A group of school children play in front of their school in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan.
A group of school children play in front of their school in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan.

As U.S. involvement in Afghanistan’s war draws to a close, it’s a good time to revisit the goals behind involvement in the complicated country that has been the site of centuries-old conflicts.

In November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush stated that the fight against terrorism was “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” in Afghanistan. Nearly 13 years of liberating women from the “brutal oppression of women in Afghanistan,” as President Bush put it, what is the status of women today?

Peggy Kelsey, in her groundbreaking book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women, attempts to answer this difficult question. Kelsey, who is also a professional photographer, traveled to Afghanistan in 2003 and 2010 to meet with dozens of women who eagerly wanted, and needed, to share their stories of struggle and resilience with the world.

Kelsey reaches out to a vastly diverse array of women, succeeding in her goal of debunking the often-homogenous portrayal of Afghan women by the media. Short biographies and interviews with the women are complemented with beautiful black and white candid portraits taken by Kelsey. Their experiences, not surprisingly, run counter to simplistic stereotypes that are common. Kelsey gives not only a voice, but a face to the struggles and successes of Afghan women that are often overlooked and over-generalized.

Their stories are nuanced and poignant: A mother who set a family member on fire for raping her. A woman who stood in front of an assembly full of threatening, bearded, men reciting verses of the Quran, claiming they give her rights the men were denying her. A woman who supported her family in a Pakistan refugee camp by launching a jam business. A woman who set up 80 underground schools for girls during the Taliban-era when education for girls was prohibited.

And this is just a small number of the women highlighted in Kelly’s book.

The consensus among analysts is that civil war in Afghanistan is inevitable and the longer our occupation draws on—the worse the war. But Kelsey has another message: “Don’t give up on the women.”

“One cycle of violence that is stopped will come to affect the entire extended family down the road,” Kelsey said. “One educated mother who instills courage and self confidence in her daughters will affect many.

A direct result of nearly four decades of war is the large amount of refugees and migrants spread throughout the world. In fact, Afghanistan has produced the highest number of refugees of any country. As the diaspora return to their country, particularly from Iran where 3 million once resided, they also bring an educated and more progressive view of the world with them. The young women featured in Gathering Strength are a savvy generation that ranges from artists to businesswomen to athletes. They aren’t rebelling against norms so much as reforming it from within. Using the very religion that the Taliban and like-minded extremists use to deprive women of education, this generation is able to argue for their rights.

“We Westerners should support Afghans in how they want to rebuild their country. We need to listen to them and support their efforts,” Kelsey said.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

In the aftermath of 9/11, media airways were filled with rhetoric on the oppression of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban. With a complete disregard for security, unemployment, poverty, and lack of educational services, the dialogue was based on things such as the forced burqa and the ban on music. In effect, the west painted itself as a savior in the War on Terror because Afghan women, like their Muslim counterparts around the world, must be in need of “rescuing.” Lila Abu-Lughod fiercely challenges this idea in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Abu-Lughod rebukes the oversimplification of the plight of women, claiming the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history was more important to understanding the situation than the shallow culture and religion critiques that occurred.

“Instead of questions that might lead to the exploration of global interconnections,” Abu-Lughod wrote, “we were offered ones that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheres—recreating an imaginative geography of West versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies give speeches versus others where women shuffle around silently in burqas …”

This division is why Gathering Strength is imperative in understanding the current complexity of the situation of women.

“Don’t pity us Afghan women. We don’t need your pity,” said one of Kelsey’s subjects, Dr. Sakeeena Yacoobi, who directs an NGO dedicated to teacher training for women.

“With security, women could do so much for Afghanistan. We are intelligent and powerful. Don’t leave us alone, support us and help us to build our support,” she said.

In describing how to support Afghan women, Kelsey added: “Opportunities for peace and for women’s rights will be found in places that aren’t always obvious without looking deeply into the different local situations.”

For example, Shakila, a nurse and a former manager for a woman’s business training program at the American University of Afghanistan, helped organize a protest against a law passed in parliament that would allow marital rape. In 2009, an unprecedented group of 250 women protested the controversial issue, resulting in the elimination in many of the laws’ provisions. Unfortunately since then, several laws restricting women’s rights, including a recent law that bans family members from testifying against alleged domestic abusers, have been passed by parliament.

Kelsey’s book is necessary reading for anyone who wants a comprehensive view of Afghanistan in the past decade. The women’s stories make it clear that they each face a different set of challenges—some of them are in abusive relationships (that don’t look any different from abusive relationships in the rest of the world), others are denied jobs based on their genders, and others still aren’t able to have their voices heard in the political arena. But the common theme found in the interviews with all the women is the strong hope in a better future for the country based on access to education.

Malalai Joya, an outspoken former member of the parliament, summed up the struggle in speaking against the warlords and others who deny women and human rights: “They may destroy a thousand flowers, but they can never stop the spring.”

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