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Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.
Last spring the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy article by Eliza Griswold titled “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry.” It comes to mind now because during the recent vice-presidential debate both incumbent Joseph Biden and challenger Paul Ryan agreed our armed forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014.
They disagreed, however, on the character of the withdrawal. Biden asserted 2014 was the year, period. Ryan said the withdrawal should be predicated on the best advice of our military commanders, in order not to surrender such gains as we have made.
The most important of these gains have been and will continue to be cultural, and their most immediate beneficiaries have been and should continue to be women. Afghan women have been brutalized not only under the extremism of the Taliban but also under their quotidian abuse in the more “moderate” Islamic culture.
Griswold tells the story of the Mirman Baheer, a woman’s literary society in Kabul, which has a call-in radio program. Women poets telephone the station and read their works over the air. Many do so anonymously, fearing punishment by husbands or male relatives.
The works of one woman were discovered by her brothers, who beat her and destroyed her writings. Having lost her creations – and an essential part of herself, her creative outlet – she committed suicide by immolation.
Such a tragedy renders arguments for and against “nation building” academic. We have provided Afghan women more hope and change than could be achieved in the United States, where we take freedom of expression for granted. Yanking away their tenuous advances through a precipitous withdrawal would be cruel in the extreme. Just look across the border into Pakistan and learn how the Taliban have “moderated.” They boast of shooting a 14-year-old because her crusade for women’s education was too “western.”
Let me advance the proposition that a cultural surrender would make our military sacrifices not only meaningless, but strategically vacant as well, because Afghanistan again will be dominated once again by armed ignorance. If that occurs, let us then at least recite with guilt this little poem:
Apology to Afghan Women
Oh women, tell what you will do
when light is gone again
that sent at least pale beams into
the shadows cast by men.
Our soldiers have restrained the past,
but we must call them back.
We must abandon you at last
to lives of pain and lack.
Oh women, tell what you will do.
We’ll hide bright eyes behind the screen
of burqa close and hot;
take care our ankles are not seen,
as ever was our lot.
And we’ll be beaten by our spouse
and kept away from school,
and tend the fire within our house
where ancient strictures rule.
“But there is solace to be caught
in losing beauties you have brought:
red ribbons of the tracer round,
starbursts of bombs upon the ground,
the brass that fountains from the gun,
the death of husband, brother, son.
We cannot more our valor prove,
but leave you with your elder fears.
Try as we might we can’t remove
the weight of thirteen hundred years.
This day we leave you, as we must,
and by departing anchor you
to this benighted dust.
Oh women, tell what you will do.
Our eyes will weep behind their screen,
and try to glimpse with furtive looks
the world outside that might have been,
of freedom, music and of books.
We’ll try to keep a secret voice,
compose our verses in the dark,
so customs that extinguish choice
can’t smother the creative spark.
But if our writings should be seen,
so kin obliterate our names,
we’ll bathe ourselves in gasoline
and write our epitaph in flames.
Oh women, our own eyes are wet,
as we leave you with regret
that benefits we leave are few.
Tell us no more what you will do.