“. . . Please consider, if men are the backbone of Afghanistan, then women are the eyes of our country. Without an education, we will all be blind.”
from Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education
written by Elizabeth Suneby
illustrated by Suana Verelst
Kids Can Press, 2013
I surprised myself when I realized I don’t know anything about my great-grandmother’s education. Yes, it was a looong time ago. But we were raised with lots of family lore. Gram was fluent in Russian, Yiddish, and English and could read, write, and sing in Russian and Yiddish. I think she only knew one English song, “Springtime in the Rockies.”
I don’t know if she studied in a school or if she learned at home, maybe even from her mother. Did she study math? Geography? Science?
Gram fled Russia in 1906, under the harshest conditions. Why else would you leave what you know for the strangeness of a new country, new customs, strange food. Today we’d call her an asylum seeker. Then she was an immigrant. One in a flood of immigrants from all parts of the world.
As soon as my grandmother was old enough, Gram sent her to school. My grandma was 6 years old in 1909. Public kindergartens were not common in Ohio until 1935, when the School Foundation Program Law provided guaranteed funding for public kindergartens.
Until she was 6, my grandmother’s name was Stisha. Her first grade teacher “helped” my grandmother assimilate by giving her a more American-sounding name. I don’t think anyone ever called her Stisha anymore, only Tilly. Not Matilda. Tilly. Could the teacher not pronounce Stisha? Was there another Stisha in the class already? Did her teacher just like the name Tilly? The answers to those questions are lost to history.
My mother went to school. Her father did not think it was necessary for her to go to college even though she wanted to. Mom found a job after high school, and went to night school, too. She studied psychology, of all things! and enjoyed it and was proud.
I was the first one in my family to attend college. Back in 1971, I didn’t have a very wide world view. I believed that I could be a teacher or a nurse. But I knew I could NOT be a nurse. I have great admiration for nurses. They do work I could never picture myself doing. And being a nurse is practically synonymous with patience. Well, I am not always so patient.
So, teacher, then. Turns out I was not cut out for that, either. But I had choices. My world-view was wider. I went back to school.
I wanted to and I could.
In some parts of the world, school is not a given for girls. Sometimes, it is not even an option.
Kabul, Afghanistan, is one such place.
Although Afghanistan became an independent nation in 1921, the United States didn’t recognize its sovereignty until 1934.
In 1957, under pro-Soviet Gen. Mohammed Daoud Khan, universities were open to women, and women were accepted in the workforce. In the 1960s, the communist party began to form in secret. At the end of the 1970s, Afghanistan aligned itself with communist USSR, only to unite against Soviet invaders and the USSR-backed Afghan Army ten years later.
By 1986, the United States, Britain, and China were giving aid to Afghanistan and in 1989, peace accords signed in Geneva guaranteed Afghan independence and the withdrawal of 100,000 Soviet troops.
Exhausted by almost continuous conflict, draught, and famine since its beginning in 1921, the Afghan people were ready for peace. In 1995, the newly formed Islamic militia, the Taliban, promised it.
But peace came with a huge price. The Taliban insisted on upholding their view of traditional Islamic law where women were required to be fully veiled and not allowed outside alone. Women were no longer allowed an education or employment. The Taliban enforced their Islamic law by public executions and amputations.
The United States refused to recognize the authority of the Taliban and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
We all know what happened on September 11, 2001.
Almost ten years later, on May 2, 2011, U.S. forces overtook a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden.
Although the war officially ended in 2014, over 10,000 American troops stayed there.
The recent presidential election did not produce a clear winner. It may be months before a new president is announced.
The Afghan government continues to negotiate peace with a fractured Taliban, who continue to murder Afghan citizens. Today, the country is as far from peace as ever.
In a recent NPR clip, a university student in Kabul was asked how she saw the current conditions in her country. She is still allowed to go to university, but the Taliban continues to threaten the safety and freedoms her people so recently won.
If faced with the choice of freedom or peace, she said she would choose peace. Peace would mean no university. No work. Peace would mean burqas and chaperones.
But she would choose peace.
-—stay curious! (and choose thoughtfully)