To be sure, a lot of well-meaning Westerners and courageous Afghans have worked very hard to improve women’s conditions, and there has been some headway as far as women’s rights are concerned. The number of girls signed up for school rose from just 5,000 before the U.S.-led invasion to 2.2 million. In Kabul and a handful of other cities, some women have swapped their polyester burqas for headscarves. Some even have taken jobs outside their homes. But here, too, progress has been uneven. A fifth of the girls enrolled in school never attend classes, and most of the rest drop out after fourth grade. Few Afghan parents prioritize education for their daughters because few Afghan women participate in the country’s feudal economy, and because Afghan society, by and large, does not welcome education for girls or emancipation of women. To get an idea about what the general Afghan public thinks of emancipation, consider this: the post-2001 neologism “khanum free” — “free woman,” with the adjective transliterated from the English — means “a loose woman,” “a prostitute.” In villages, women almost never appear barefaced in front of strangers.
Doffing their burqas is the least of these women’s worry. Their real problem is the intangible and seemingly irremovable shroud of endless violence. It stunts infrastructure and perpetuates insecurity and fear. It deprives women of the basic human rights we take for granted: to have enough food and drinking water that doesn’t fester with disease; to see all of their children live past the age of five. The absence of basic necessities and the violence that has concussed Afghanistan almost continuously since the beginning of recorded history are the main reasons the country has the fifth-lowest life expectancy in the world. The war Westerners often claim to be fighting in the name of Afghan women instead helps prolong their hardship — with little or no compensation. And now, as the deadline for the international troop pullout approaches, the country is spinning toward a full-blown civil war.