Sometimes, you read or hear something, and an image forms in your mind that just won't go away. For me, one of those images comes from the 2002 news stories about religious police in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, who beat young girls trying to escape a burning school. Because they weren’t wearing headscarves and black robes, 15 innocent girls were locked in a blazing building to burn while firemen watched helplessly.
Not all Saudis support this sort of extremism, but many Muslim radicals reject the premise that women should have even the most basic rights. These include the right to vote, to work, to drive, to choose one's own husband, to charge a man with abuse or simply to move about without male escort.
One of the worst examples of this gender oppression was Afghanistan during the Taliban days. Women were not allowed to go to school, to work outside the home or even go out in public without a male family member. A woman with a medical emergency, but no male relatives to take her to a doctor, was expected simply to suffer or die. An aged woman with no one to bring her food was expected to starve. Too many did.
Life for women under the Taliban and similar governments ought to inspire anger and indignation in everybody, especially human rights advocates. I'm constantly surprised, however, by the apparent apathy among many who say they care about the rights of women and other minorities.
I doubt, for example, that our television networks have spent as much time exposing the horrors of life for millions of women in pre-liberation Iraq and Afghanistan as they've spent covering Abu Ghraib. For some reason, everyday atrocities such as the endemic beatings, honor killings and forced marriages of women just don’t seem to be newsworthy.
The other side of that coin is that we also rarely hear about dramatic improvements in the lives of women when they come about due to American actions. So let me take a little of your time to give you some good news that might have slipped through the journalistic cracks.
A new study from Johns Hopkins University indicates that, since the Taliban was ousted five years ago, Afghan infant mortality rates have improved dramatically. Every year, more than 40,000 babies live that would have died under Islamofascist tyranny -- and the statistics are still improving. The main reason, according to the study, is improved women's access to medical care.
Some people, including World Bank health specialists, say infant mortality rates have improved far more than the Johns Hopkins study shows -- because the data used is several years old. We know, for example, that the number of Afghan children who are getting vaccinations has doubled and redoubled in just the last few years. Similarly, the number of pregnant women receiving pre-natal care went up six-fold between 2003 and 2006.
In Iraq, the health care and educational statistics are even better. There are, of course, still many areas of life that need to improve in both countries, but we're moving in the right direction. The next time I'm reminded of the suffering women endure in too many radicalized Muslim cultures, or apathy toward their plight back here at home, I'm going to conjure up the image of 40 or 50 thousand Muslim mothers smiling into the faces of healthy babies. You might try the same -- and remember, while you’re doing it, that these babies would not be alive today if it were not for the U.S. and coalition soldiers.