Afghan Women

If a stable, progressive Afghanistan is ever to rise from the dust of war and misrule, it will need the talents of all its citizens – most notably its women.

Afghan women were relentlessly repressed by the Taliban. With that repression lifted by the American military, they are seeking the education that had been barred to them before. Girls are attending school, and their mothers are attending literacy classes.

Even the mastery of the Afghan alphabet is a big step forward for thousands. Many just want to be able to read letters from relatives, or a newspaper.

The aspirations of Afghanistan's women have won admiration and support abroad. On Sept. 24, President Bush welcomed 14 Afghan women to the White House, a first stop in their month-long stay in the US to receive computer training at four universities around the country. They'll take their skills back to various government posts in Afghanistan.

Another program sponsored by US colleges and universities offers scholarships to Afghan women for degrees in such fields as medicine and engineering. A program put together by five women's universities in Japan plans to help Afghan educators to strengthen such institutions in their own country.

All this, of course, is the barest beginning. The classrooms giving young women their first taste of learning are often in tatters, lacking even such basics as blackboards. And resistance to lifting women from subservience still simmers. Women's activists complain that Islamic fundamentalists continue to wield power, even within the new government. One rural town was recently sprinkled with pamphlets calling for a return to Taliban strictures. Many women in outlying areas lack the most basic health services, such as midwives.

A major challenge facing the government in Kabul, and its international backers, is spreading such enlightened policies as education for women beyond the cities to Afghanistan's isolated towns and villages.

That will require not only more books and teachers, but a much beefed-up commitment from aid donors to rebuild the transportation and communications infrastructure needed to weave the country back together.

Among the major beneficiaries will be that half of Afghanistan's population, just beginning to glimpse the light of reading and learning.

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