About 150 schoolgirls were sickened on Tuesday after their drinking water was tampered with.
Lisa Mullins talks with journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon about the challenges for education for girls in Afghanistan, and the larger issues surrounding women’s rights there.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Today, about 150 girls became ill at a school in northern Afghanistan. Officials say the school’s water supply was poisoned by conservative radicals. This isn’t the first such attack. Journalist Gayle Lemmon has covered women’s issues in Afghanistan for many years now. She says despite progress, there’s still a lot of opposition in the country to the idea of educating girls.
Gayle Lemmon: There is a very strong element of conservatives who would like to keep just as they were and who are fairly sympathetic to the Taliban and to other anti-government forces, whether they’re directly involved with them or not, and in their view, conservative Islamic principles say that girls should not be educated.
Mullins: One would think that the blame would generally be put on the Taliban, but the Taliban has, at least from what we’re told, dropped its opposition to women being educated and officials today are blaming this latest attack on conservative radicals. How do you hear that blame?
Lemmon: There are any number of forces in Afghanistan who are opposed to girls’ education, and there are a lot of groups that constitute this insurgency and anti-government forces, and to be honest, nobody ever really knows who they’re dealing with. They have good intelligence on occasion as to which of the groups it is, but there are a lot of conservative forces that have been gaining ground, particularly as talk of peace deals with the Taliban get closer and closer, and the question is, you know, whether Karzai will move more toward the conservative side, as it looks more and more likely that conservative forces will emerge.
Mullins: Does President Karzai have Afghanistan have a stake in women being educated or uneducated there?
Lemmon: He is walking a very fine line. He has made a lot of moves towards women’s rights in favor of girls’ education and women’s ability to work, contribute as entrepreneurs, as Parliamentarians and civil society leaders, all of which they’re doing now in pretty significant numbers, but is is also, like everybody in power would like to stay in power, and so he is trying to walk this fine line between conservative forces who are increasingly gaining ground, and his desire to please his largely western donors who want to hear more about women’s rights.
Mullins: But that suggests that sentiment against girls being educated is widespread. Is that gaining ground?
Lemmon: I don’t think so among the public. I mean if you look at public polling, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to fathers and mothers in different parts of the country, they want their girls to be educated and I’ll tell you, even in Kandahar City, even in northeastern provinces that don’t get a lot of visits from NGO’s, these girls are really hungry for education.
Mullins: Have they been able to go to school over the past 10 years since the U.S. went in?
Lemmon: Yeah, well you have nearly 3 million girls in school in Afghanistan and thousands of girls who have graduated from university since 2001.
Mullins: You mean…, since 2001. They wouldn’t have been able to before?
Lemmon: Not under the Taliban for certain. I mean they came in in 1996 and immediately closed girls’ schools.
Mullins: So do the attacks have any effect? Do they do what the perpetrators intend them to do and that is dissuade girls from coming back?
Lemmon: They scare people. They frighten families who already are worried about security, and right now, security is the question hanging over everything in Afghanistan. No one knows what 2014 means, will civil war return, and so what it does is just multiply the uncertainty, but if you talk to the girls, they are ready to go back to school and they fight to go back to school.
Mullins: You mentioned 2014, talking about the exodus of American troops. In the bigger context, the United States has been pushing the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan. It did so when it first went into Afghanistan when it sent troops there. Now that Americans are eager to get out of Afghanistan, is the issue of Afghanistan’s women still on Washington’s agenda?
Lemmon: I have a piece on foreign policy today about how, you know, a lot of people talked about women on the way into Afghanistan, and now the folks who were talking about it on the way out are waging a very lonely battle to get Americans to care. You know, now two-thirds of the country in the latest polling is saying that they don’t want to keep fighting this war and they are really running up against this battle to keep Americans involved and engaged on an issue that they really believe matters at a time when everybody just wants to go home.
Mullins: Journalist Gayle Lemmon is author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana”‘ a book about the experience of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Very nice to talk to you.
Lemmon: A pleasure to join you.
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