There was once an Afghanistan that thrived in development, where women were free to be human beings. There was a time when Afghanistan flourished under the aegis of an educational and business system, when its people were educated within the confines of the country. And then came war. The war(s) opened the floodgates for the advent of the Taliban, a radical segment of the Afghan population that decided to be the moral police.
And then came the dark underbelly of life that would grow to be reality for myriads of women in Afghanistan. The Taliban banned education for women, forced their confinement, mandated that a man of the house be the ones in charge of women within, removed every semblance to a life that would encourage modernity, and forced women to live a life that would be deeply embroiled in fear. Though the Karzai administration, post 9/11, has relaxed a lot of harsh policies concerning women, the prevalence of warlords and the looming fear of the rise of the Taliban keep women confined. Domestic violence is perpetrated liberally, where women find themselves leered at and harassed on the streets by miscreants, where the threat of rape looms large, where women must cow down to men in a tautly male-driven society. Despite the cumbersome burden comprising a heady mix of fear, threats and penury, women in Afghanistan are firm in their resolve, to rise above the thumb that pins them tight to the ground.
Adding to the already dismal state of affairs is a massive campaign launched by the Taliban – that education of girls is outlawed on all fronts. Arson and poison attacks are among the activity that targets those who teach girls. Young boys conduct searches of their fellow pupils and make notes in registers, doing everything in their capacity to avert a possible attack. These boys are forced to be on the frontline, stationed at the entrances of their schools, so that any possible attack would target them first before anything happens inside the school. A child is forced to be the keeper of his education. It is Hobson’s choice for many – either stay at home and struggle to find a menial job that pays pittance, or continue at school while braving the propensity for violence. A police checkpoint, student patrollers and vigilante teachers are their only defence against any prospect of violence in antagonism to the running of schools.
Afghanistan wears a cadaverous look. Schools have been burnt down across the country. Hundreds of children have been hospitalized after they drank contaminated water. Their teachers were attacked – two vicious actions targeting the running of a school. 1996 to 2001 was a dark patch of five years in Afghanistan under the yoke of the Taliban regime. Islamic instruction was the only permitted education – women and girls were to be excluded.
Has the country returned to those primitive times? In November 2008, a bunch of men threw acid on a group of 15 girls who walked to school in Kandahar. The Taliban insurgency was escalating, sending waves of fear across the country. Acid attacks are commonly being used as tools of choice targeting women in Afghanistan - from domestic violence to no-being-educated violence. Despite this, girls have been returning to school – among the only few gains in their crusade for civil liberties. The Taliban, for its part, seems to be pursuing a vociferous campaign in furtherance of shutting down schools before the American troop drawdown in 2014. In pursuit of this campaign of theirs, the Taliban has either carried out the attacks on their own, or, have gone to such low levels as to force children to poison their fellow pupils.
15 people were arrested for attacks in Takhar, in the north. They were mostly Taliban, but also included two girls in their fold – each of whom was given 50,000 Afghanis to smuggle toxic powder into the school and to slip it into water tanks that supply drinking water to the school. One of the girls was forced to spray poison in her classroom, by her own relative, who followed her to school repeatedly. The threat of abduction and death loomed over her head, though for her complicity in the crime, she is both ashamed and upset, per a video released in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban have denied involvement – claiming that these things were endeavours to pockmark their reputation. They laid claim to being antagonistic not to education itself, but to schools that propagate anti-Islamic teachings in violation of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty. Some contend that militia groups set up by the government have a hand in the spate of attacks, while some more contend that external forces are trying to be a spanner in the works as Afghanistan prepares to take responsibility for its security after nearly 11 years of international support.
The few girls that go to school huddle in bunches, seeking safety in numbers and crowds. Some brave the distances and hours without food or water, neither carrying nor eating anything on offer – lest they be poisoned.
Schools across the country have remained closed, though. 2,00,000 children are left without access to education and most of them are girls. This drives home one very poignant point, begging the asking, will Afghanistan sustain and foster respect for women’s and children’s rights once the international forces leave?