This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
The battles, the bombings and the arguments over Afghanistan’s future often overshadow the country’s most threatened population: women.
Some soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord have been forging ties with female villagers who are normally almost invisible to outsiders. As reported from Afghanistan by The News Tribune’s Adam Ashton, “female engagement teams” fielded by Lewis-McChord battalions are serving as liaisons between the U.S. military and Afghan women.
Among them are Sgt. 1st Class Laurie Eggleston of University Place and Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Wages of Yelm, who manage the effort on behalf of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The teams help the Army connect with Afghan women, one on one, as part of its mission to defeat the Taliban. In the process, the villagers see American women who are confident and educated, women who aren’t guarded around the clock by males. Eggleston and Wages embody the expansive opportunities available to most Western girls and women.
Given Afghanistan’s traditional culture, the females of that country’s rural villages may never enjoy the same range of opportunity. But let’s hope they wind up better off than they were before the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
They could hardly be worse off. The Taliban may have achieved an all-time low in the subjugation of females. They drove women from most professions, forbade them from leaving their houses without male escorts, whipped them if they didn’t conceal themselves from head to foot in public; deprived them of medical care; and shot them in front of crowds if they were accused of adultery.
Women weren’t second-class citizens under the Taliban; they were cruelly mistreated slaves.
After the Taliban fled, things changed dramatically. In urban areas, women have been running businesses, anchoring television news shows, driving their own cars and running for parliament – where a quarter of the seats are reserved for them.
Girls can be educated again; according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, 2.5 million of them are enrolled in schools, many of them built by Western agencies under NATO auspices.
But the Taliban has already demonstrated – when it took power in the middle 1990s – how precarious such gains can be when the world looks the other way.
The Afghan government – competing for the sympathies of traditionalists – has already backed away from earlier promises to defend the status of women. The American public is weary of the decade-old war and wants out.
Long term, the best hope for Afghan women lies in preserving their access to jobs and education; President Hamid Karzai’s government must be pressured to preserve their gains.
Short term, it’s a matter of countering the influence of Islamic radicals and buying time for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Whatever happens, its women are bound to be better off for the efforts of America’s female soldiers.