Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Ninth grade girls play games in the Speena Adi schoolyard in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 8, 2012.

Voices that defy the silence

The voices of those pushing for justice and gender equality in Afghanistan are veritable weapons against the Taliban, whose power relies on silence.

What are we to do about Khalida? In a recent cover story, the Monitor’s Scott Peterson essentially asks that question. With the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban are advancing. Khalida has seen the evidence of what that means firsthand – schools for girls like her are being burned; women are again being subjugated according to dark and benighted interpretations of Islam. The Taliban’s lies of becoming more moderate are being exposed.

This, it might seem to the wider world, is simply the way of Afghanistan – an unceasing ebb and flow of violence and political chaos. What can anyone do? Neighbor preys upon weaker neighbor, first the Soviets, then the Americans in response, now Pakistan through its Taliban jihadis.

But as someone who reported from Afghanistan, I wonder:

What are we to do about Atefa, whom I met on a sparkling winter’s morning in 2007, as she dreamed of one day becoming a surgeon? The Taliban had burned her school, but the townspeople had rebuilt it and were patrolling it night and day with swords and axes. “I’m not scared, because I want to serve my country in the future,” she told me. “If [children] don’t know anything, how will they be able to build this country?”

Or what are we to do about Marzia Faizi, who defied her family to become one of Afghanistan’s first female police officers? “When we go out of the academy, the person who wants to welcome us with a bullet might be waiting,” she told me in 2009. “But there is no other way.”

Or what are we to do about Alima, who ghosted through the back alleys of Kandahar in 2007 as part of an anti-polio campaign – work she never would have been allowed to do in Taliban times? “Of course I am scared of the work I am doing during the day – I have nightmares,” she told me. “I am afraid that someone will come and shoot me in the head.”

My time in Afghanistan offers no simple answers. And yet it reminds me of what Malala Yousafzai told her father immediately after she had been shot in the head in Pakistan by a Taliban jihadi for demanding some measure of freedom.

“Don’t worry, Baba. I am going to be fine, and victory will be ours.”

What victory?

“They thought that the bullets would silence us,” she later said, “but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

That message earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Scott’s story is filled with voices. They are weapons against the Taliban. What the Taliban want is to silence those voices, and for us to no longer care about some remote outpost on the edge of the world. What the Taliban want – like all evil – is to be left alone. Our choice is whether to allow that.

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