A lesson in rights from Afghan schoolgirls

After a school bombing that killed more than 80, survivors show why rights are seen as inherent – and one protection from Taliban rule.

Schoolgirls hold flowers as they arrive to visit students who were injured in a May 8 car bomb blast outside a school in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Where do rights – such as the right of a girl to an education – actually exist? In the days after a May 8 bombing in Afghanistan that killed dozens of schoolgirls, reporters have found an answer to that question in interviews with survivors and others.

“I’ll go again and again. Even if there is another attack, I’ll go again,” said one 18-year-old survivor. “I won’t become hopeless, because we can’t be afraid of gaining knowledge, of studying.” In all their interviews with pupils, families, and teachers, Reuters reporters found “a commitment to education in a country where girls were blocked from school under Taliban rule from 1996 until their ouster in 2001.”

One father near the bombed school in Kabul said he wants all seven of his daughters to be educated, despite the tragedy. The Guardian newspaper quotes a 16-year-old girl with a message to the bombers, who are presumed to be Taliban or another Islamic militant group: “This attack was against Afghanistan’s new generation. They want to push our generation into the dark, but we will push for a bright future. I will never stop studying.”

Other Afghans took to social media to insist on preserving women’s rights as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops in September. “The one thing that is impossible to change is our faith to end this darkness and barbarism!” wrote a person named Sakhi Ataye on Twitter.

Five days after the bombing, President Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation to say that reconstruction of the school had already begun. The “main decision on peace and future of Afghanistan will be made by the collective mind of Afghanistan which has always proved its wisdom throughout the history,” he said.

Since the U.S. ousted the Taliban two decades ago, many Afghans now accept civic rights as part of their “collective mind.” They are proud of improvements in women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities. Nearly a third of the national legislature is made up of women. Close to 90% of Afghans approve of women voting. Such rights exist on paper in the Constitution. Yet as the reaction to the May 8 bombing shows, Afghans themselves are unwilling to accept that rights can be easily lost.

When asked what happens to Afghan women and girls once the U.S. withdraws, a top Pentagon official, David Helvey, told Congress last month: “This is a question that the Afghan people themselves need to be able to answer and solve.” He added that “the courage and enduring importance of Afghan women and their contributions to progress in society are remarkable and apparent. “

If the Taliban do take power in Kabul, as some experts predict could happen in 2-3 years, Afghans will have one way to expose any restrictions on their rights. The country now has an estimated 27 million smartphones. That “could make extreme Taliban behavior more visible than in the 1990s,” states a U.S. intelligence report. The U.S. vows to withhold aid to Afghanistan if the Taliban end up eroding democratic rights.

For most Afghans, civic rights now have what legal scholars call “positive vitality.” Rights and liberties have become “non-regressive,” or difficult to reverse as they are both lived and seen as inherent to each individual. If the people around world ever needed a reminder of where rights exist, they heard in the voices of Afghan girls in Kabul, who expect to return to their reconstructed school.

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