Is This How You Would Like to Go to School?

This is a photo of a class at a girls’ school in Qaysar in the northern region of Afghanistan.  For those of you who think that wearing a burqa is a woman’s choice rather than cultural and religious oppression, just ask yourself if you would like to be like these Afghan girls.

Girls in a classroom at their school in Qaysar. (Washington Post)

But, actually, these girls are lucky to even be able to go to school since the Taliban has been moving into many areas of Afghanistan and closing girls’ schools.  The cry for President Obama to get the United States out of Afghanistan is getting stronger all the time.  I agree that the U.S. should leave, but my belief is always tempered by the knowledge that the Afghan people will suffer even more.

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Karzai’s “Reach Out” to the Taliban Would Be a Disaster for Women

In May, I wrote about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that the United States would not abandon the women of Afghanistan by allowing President Hamid Karzai to make any deals with the Taliban.  Clinton told three senior female Afghan officials that “we will not abandon you. . . . [I]t is essential that women’s rights and women’s opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled on in the reconciliation process.”  Clinton also said that she had promised Karzai that the U.S. would not “abandon Afghanistan in its quest for peace and long-term stability and we will not. And I make the same pledge to the women of Afghanistan. We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.”

However, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is still said to be “seeking a rapprochement with the Taliban movement, with the ultimate goal of drawing it into the political process.”  I haven’t heard anything more from Clinton about the situation.  Any rapprochement could have egregious impact on Afghanistan’s women.  For example, the Taliban is against any education of women after an early age.  As a result, in areas under Taliban control, the Taliban has been suspected in a series of poisonous gas attacks against school girls in 2010 and the past few years, including in 2008, when around 15 girls and teachers in Kandahar were sprayed with acid by men on motorbikes.  Female teachers are also being threatened.  One female teacher at a girls’ school in a southern Afghan province received a letter saying: “We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut off the heads of your children and will set fire to your daughter.”

This past week, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled The ‘Ten Dollar Talib’ and Women’s Rights: Afghan Women and the Risks of Reintegration and Reconciliation. The report was based on interviews with 90 women in districts largely controlled by the Taliban.  The report’s purpose was to show that any claims that the Taliban are mostly influenced by money, rather than ideology, are wrong.  The report summarizes that:

“Afghan women want an end to the conflict. But as the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban draws closer, many women fear that they may also pay a heavy price for peace” and that “Reconciliation with the Taliban, a group synonymous with misogynous policies and the violent repression of women, raises serious concerns about the possible erosion of recently gained rights and freedoms.”

All of the women interviewed for the HRW report said they had lost freedoms. In some cases, women have been killed.  In April, a 22-year-old woman was threatened and then killed for working for an American development organization.  A day after the killing, another woman received a letter saying that she should stop working for the infidels and “in the same way that yesterday we have killed Hossai, whose name was on our list, your name and other women’s names are on our list.”  In late 2009, women were warned not to ring up radio stations and request songs and were told that, if they did, they would be beheaded or acid thrown in their faces.  More generally, women have been forced to give up their jobs and stay at home.  Women active in politics have been targeted and a number of the most prominent assassinated.

Hillary Clinton, please remember your pledge to the women of Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton Tells Afghan Women: “We Will Not Abandon You” — But Is That Realistic?

The women of Afghanistan are correct to worry that any peace deals the Afghan government might make with the Taliban will sacrifice women’s rights.  After all, the Taliban was more repressive to women than, probably, any government in the world.  And their relatively recent re-control of parts of Afghanistan is reestablishing the tyranny.  For example, Taliban sympathizers routinely intimidate or attack women who work outside the home, wear western dress, or try to attend school.  They have even been suspected of poisoning school girls.

In an effort to lessen some of that fear, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that women’s rights should not be sacrificed in any peace deal.  She told three senior female Afghan officials that “we will not abandon you. . . . [I]t is essential that women’s rights and women’s opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled on in the reconciliation process.”  Clinton also said that she had promised Karzai that the U.S. would not “abandon Afghanistan in its quest for peace and long-term stability and we will not. And I make the same pledge to the women of Afghanistan. We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.”

I would like to believe her.  But I don’t see that happening.  President Karzai is obviously under pressure from many sides to take some kind of action to lessen the fighting with the Taliban.  Does the U.S. really think that Karzai will draw the line and absolutely refuse to make any deal that decreases women’s rights?  Does the U.S. really think that the Taliban will enter into any deal where they must adhere to women’s rights in the areas in which they gain more control?  And, even if the U.S. is adamant that there be no trampling of women’s rights in any deal with the Taliban, does the U.S. think that Karsai will listen to them?  After all, with the pressure that Karzai is under and with his past statements calling for the U.S. to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty, why would he listen to the U.S.?

And, so, although Clinton’s words are very welcome, it seems unrealistic to think that they will come true.  It seems far more realistic to think that the Afghan women in any geographical areas affected by any peace deals will indeed be abandoned.  I hope I’m wrong.

Taliban Suspected of Poisoning School Girls

There has been a series of poisonous gas attacks against school girls in Afghanistan.  The most recent occurred on Sunday in Kunduz province, in which at least 13 girls fell ill.  They reported symptoms such as headaches, vomiting and shivering.  On Saturday, 47 girls from a different school had reported feeling dizzy and nauseous, while on Wednesday 23 girls said they felt ill.

One of the girls (age 13) in the most recent incident said that when she stepped out of the classroom she “smelled a strange odour and then fainted.”  A 12-year old girl said that she was in class “when a smell like a flower reached my nose.  I saw my classmates and my teacher collapse and when I opened my eyes I was in hospital.”

Girls’ schools have been attacked in similar fashion in other parts of Afghanistan over the past few years.  In 2008, around 15 girls and teachers in Kandahar were sprayed with acid by men on motorbikes.

The Taliban denies responsibility for the attacks (and “condemned the targeting of school girls”), but they are suspect because during their rule from 1996-2001, girls were banned from attending school.  Even now, with the Taliban supposedly out of power, schools for girls in parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan remain closed.  Specifically in Kunduz, the Taliban has obtained much control and has clamped down on women, including a restriction that girls are only allowed to attend school for the first three years.  (There must have been some interesting thought processes leading up to that decision.  It’s okay for girls to go to school for three years but not four?  Not five?  Not more?  It would be laughable to hear the Taliban trying to give justification for that particular edict.)

If not the Taliban, then the attacks have been done by groups who agree with the Taliban that girls should not go to school.  Specifically, the Kunduz province has seen a large increase in terrorist activity and much of that has been done by a group called Hizb-e-Islami that, technically, is an independent group but has increasingly worked under the Taliban umbrella in recent years.

Thankfully, none of the symptoms experienced by the girls are reported to be serious. However, the attacks are having a large impact, as seen by the comment by one of the girls in the Sunday attack that “I don’t think my parents will allow me to attend the school after this incident.”

I’m against the United States having any military troops in Afghanistan.  However, my thoughts are always tempered by knowing how bad the Taliban are.  Poisonous gas attacks against school girls are about as bad as they can get.

Title IX Reinvigorated

Title IX, passed by Congress in 1972, prohibited gender discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal financing.  The biggest impact was on sports in high schools and colleges.

The law requires that universities perform multiple steps to determine whether women are being provided with equal opportunities to participate in sports at the university.  One part of the determination is to gauge the interest of the female students in particular sports.  The Bush administration took a number of steps to eviscerate the law.   One such step was in 2005, when Bush directed that universities could use student surveys to gauge compliance and that the surveys could be done by e-mail.  Even worse, Bush directed that the university could consider non-responses as indicators of a lack of interest.  In other words, no response to the survey was equated to a lack of interest in athletics.

This gave some universities an easy way out of compliance.  Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the senior director for advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation, said the Bush changes were a huge setback: “The survey was a way to make it easy for schools to comply.  And I think schools were able to comply because it was a way they didn’t have to give a fair shot for girls.”

The Department of Education has now rectified the survey problem.  Speaking at George Washington University before a crowd including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and members of the U.S. women’s hockey team, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Department of Education will no longer allow universities to use student surveys to prove they are meeting gender-equity standards.  Surveys will still be allowed, but non-responses will not count as evidence of a lack of interest.  The assessment will need to include more telling information such as participation rates in feeder high schools or recreational leagues, and the views of administrators and coaches.

So, thanks to the Obama administration for overturning Bush.  Unfortunately, there were other measures set in place by Bush to eviscerate Title IX.  Kim Gandy, vice president and general counsel of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said that “[r]escission of this Bush assault on Title IX is a good start, and the next focus should be on other Bush efforts to limit Title IX – especially [2006] changes in the Title IX regulations on single-sex schools and classes, which some schools are interpreting to permit sex discrimination and unequal opportunities for girls in K-12.”

Texas Rewrites History

By this point, I’m sure most of you have read about the upcoming changes to Texas history books. In case you haven’t, here’s a snippet from the NYT:

After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

I’m going to come right and and say, from personal experience, Texas doesn’t need any extra help “painting Republicans in a more positive light.” Many people complain about a ‘liberal bias’ in higher education; I was exposed to an obviously conservative one in high school.

Included in the revisions are the following:

  • Questioning the validity of Darwin and evolution
  • Downplaying founding fathers who supported separation of church and state. Read: more focus on Christian beliefs! (Definitely isn’t enough exposure to Christianity in Texas!)
  • Addition of “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation.
  • Opposing the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism. (Right. These WWII-era posters are definitely not racist!)

(images lifted from my former classmate Stephanie’s blog…thanks Steph).

The only measure I’ve read about that doesn’t upset me is pushing to mention the actual Congressional votes for Civil Rights legislation. I guess it’s a push to highlight the fact that many Republicans did vote for the legislation– which is fair, since southern Democrats at the time were blatantly racist, a fact that a lot of people have a hard time reconciling with the current image of the Democratic party. But racism knows no bounds of party affiliation.

Then again, Texas conservatives also struck down a measure to include prominent Hispanic-American figures. Even though the state’s population is about 37% Hispanic.

The final vote on these changes is in May, but it’s doubtful that the revisions will be struck down.

Health Reform Bill Restores $250 Million for Abstinence-only Programs

Unbelievable.  Somehow, the final health reform bill restored $250 million over five years for states to sponsor abstinence-only programs.  This came about even though President Obama’s first two budgets had pulled all federal funding from those programs.

Repeatedly, studies have shown that abstinence-only education is ineffective.  And the numbers of births, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among U.S. teens have begun increasing after falling for more than a decade.  As Emily wrote previously, “abstinence-only is just that– it leaves no room for information about being safe and healthy and sexually active. My theory is: Sex is eventually going to happen, and when it does, I believe that the important question to answer is: will people be equipped with the proper knowledge to make the healthiest choices?”

It is outrageous what the bill says about abortion.  To sneak in this provision about abstinence-only funding is also outrageous.  As is obvious, items of interest to women were trampled in the health care legislation.