The progress girls and women have made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years is best measured when we look back at where we began.
I will never forget the first time I returned to Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I had not set foot in the country since leaving to attend university in the United States 40 years before. It was not the same. It was a country that barred girls from education and employment.
Someone who had left our Afghan village in 2007 and returned last year might feel the same. They would have left a village that had never before educated girls and returned to one where female graduates are the primary source of household incomes, and certified midwives are the community’s primary providers of life-saving medical services.
That is our village after it was given a chance. Our country is capable of the same.
After the Taliban fell in December, 2001, I built a school for girls outside of Kabul in the country where I was born. The country where my parents were born. The country where I spent many happy childhood years before joining my brothers in the United States, spending some time at university, and eventually settling down in Duxbury where I had my son.
When we opened our school doors in 2008, Afghanistan was still beginning its recovery process. Society had been devastated by years of instability and a generation of Afghans had grown up knowing little else. Before our arrival in the rural community where our school was built, it had never before educated girls. I was frequently approached by groups of men during construction who would insist that I use the building to educate their sons instead.
In these moments, I recognized that they were not expressing hate but a simple lack of experience. Under the Taliban rule, there was no concept of an educated woman. How does one change how a community regards its girls and women? One listens, empathizes, and educates, and in doing so, gains the trust of the village elders. Once they allowed their daughters to attend our school, others followed. Our community has seen firsthand what girls are capable of — and it is extraordinary.
Since the school opened it doors 13 years ago, our graduates have gone on to pursue degrees from universities, and become teachers and midwives, successfully fracturing cycles of poverty and illiteracy that have plagued their families for decades. They write poetry. They provide health care. They support our communities.
Our postsecondary school has educated 24 midwives who are providing medical care to women in the community, something that was unavailable during the previous Taliban rule. We have educated thousands of girls who are now teaching their siblings and children to read and write. My students advocate for themselves and for each other, for their continued education, and have a greater say in the context of their own marriages and their desire to have a career. Their lives, and the lives of their families and community as a result, are immeasurably better because of their education.
Since the Taliban seized power on Sunday, Taliban leaders have stated that they will allow girls and women to attend school. They want to be recognized as legitimate by the international community. They want a seat at the table. We always have room at our table — we will pull up more chairs. During Tuesday’s press conference in Kabul, the Taliban emphasized their matured vision. They stated women will be leading “normal” lives — assurances they surely wouldn’t have bothered with 20 years ago. They also want to be free of Western influence, which means no more doctors, lawyers, and engineers from the West. Who will they look to to fill this gap? We hope it’s Afghan women.
Regardless of their sincerity, we will work with whatever laws we are given. I appreciate that the difficulties in Afghanistan can feel so enduring that it is hard to see a way out, but the tenacity of Afghan girls is the reason I remain optimistic. Now is not the time to surrender to despair. I will continue to educate girls, even if we are presented with new obstacles; we will make concessions in exchange for safety in education. We are resolute in the belief that education is the key to peaceful change, even when progress feels slow. Uncertainty will persist, but so, too, must hope.
What is easy and what is worthy are often not the same. I believe in the power of girls, just as I believe in the future of Afghanistan.