The XX Factor

Can Schools Alone Help the Women of Afghanistan?

Time magazine’s cover for the week of Aug. 9 shows a young woman, Aisha, who had her ears and nose cut off by the Taliban for fleeing an abusive husband. Time managing editor Richard Stengal says Aisha “wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years.” No Westerner, seeing this picture, could want anything but to promote an Afghanistan in which this kind of abuse is unthinkable as it is to us. But although the goal seems obvious, the solution is anything but.

In the New York Times , Nicholas Kristoff points out that for the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for just one year, we could build 20 schools there; for the cost of one cruise missile, 11. We could build the schools, he suggests, without the soldiers, as CARE and Greg Mortenson (of Three Cups of Tea ) have done. Those organizations have built 445 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan between them, and say not one has been attacked by the Taliban. Such schools, argues Kristoff, will do more to promote peace in Afghanistan than the troops who are already there.

It’s as appealing an argument as the Time cover is a disturbing image. Schools sound better than missiles. Schools, in the long run, will surely go farther towards creating a new generation of Afghan people who don’t condone, accept, or promote the sort of violence inflicted by the Taliban on Aisha. But to survive without troops, the schools must be built and run with “respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them.” I think we have to question whether we can get tribal elder buy-in for the kind of schools that support young women without the troops. In the long run, I believe in the power of education to promote peace in the region, but Time is right to raise the issue of what happens to young women like Aisha in the short run. As Americans and Afghans struggle towards some resolution of our presence in their country, it’s going to be important (and difficult) to consider both.

Photograph of Afghan students by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images.