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Seema Jilani Headshot

Virginia Woolf's Spirit Lives in Afghanistan

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I am convinced that Virginia Woolf must have traveled through Afghanistan. "For most of history, 'Anonymous' was a woman," she once penned. Women in Afghanistan remain an anonymous sector of society today. They are the enduring, courageous force that continues to prop up men, writhing in a silent, but strained existence. This is not about the burqa; the hem of one's skirt does not dictate the degree to which a woman is liberated. And let's put aside the picture of a nose-less and earless woman on the cover of Time Magazine, for it is quite simply enshrouded in emotional blackmail.

Women are brutalized throughout the world, and the U.S. feels no obligation to invade Saudi Arabia, whose human rights track record on women is just as appalling. The Time Magazine cover is reminiscent of the infamous words of U.S. Army Major after the destruction of the Vietnamese village, Ben Tre, during the Tet Offensive: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

So instead of politicizing the most vulnerable population in Afghanistan and making them a poster child for why a prolonged military occupation of the country is warranted, let us simply listen to their stories.

On August 1, 2010, both women and men took to the streets of Kabul to protest the ongoing military occupation of the country. This came in response to an increasing civilian death toll at the hands of NATO and U.S. military operations in the Helmand province. While meeting with a self-proclaimed Afghan feminist man, (a rarity), he noted that under the Taliban regime, women were indeed oppressed. However, now, not only do they remain oppressed, but they are fast becoming widows and burying their children as well.

One of the women I work with at CURE International Hospital, Ms. G, expressed that the "liberation" of women in Afghanistan is a much more complex issue than most understand it to be; she is not just battling the Taliban, but she is taking on a mentality that has prevailed here since before the Taliban's existence. The repression of women has tribal roots that far outdate the Taliban ideology, particularly in rural Afghanistan. This is not Islam, she proclaims, but a mutilated distortion of the faith that has been altered in order to allow men to keep women subjugated. She is thrilled that here at CURE International Hospital, women are treated as equals and was happy to learn that I gave a lecture to a packed room of male doctors. Ms. G is fluent in three languages and her eyes dance at the thought of just learning to drive some day.

We discuss how, at the time of its inception, Islam was a progressive faith that allowed divorce and ensured women's property and voting rights. One of the most respected women in Islam, Ayesha, participated in the Battle of Uhud and of Badr, both monumentally important battles in the history of Islam. Now, several centuries later, in total contradiction to Islamic law, women are a marginalized part of Afghan society.

But I still maintain that Virginia Woolf must have been here. She was probably visiting a hospital in Afghanistan when she wrote, "As a woman I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world." Women walk into my clinic, carrying their family burdens in their eyes, and their children in their arms, children who are on death's door. The priorities of women here clearly do not include armies or politics. Like every other mother in the world, they just care about their children. Many do not profess an alliance to the Taliban or to any other political regime. They only profess absolute and unconditional love and adoration for their children. This begs the question: if women had stations in society such as generals and presidents, would violence would still be used as a means to solve conflicts?

One of my patient's mothers waddled into my clinic, adorning a sapphire burqa and holding her neuro-developmentally delayed and severely malnourished child. I was surprised to learn that she was fluent in four languages and understood a great deal of medical jargon. She explained to me that she was a medical student prior to the Taliban's rise. She went to Peshawar to complete her studies, which she was unable to do due to political instability. Now her story is the same as many Afghan women: she cares for her five children at home. Her story is a testament to the resolve of women in this region and a testament to the fact that Virginia Woolf was right again: "Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul."

The anonymity of women in this society must change, but not at the cost of rendering them childless widows. The question we must ask ourselves, as an occupying force, is whether our presence in this country will harm or hurt this segment of the population, not whether we can use women as an excuse for an ongoing military assault of Afghanistan.