* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
By coincidence, as the news was breaking last week about the death of Osama bin Laden, I was reading a book that described in vivid detail the violence, the fear and the hunger women and girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, endured during the time when the Taliban was in complete control.
“The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” by Gayle Tzemach Lemon, details how a family of five daughters and four nephews survived from 1996 to 2001 through starting a tailoring business hidden behind the gate of their homes, with only one brave sister and younger brother traveling to the bazaars to make the sales and delivering the orders. The sister could have been imprisoned or worse if she were observed talking to any man who was not a relative.
Fast forward ten years, Many women and men in the U.S. responded with unalloyed joy at the news of bin Laden’s death and the taste of revenge flavored each sentence uttered.
The women of Kabul reacted to bin Laden’s death with a very different range of emotions and questions. As Women’s eNews editor Corinna Barnard reported, a letter sent to Women’s eNews from the Women for Afghan Women headquarters in Kabul revealed profound uncertainty about what bin Laden’s death might mean for them.
"We simply cannot know whether the death of bin Laden is or is not good for the Afghan people, but we are worried about what will happen next," Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, wrote to her supporters on May 2. "Will al-Qaeda and the Taliban be weakened? Will negotiations with the Taliban be stepped up? Will this decade-long chapter in Afghanistan's history end with the foreign troops hastening away?”
I have similar questions about the safety of women in the New York and the rest of the nation. I will never forget the terror of September 11 and the days after, riddled with bomb scares, anthrax attacks and the drone of fighter planes overhead. Or watching the horror of the attacks in Washington and on the plane that exploded over Pennsylvania.
I am fortunate in the I did not lose anyone close to me that day, but I will always be haunted by the images of the missing, plastered on every lamppost and wall wherever one looked. Yet, I too wonder whether his death will incite more terrorist attacks or was his leadership essential to the planning? And will the extraordinary misogyny that characterized bin Laden’s leadership abate in any way?
In her letter, Naderi described an eerie quiet in Kabul and said she had told her staff to “lie low” and not to travel for the next several days.
These instructions could be torn from the pages of The Dressmaker. As Naderi’s letter makes clear, that far too little has been accomplished to change the lives of women in Afghanistan.
“They still live in a country that is ravaged by poverty, corruption, violence and terror. They still must cope with a conservative culture that does not uphold their human rights," Naderi wrote.
Illustrating the significance of her words, Save the Children issued its annual report Mother’s Day report on maternal mortality and Afghanistan still has the highest rate of any nation of mothers dying as they give birth.
Women’s eNews offices are near where the World Trade Towers once stood and after bin Laden’s death, the surrounding streets were far from empty. They were jammed with people who were touched by the event: first responders, news trucks, police, photographers, tourists and perhaps survivors and families, friends of those who died and, of course, President Obama.
As I passed through the crowd, I felt an eerie disquiet. The U.S. is far from ravaged, and there is no fair comparison to the lives of American women and the women of Afghanistan, living under the domination of tribal and religious law. However, here in the U.S., women’s poverty is growing, corruption is too common as is violence against women. Women in the U.S. are also living with a conservative culture that elected members of congress, governors and many state legislatures intent on eliminating access to abortion and contraception. Meanwhile, the U.S. maternal mortality rate remains the highest among developed nations.
I could not help but entertain the questions similar to those of the Afghan women: Will bin Laden’s death make women of the U.S. more secure? Or will it further embolden those driven by their religious beliefs to limit our autonomy and basic freedoms. Will we too have to lie low in the near future?