WASHINGTON -- Being an educated, professional woman in Afghanistan could not have been easy at any time during the last few decades. I recently met with a group of female government officials, brought to Washington by USAID and the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. One, during the Taliban years, had run an underground school in her home for the criminal purpose of teaching girls. Another had built a community development program employing 25,000 Afghan women before she was put under close guard by the Taliban. Her home was looted, and her children were threatened with kidnapping.
Afghanistan is a country were women have made significant progress -- but only compared to a comprehensively oppressive past. Seven million children now attend school, compared to 1 million six years ago. The women I met now play public roles in education, public works and agriculture -- unimaginable under the Taliban.
Yet Afghanistan is also a nation where girls have had acid thrown in their faces while walking to school and female police officers and public officials have been targeted for assassination. Taliban and foreign extremists seem to take a particular interest -- the kind of interest Freud could explain -- in the intimidation, repression and humiliation of women.
And patriarchal attitudes are not confined to the fringes. The Shiite family law, recently passed by the Afghan parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai, legalized marital rape and restricted the travel of women. (Under domestic and international pressure, the law is being revisited.)
Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult places on Earth to be a woman. A reaction of anger and militancy would be understandable. But the Afghan women I met take a different approach. Uniformly they argue that "education" is the most important response. By education, they do not mean only literacy. "People need to be educated in the values of our own religion," says Rahela Hashim Sidiqi, a senior adviser at Afghanistan's civil service commission. "They need to learn from other Islamic countries, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Even in Arab countries, education is not denied."