan where I was able to get aboard one of the commuter trains still running. I was never so happy to see my family and get on the phone for a lengthy chat with my mom.
In the wake of that horrific day, the country and the world came together over the attacks in a period of unity among citizens and politicians alike and a fierce determination to defend our country and our citizens worldwide. With our global allies united with us, most of us were more than okay with the U.S. entering Afghanistan to track down the terrorists who were behind the attacks. The Taliban collapsed quickly, but al-Qaeda operatives escaped into the mountains, and Bin-Laden apparently slipped into Pakistan. Subsequently, the nation building and U.S. deep involvement in Afghanistan continued until this day. But now that the Americans and NATO allies are leaving the country, the future once again looks bleak for Afghan women and girls.
We Americans, as well as citizens of our allies I’m sure, became accustomed to being in Afghanistan over the 20-year period. It was not unusual to have a relative, friend, neighbor, coworker or acquaintance who had served in Afghanistan, some serving multiple tours. U.S. and allied involvement in Afghanistan had become part of the global culture. A popular book series — one of my favorites — features a disabled British war hero who served in Afghanistan. Periodic announcements that the U.S. planned to end its involvement in the country paralleled reports of progress in the new Afghan government. And for women, it seemed the longer the U.S. remained involved, the more freedoms they enjoyed; they were going to school, seeking careers, driving cars and some were even shedding their burkas. Yet, despite the advances of Afghan women during the U.S. occupation, obstacles remained.
Afghan Women Are Everywoman
While our hearts break for the women and girls of Afghanistan, it is difficult for us American women and girls to relate to their plight. We Americans cannot imagine not being able to leave our homes without a male escort; to not be allowed to drive a car; to have to wear in public a costume that covers all parts of our bodies; to be banned from attending school, pursuing a career, speaking our minds, or following/not following our religious beliefs. It is incomprehensible to grasp that widows and young girls are taken from their families by the state and forced into sexual slavery. Yet, that was the past for Afghan women under the Taliban, and after the recent 20-year respite it might be their future under the same.
But lest we women of the Western world think that such a horrific turn of events that could not possibly happen to us, we need to think again. The world and its cultures are not static. Even in America, the beacon of hope and liberty, there have been many societal and political challenges and changes since its inception. A very young country, the United States of America is just shy of two and half centuries old — compared to other nations, such as Greece (considered to be the cradle of Western civilization), England and the Roman Empire, which have existed for many more centuries and whose cultures having existed thousands of years and still influence to this day. Those countries and empires experienced many wars and changes in government leadership. Free societies and autocracies have shifted back and forth among nations throughout history. Compared to those civilizations, America is still in its infancy: it has a long way to go and we need to take care to keep our republic on a steady course and our eyes on that goal of creating “a more perfect union.”
And that is the point: things can change for better or worse, anywhere at any time for any of a multitude of reasons. The opposite of a free republic, an autocracy leads to restrictions on certain groups that autocrat(s) in charge tend to fear or deeply dislike. Women by default are often at the top of authoritarian lists that also include people of color, certain political and religious groups and anyone that shows any signs of strength or a challenge to the autocracy.
Sound familiar? All Americans, especially women, recently had a close brush with autocratic tendencies in our previous presidential administration, and the dark influence it wrought continues. American women know that while their hard-won rights are continually being challenged, the threats reached a crescendo during that four-year period. American women are under ongoing threats of having their rights rolled back in the workplace and society. And, of course, women in many countries — whether democratic, dictatorship or theocracy — do not have full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But while women worldwide must continue to do everything they can to protect their own often fragile rights, at this moment the Afghan women are on our radar.
The Handmaid’s Tale
In 1986, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was published. Set in a future, dystopian, U.S., I found it to be a page turner; but it left me disquieted. I had a toddler daughter at the time, and as an ardent feminist and mother, a ferocious protectiveness was awakened. This will never happen to my daughter, I thought — not without trepidation. Knowing the history of my country regarding its treatment of women, recalling the stories my mother told me about her experiences and my own encounters with sexual harassment in the workplace, and in life, I felt a renewed determination regarding women’s rights. But, while I viewed this novel as an important book, some schools tried to ban the novel and some parents forbade their children from reading it. That was 35 years ago; today, some states are banning schools from teaching viewpoints and theories regarding racial history in the U.S. The squelching of knowledge, discussion and the broadening of one’s thinking continues. The good news — for the present — is that libraries tend not to ban books, and one can find just about anything online. 🙂
When I read The Handmaid’s Tale, as forces tried to prevent other Americans from reading it, the knowledge that Ms. Atwood had partly drawn on her impression of how women were treated in Afghanistan in the writing of her book slid to the back of my mind as a footnote. In the wake of U.S. troops finally withdrawing from the country, and what it means for Afghan women, that tidbit is now at the forefront of my mind. And, again, it makes me wonder about the future of women in America and elsewhere. In a New York Times essay, Ms. Atwood offered her take on whether her book was intended as a prediction: “No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.” Hmmm. It’s that last sentence that worries me.
What Can We Do?
Over the past two decades, Afghan women have shown the world that they are strong, smart and capable, and they have much to contribute to making their country and the world better places; but they face overwhelming odds. The Taliban has already been ordering women to leave their jobs, to be replaced by men. Let’s not sit on our hands as the Taliban once again relegates Afghan women and girls back to medieval times. We can stay up-to-date on events as they unfold, and learn what others are doing. Following are some links to news and articles that you might find helpful: MSNBC NPR THE HILL
It’s evident that the U.S. will be pulling troops out of Afghanistan. That is understandable, as America has been fighting in that country for two decades. But it is devastating to have spent all that time nation-building, not to mention the nearly 2,500 American service members killed and the many more Afghan soldiers and civilians — including children — who have died, only to have that effort result in the collapse of the government.
American women, men, college and high school students, scholars, business people and those from all walks of life can write to President Biden and their representatives in Congress, asking them to do whatever is possible diplomatically to keep Afghan women on the track to liberty and success. We can also support legitimate organizations dedicated to helping Afghan women and girls to hold on to the freedoms they have gained over the past two decades (research required). We can express ourselves on social media in productive ways. And, we can let the media know that we want them to continue to shine a bright light on Afghanistan, the Taliban and the Afghan women. It’s easy to carry out nefarious actions in the dark; not as easy in the light, with the world watching. Any other suggestions are most welcome!
The woman and girls of Afghanistan could be our own daughters, granddaughters, goddaughters, mothers, aunts, nieces, friends, coworkers and sisters.
They are our sisters.
Until next time,
Previous posts about women in the workplace: