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Nicholas Kristof Tells Afghan Women To Get Over It

afghanistan womens rights taliban democracy politics editorial commentaryNicholas Kristof gets it so very wrong, in his editorial in the NY Times on October 23rd, where he argues for a reduction of American troops in Afghanistan and for a peace deal with the Taliban. In seeking to convince himself that this turn of events will not be harmful to Afghan women, he optimistically provides some astoundingly slim anecdotal evidence to convince us that the Taliban are really not so bad. He promotes mosque-based “education” for girls that exclude western involvement, as an alternative to a real education system where girls and boys have full and equal rights to high quality education (and which, inevitably, requires outside funding. So far, I don’t see Saudi Arabia stepping forward to foot the bill).

He doesn’t venture very far into what the outcome of Taliban negotiations might look like, what will potentially be lost (women’s rights, democracy, economic growth, and all the advances in human development indicators made since 2003). Nor does he even pay lip service to what Afghans have to say on the matter, such as the findings of numerous polls, beyond his conversation with one single woman. He fails to consult those on the frontline of protecting and advancing women’s rights: the many Afghan women leaders, civil society activists, intellectuals and members of parliament who have been forging space for women's rights to advance, in every sector.

<--break->Isn’t Kristof supposed to be all about women’s empowerment? Not for Afghanistan, it would seem. He falls into the usual cultural relativism trap, so often trumpeted from the lips of a white man living in a rich democracy, perhaps not ironically: Afghans don’t need good education. They can just take a few classes in a mosque in the areas where theodd Taliban leader will permit this exception to the more broadly applied Taliban policy of denying girls the right to go to school.

Teachers and principals should not have to negotiate with deranged, violent lunatic militants for children to go to school. To argue that this is acceptable for Afghans is stunningly condescending and belittling, and contrary to every principle of the universalism of human rights.

Will Nicholas Kristof be willing to go and live in an Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban?

I’ve worked for 14 years to defend the rights of Afghan women, especially the human right to education, and I’ve been coming here regularly since 2003. If the Taliban return to power, I won’t come here anymore. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to do any work here. A dead aid worker is not a very useful aid worker. Let me clear: the work that my organization, and hundreds of others, have been doing, will stop. The schools, the libraries, the teacher training, the literacy classes… Gone. Gone. Gone.

Right now, we can do this work, despite the erratic and increasingly deranged behavior of the Afghan president, and the imperfect track record of NATO to date. The international military presence has held the fundamentalist, death-cult insurgents at bay just enough to create some precious breathing space, however small and vulnerable, that allows education to spread.

And spread it does. There are 7 million kids back in school, 2.5 million of them are girls, and literacy is rising. There are 170,000 teachers back at work, and thousands of schools constructed. Afghans are accessing education to a greater degree than at any previous time in their history. The impact is deep and the pace of change has been breathtaking. It never fails to awe me, and it’s why I keep coming back, for now. It’s something worth defending. Afghans deserve nothing less.

Lauryn Oates is a contributing writer to The Propagandist.

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