Afghanistan – I want to study, so shoot me

By denying women many of their most basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was the proverbial death-knell for progressive lifestyles of women in the country; as the shocking case of Malala Yousufzai demonstrates in the starkest possible manner.

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By Kirthi Jayakumar

When Malala Yousufzai was shot, the Taliban sent out two messages to the world. First, that they were absolutely cowardly, for it is only cowardice that goads one to attack an unarmed girl. Second, that it is not force or political wrath that they fear – but an ordinary little girl with dreams to study, and the propensity of an educated society of women.

Malala is the face of a whole ocean of teenage Afghan girls. Whilst children the world over spend time wondering why “school-was-invented” or what excuse they can pull to be able to get out of school the next day, for girls like Malala – where the Taliban decides the course that their lives must chart – school is a dream.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was the proverbial death-knell for progressive lifestyles of women. With the advent of the Taliban, women were denied some of their most basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. The right to life, to work and study, and to access health care – plus freedom of expression, movement and religion – were no longer enjoyed by women. There were instances of women asserting their rights under the Taliban regime, only to be subjected to public stoning, beatings and imprisonment. Women were oppressed and left bereft of the rights inherent to their very existence. Women were not allowed to leave their households unless they had a burqa and had a male member of their family to accompany them. These policies rendered many women immobile and confined to their houses, because they were either too poor to afford a burqa, or had no male relatives left after the war. The women who remained at home were made to paint their windows so that no one could look in from outside, and vice-versa. The few women who once held respectable positions prior to the five years under Taliban rule were forced to beg to survive, or to stay confined in their houses.

The consequences were manifold. Women teachers who functioned prior to the Taliban regime were no longer allowed to teach at schools. This led to the redundancy of many schools, and the imposition of a severe strain on the education system. Though women in the medical field were allowed to continue – as women could only be treated by female physicians – there was a steady decline in access to medical care and health care facilities because it was frowned upon for a woman to go to hospital. The few that tried were brutally beaten. After braving all of this, if a woman made it to the hospital, there was no guarantee that she would be seen by a doctor. On the other hand, a parallel market of human trafficking, prostitution and slavery thrived as the covert industry flourished under the rubric of harsh mistreatment of women.

Given this background, maybe the attack on Malala is not “out-of-the-blue” for the cynical thinker. But in truth, whatever the background, the attack on Malala is a cruel, filthy and a disgusting attempt to eradicate independent thinking. What Malala demanded was her birthright; a right that so many countries, her’s included, have agreed to guarantee to their children. But for Malala and many girls like her, reality spells deprivation of this basic right.

On October 9, two gunmen stopped her school bus and sought her out by name. She was shot twice from close range, in the face and in the leg, whilst two other girls were also injured. In the run up to her attack, Malala was sent numerous threats. While the world spent time reading what she wrote on her blog, no one stopped to act for her, and for girls like her. Malala has spent her life under the yoke of threats, walking the tight-rope of activism through her blog. Malala’s father once ran a girls school, and has spent his life standing up to the Taliban for their hard-line politics.

Some say Malala is a hero. Some say Malala is a scion of women’s rights. Still some say that Malala is a fighter. Which is indeed undoubtedly true. But my questions are simple. Why is the world allowing the prevalence of a situation where these girls are forced to be fighters? Why is the world allowing girls like Malala to be vulnerable to the Taliban? How can the world lay claim to devoting a “Day” for Girls across the world, when girls like Malala continue to feel the pinch of their lives under disastrous social, political and cultural conditions?

Imagine a scenario where a child is made to choose between losing a limb and redeeming themselves for their “wrongdoing” by becoming a suicide bomber. Imagine a scenario where a girl puts her life on the line if she wants to go to school. Imagine a life where this is the reality. And then walk a mile in those children’s shoes. Afghanistan’s girls hope for a better future as threats of prostitution, domestic violence and a deprivation of basic rights such as education bound them tightly, as if in a leash. These girls don’t need op-ed pieces about their heroism, or their bravery. They need action. And they need it now.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

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