By: Dame Frances Cairncross
Dear Afghan sisters history has not been kind to you. You have had a few heroines in the past, and most of them succeeded in life by marrying the right man. Nur Jahan did good work, but had the advantage of a powerful husband.
Generally speaking, women who rise to prominence in Afghanistan have done so because they have enjoyed thoughtful and supportive husbands.
But Afghanistan is a country that has long been ambivalent about female employment or simply – as now – deeply hostile. So now, you are locked up again, as so often before, after a brief and tempting moment of freedom to study, work and travel as you wish.
Once again, your daughters are shut out of school – and schools are bombed. Once again, you worry that hardship and famine may bring the most bitter result for any mother: selling a young daughter into a marriage with someone she would never have chosen for herself in a million years. In treating you so scornfully, so humiliatingly, the men who inflict these insults are doing their country endless harm.
These men frequently find it comforting to believe the old proverb that “a woman’s place is in the home”.
But to exclude half your adult population from education and from the workplace is madness. Most of your political masters must know this, even if they find it hard to accept.
Countries that have grown rich – the United States, China, Bangladesh for instance – have done so by accepting women’s education and by often actively encouraging women to join the workforce.
A second wage earners adds to a family’s income and therefore enhances its comfort and security. It makes sense to *invest* in women: not only do they hold up half the sky, as Mao Zedong wisely observed; they are the people most likely to educate the next generation.
Moreover, plenty of studies by respected international bodies such as the World Health Organization find that countries with high female employment have lower family poverty, better child health, higher general standards of education and higher rates of productivity.
The fastest way to make any country healthier and more prosperous is to ensure that women have a good education and the freedom to seek paid employment.
Your country is now led by people who are deeply persuaded that women should be kept out of sight and should stick to cooking, cleaning and raising children.
They do not understand that this strategy will impoverish their country. Their own families will lead more difficult and impoverished lives than they would have done if their wives had been educated and encouraged to work.
I myself have been extremely fortunate. My father grew up in Scotland, a country that allowed women to take degrees in its ancient universities some years before English universities began to give women a university education.
His four sisters were all offered the same education as he had and as his three brothers enjoyed. Two of his sisters, born in the early years of the 20th century, went on to go to university and to become teachers.
So my father grew up with the assumption that women could do as well as men, and should be educated as well as their brothers.
۱ My childhood and then my own career – as a senior journalist and as the head of a college at Oxford University – was built on these experiences of his youth.
My understanding of Islam is that prophet Mohammad taught the importance of education for both men and women.
The new leaders of Afghanistan also should take a good look at China. China’s population, now no longer rising, will be supported increasingly by educated female labour. To educate young women, and to allow them to work, is not an indulgence or heresy or a display of weakness.
It is simply good sense. My hope is that, once the rulers of Afghanistan understand how much their restraints on women and girls are harming their own economy and the prospect for lasting prosperity, they will understand that the course they are currently pursuing is in nobody’s long term interest.
A clever and well-educated woman can no longer take on a job currently done by a man with less intelligence or training. That possible humiliation for the country’s men has now gone.
But in its place, Afghanistan will find itself impoverished and damaged. The case for allowing women freedoms of education and employment is not a matter of philosophy or doctrine. It is a matter of economic survival and prosperity.
Afghans will suffer if that is ignored.
Dame Frances Cairncross, on the staff of The Economist 1984-2004; head of Exeter College, Oxford University 2004-12.
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