Monday, January 26, 2009

Education, Bravery and the Hideousness of Fanaticism.

Several news outlets are revisiting the heinous acts that occurred back in November when 15 Afghani schoolgirls and their female teachers were viciously attacked by men on motorcycles in Kandahar.

One morning two months ago, Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question.

"Are you going to school?"

The men squirted the acid from water bottles onto three groups of females and was meant to terrorize them into staying home. An attempt to expunge any element of free will in their minds, to literally burn or sear obedience into them. These despicable acts are an apt expression of the medieval thinking that characterized the rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 in Afghanistan and in which times girls were banned from schools.

For a few days after the attacks, parents kept their children away from the 5 year old Mirwais School for Girls built by the Japanese government. Then the headmaster, Mahmood Qadari - a man - reached out to the parents, and promised them greater police protection. "If you don't send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins," Qadari told the New York Times. "I told them not to give in to darkness. Education is the way to improve our society."

And then an amazing thing happened, they began to come back. Today most of the school's 1,300 girls, including nearly all of the wounded ones, have refused to be cowed. "My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed," Shamsia, 17, told The Times. "The people who did this to me don't want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things."  The girls' have learned to be brave -- and are providing an inspirational lesson in defiance.

Eduction is integral to any constructive future Afghanistan might have. Of the 5.7 million students enrolled last year, according to Afghan government data, 35% are girls. About 800,000 of the total were new students, and 40% of them are girls. The high schools graduated 69,000 students, of whom 25% are girls.

During Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing last Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, of California, said "no woman or girl should have to grow up and face persecution for having being born female", and referred to acid attacks common against women in Pakistan. Clinton said the issue is "central to our foreign policy."

"It is heartbreaking beyond words that, you know, young girls are attacked on their way to school by Taliban sympathizers and members who do not want young women to be educated." Clinton responded, "This is not culture. This is not custom. This is criminal. And it will be my hope to persuade more government ... that we cannot have a free, prosperous, peaceful, progressive world if women are treated in such a discriminatory and violent way."

Some people disfigure little girls because of religious fanaticism. Some people deny Israel the right to exist because of religious fanaticism. Some people deny Palestinians the right to sovereignty because of religious fanaticism. Some people deny women the right to abortions because of religious fanaticism. Some people deny gay people the right to marry because of religious fanaticism.

In my humble opinion, the world could do without religious fanatics.

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