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Afghan Girls Are Being Poisoned in Their Schools. Or Maybe They’re Just Hysterical.

May 23, 2010

Women DeliverThis post is part of a series leading up to the Women Deliver conference (www.womendeliver.org), a global meeting on maternal and reproductive health and the advancement of women and girls.

Over the past two months, over 100 Afghan girls have fallen ill after suspected gas attacks in at least five girls’ schools. The victims suffered headaches, vomiting, and fainting, but luckily all recovered. These attacks are sadly not new or surprising—100 girls were hospitalized after an incident in one school last year. I was quite taken aback though by this April 25 report from the Associated Press:

Dozens of Afghan schoolgirls have fallen ill in recent days after reporting a strange odor in their classrooms in northern Afghanistan, prompting an investigation into whether they were targeted by militants who oppose education for girls or victims of mass hysteria.

“Mass hysteria” set off my ‘sexist BS’ alarm. REALLY? I thought. Didn’t the notion of female hysteria go out of fashion with Freud? Are people really trying to explain away these incidents as a purely psychological phenomenon?

Once my brain recovered from its initial shock, I knew I needed to investigate whether there is any scientific validity to the idea of mass hysteria—and I discovered that there is. However, despite the apparent lack of physical evidence tying a perpetrator to these incidents, there are a lot of reasons to believe the activists and officials who are saying the incidents are gas poisonings carried out by the Taliban or other extremists.

Victims of these incidents reported that they smelled something sweet before seeing their peers fall ill and then falling ill themselves. A few students at the most recent school attacks say they saw men standing near their schools before the girls became ill, and one student reported seeing a man throw a bottle that released a fume toward the school. Blood tests on girls who were hospitalized have not yielded any answers, and if authorities have any other evidence explaining just what happened, they aren’t saying.

Afghan girls in hospital

Afghan girls hospitalized / Reuters

In fact, Afghan authorities can’t agree what or who they should blame for the girls’ illness, according to this Agence France Presse story. The education ministry blamed one incident on a gas leak and said another was “more likely to be a case of mass hypochondria,” a statement to which a “Western military official” concurred.  On the other hand, the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai released a strongly worded statement—perhaps not incidentally while Karzai was meeting with President Obama—condemning the incidents as gas attacks.

“Dozens of girl students were admitted to hospital Tuesday after they fell ill by inhaling poisonous substance sprayed in their school in Kunduz,” the statement said.

“The president called the action inhuman, whose perpetrators want to keep Afghans uneducated and can not see Afghanistan prosper,” it said, adding that he had ordered “full medical care” for the stricken students.

For its part, the Taliban is denying involvement in the attacks. Of course, the organization’s distaste for girls’ education is no secret, as it banned schooling for girls during its 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan. Many girls’ schools in Taliban-controlled areas of the country remain closed today. And the Taliban has been known to terrorize schoolgirls in another way, by spraying acid into their faces.

The likely motive for these attacks is clear. Kabul human rights activist Orzala Ashraf and Women for Afghan Women leader Manizha Naderi tell The Daily Beast that denying women education—in this case, by scaring parents into keeping their girls home from school—is a tactic used by extremists to maintain power.

Education, say Naderi and Ashraf, is guaranteed under Islam. Politics and power are really the issue for those who would attack girls in their schools.

“I think they are scared of the power that women could have once they are educated, so they want to keep half the population on its knees,” Naderi says. “They don’t know what is going to happen if masses of women and girls are educated; they don’t want to lose control.”

Afghan women’s rights organization Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is pointing out that it’s not just the Taliban who have an interest in denying girls’ education. In some communities, education for girls is seen as unnecessary at best and a downright affront to social mores at worst.

The broader implications of these sorts of attacks underscore the challenges Afghanistan’s girls face even if the Taliban are defeated.

The root of the problem lies not in any one militant group, but in a broader and persistent aversion to girls’ education among some segments of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the vast majority of the Taliban. Culturally, the Taliban’s rigid interpretation of Islam, including the banning of education for girls, is part and parcel of Pashtun society.

“There is no way around it,” says Bashir Khan, a businessman in Kabul who counts himself among the staunchly anti-Taliban Pashtuns. “In Pashtun culture, a woman’s place is in the home. Even some of the most educated Pashtuns believe this. I’m willing to let my daughters go to school but only to a point, maybe until they are 11 or 12 years old. After that, why do they need an education? Their life will be in the home.”

[…]Some Afghans, and a growing cadre of Western NGO workers, are gradually coming to accept the reality that improving women’s rights will take generations in a country like Afghanistan. And that forcing Pashtun culture to change too quickly could be disastrous.

RAWA’s analysis underscores the importance of examining the larger cultural context of these attacks, rather than laying all the blame on the Taliban and saying that things will improve once they are defeated (which America loves to say). Hopefully the Afghan government will step up to prevent these attacks from occurring again. But in the meantime, the question remains of whether it’s possible to reconcile girls’ access to education with a culture that maintains rigid gender roles.

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