Stop Abusing The Cause of Afghan Women

As a Muslim deeply invested in his faith, the mere existence of the Taliban is anathema. The work I do, the research I commit to, and my public voice are all an explicit and implicit rebuke of everything that awful movement represents. But with the Taliban apparently resurgent—for now—I am, like many other Muslims, many other Canadians, and many other people of conscience from around the world, shocked and alarmed.

And like all these people, I am especially concerned for Afghanistan’s vulnerable population, including, among others, religious minorities, human rights activists, and women. Therefore, I applaud our Prime Minister’s decision to accept 20,000 Afghan refugees. It is the right decision even if that number is orders too small, hardly expressing Canada’s ability to absorb new arrivals in our vast, prosperous, and diverse land.

I am glad so many seem so eager for us to embrace this necessary gesture.

All the same, I can’t help but be a little suspicious of those who dozed off over much of the last twenty years, evincing no particular concern for Afghans, never mind Afghan women—but who conveniently (re)discovered their outrage with the events of the last few days being all but impossible to look away from. Which is why I have a request. It’s an easy enough exercise, but I hope the reader will indulge me.

Name a prominent Afghan woman.

Name a prominent Afghan woman in government, in law, in culture, or in human rights activism.

Name just one.

The failure of most readers to do so indicates the way one of the world’s most brutal and persistent conflicts all but disappeared from our consciousness. Of course, I don’t blame the everyday citizen. It is the job of the media to inform but, by and large, the media has failed in its duty to serve as a check on the powerful. That doesn’t mean, however, that all is lost, or that we are somehow absolved of our humanitarian responsibilities.

There are at least two ways in which concerned folks can help. One of these is direct political and civic action.

The other is more conceptual but might have greater long-term effects.

To the first: Lobby your representatives and your government to accept Afghan refugees. To accept more Afghan refugees. And then, once they’re here, dedicate yourself to assisting in their undoubtedly difficult and fraught transition to a new society. That can include random acts of kindness and consideration as well as organized efforts in collaboration with houses of worship and other institutions that have ample experience in such efforts.

To the second: Forever associate the distressing images of the last week with a lesson all of us in the West seem consistently unable to internalize. This can be illustrated by a comparison between two countries that are not too far apart from each other: Afghanistan and, just a couple of borders away, mountainous Nepal, which likewise emerged from the colonial era with a weak monarchy.

According to the 1990 Human Development Index (HDI), Afghanistan—at 24%–and Nepal—at 26%–were roughly comparable in levels of adult literacy. In the intervening decades, both countries saw popular uprisings and vicious civil wars, although only one was occupied by foreign forces. Today, Nepal has a literacy rate of almost 66%, while not even half of Afghanistan’s population is literate.

We can do more for Afghanistan with trade, engagement, and education than we can with guns and bombs. Nation-building might sound good, and might be motivated by pious intentions, but it usually translates disastrously. That includes the American era, just ended, and the previous, Russian era. At a time when our historical consciousness might be insufficient to the challenges of the time, it might be worth resurrecting some history.

In the middle of the last century, which as these things go is not that far back, Afghanistan was known for its liberal capital of Kabul, many empowered women, and dynamic youth leaders who spanned a range of ideologies. This energy hardly reached much of the countryside, but neither was it the result of foreign occupiers. In other words, just because Afghanistan faces serious challenges does not mean it is doomed to the vision of the Taliban.

Its own history, and the history of countries in the region, proves otherwise. With humility, due regard, and respectful engagement, we can do our part to help bring those better outcomes to fruition.

It’s the least we owe the Afghan people—and the best way we can fight the Taliban.

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