History's Forgotten

  • National Newswatch

In its own way, it was gut-wrenching.  The war in Afghanistan was at its height. As part of the Status of Women Committee in Parliament, we were given the opportunity to hear and deepen our understanding of the plight of women in that conflicted land.  As a member of Parliament for a few years, I'd received a rapid education on the condition of the war and its effects on Afghan civilians.  The year was 2008, and at that point, everything about the Afghan conflict was getting confusing.Over three meetings, the committee entertained  Afghan women leaders.  We knew they were coming to ask for more support for education and leadership, but we didn't expect what came next.“Will you remain among us?” the most senior spokeswoman asked.  Prompted to continue, she added, “When you first came into Afghanistan, you asked for leaders from all communities to come forward and support the Western coalition.  As women concerned for our families and communities, we saw this as our best opportunity to fight for the ideals we have always held regarding women's leadership and education. So, we came out publicly to support your coalition.  Now we are hearing that Canada might not extend its mission in our country past this year.  Is this so?”For the next ten minutes, she and others spoke of how any Western pullout would mean that they would be singled out and punished for working with Canada by the remaining Taliban leaders.  The Canadian government had invested millions in aid projects over recent years, primarily to empower women and girls, hoping they would be the future leaders of a peaceful country.  It was a Canadian ideal and this country had shed blood to give such aspirations a fighting chance.Over time, the costs for humanitarian and military components for the Afghan mission proved a heavy burden, and, inevitably, decisions were made by coalition partners to phase out their operations.  Public support for what was Canada's longest war eventually declined, and we pulled out in 2014.But what of those remarkable Afghan women?  To survive and function under Taliban leadership must have been a challenging prospect, but now it has gotten much worse since the power fell into Taliban hands.Despite promises from the Taliban leadership following America's final pullout from the country, the opposite has occurred, as most observers had predicted.  Taliban leaders recently mandated a ban on university education for Afghan women.  This happened just three months after thousands of women took university entrance exams.  The ministry letter left no room for exceptions.  “You all are informed to implement the mentioned order of suspending the education of females until further notice.”   Few believe the order will be rescinded.One tearful 23-year-old political science student told Al Jazeera, “My heart has been bleeding since I heard the words.”  A female professor noted, “They have now killed the future of my students.”  Actions had already been taken against female students attending high school, with the majority being banned from further class attendance.A distinction needs to be drawn between the extremism of the Taliban and the broader level of civic-mindedness that characterizes many Afghan leaders who don't subscribe to such measures.  But for them to speak up is to invite prison terms or worse.So, for coalition countries like Canada, America, Britain, and the rest, such news inevitably brings them back to the promises made to women leaders in the country over a decade ago.  Pledges to protect and maintain advances gained now ring hollow.  Most women can't get government jobs, qualified though they are.  They can't travel without a male relative.  And in November, they were banned from walking in parks, fairs, gymnasiums, and other public places.We must be honest and ask ourselves why we largely remain silent as citizens and governments over such measures.  The consciousness of feminism in the West has been significantly elevated, and certain legislation has been passed to enhance that understanding.  The women of Afghanistan are fighting the same battles but in far more sinister circumstances.Afghanistan is hardly unknown to us in the West.  We invested hundreds of billions of dollars to partly advance the rights of women.  We helped plan and fund universities and high schools, even bringing some qualified women to Western countries to be educated in the nuances of diplomacy and leadership.  And most significant of all, coalition nations lost enough of their own soldiers in Afghanistan to understand the price paid for defending freedom.This is a brutal lesson for democracies everywhere, including Canada.  Afghanistan's women heroes from only a few years ago are now history's forgotten.  The West's ideals remain strong, but what is missing is our willingness to stick to those vaunted ideals when we inevitably lose interest.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.