Afghanistan: A Question of Freedom

"You can't go back and you can't stand still,
If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will."

-Grateful Dead

I was recently asked how I, as a journalist, would cover what’s happening in Afghanistan.  The truth is that I really have no business providing any real commentary on the situation. Not professionally, anyways. I lack the thorough knowledge and expertise required to even begin to properly dissect this complicated conflict and region.

But what I do understand very clearly is the human impact.

Namely, the idea that over the past 20 years, some individuals in the region have begun to enjoy a freer existence. Some women, in particular, were able to study, work, and not have to cover their face to the point of disappearance. For younger women, perhaps this is even all they’ve ever known—this degree of freedom. And now they must submit to Sharia laws and shed their freedoms and identities. Overnight.

I can’t help but think of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.  When Hulu’s TV series by the same name came out, many have opted to make references to Republicans and Trump’s reign in America.  The truth, however, is that the novel was published in 1985 and depicted a dystopian patriarchal, totalitarian state that was inspired by the darkest of real-life events like the brutal Communist reign of Ceaușescu in Romania, Nazi Germany, Ayatollah Khomeini’s slaughterhouse, the jails of Iran, the criminalization of homosexuality, and the prisoners in the Soviet Union who were forced to do manual labor in uranium mines. The Republic of Gilead wasn’t some far-fetched world born in the crazed mind of a Canadian writer, it was plucked from actual headlines. It was a reflection of our own world. The uncomfortable truth is that some version of Gilead still exists in many parts of the world.

But the most brutal part of Atwood’s tale was the facts that Gilead’s regime took free humans and stripped them of their freedom and dignity.

When one does not know freedom, it is easier to live in shackles.

And, in many ways, this is the situation that those Afghans who have enjoyed these liberties are facing now.

If you take a child who has only known abuse all their life, and you give that child a safe and loving home for years—the child changes. The child learns to trust. And then, if that very same home turns on him, the resulting psychological scar is beyond description. The child can never feel safe again.

A human who gets a taste of what it’s like to be able to speak freely, to think freely, to learn…those are all things that become precious to that human.

Before that, the life they’ve lived, is the life they've known. It's easier to stay in a bad situation, if you've never experienced a good one. It becomes much harder, once you've experienced true freedom or at least a degree of freedom, as the case might be in Afghanistan. It becomes much more debilitating to realize that the life you’ve grown to believe in, is gone in an instant.  

Now, I’m not saying that with the U.S. occupation life in Afghanistan was perfect.  I’m not so naïve to believe that. All I’m saying is that some people were able to experience a degree of freedom that they were unable to before. And when the American troops pulled out and the Taliban took over, no matter how much they claimed to be this new and improved Taliban in their public relations efforts, the people knew that the freedoms they've come to appreciate had vanished.

It may well be that not everyone had appreciated and embraced these freedoms. Many haven’t even gotten a chance to experience them—but one should have the choice.

Seeing the Taliban take over so quickly and easily, there’s no doubt that it broke some people. Just think of the desperate Afghans crowding the airport base to try and escape. Or worse, clinging to an airplane as it takes off.

Many, now, have to adjust to their new reality. Women scrambled to buy a burqa as prices surged tenfold. Male chaperones are required should they want to leave home. Advertisements featuring women were quickly painted over to remove any lingering trace of freedom or their presence. 

Some women, despite odds, have managed to become politicians, to serve in Parliament. Now they are left wondering, will there even be a parliament? Will there be a political system? And, critically, will they get to live?

Has the world abandoned Afghans? Will things return to the Dark Ages? Is there hope?

There are many questions and far fewer answers. The situation is highly unpredictable.

Some refuse to abandon hope, whereas others only see despair and darkness ahead. I can't imagine quite how that must feel. But I know that this is a brutal, brutal attack on the humanity of the individual, particularly women. But it’s not just about women. It is an attack on the sovereignty and spirit of individuals who have found themselves freer than before and are now asked to crawl back into the box.

Will they have a choice?

Disclaimer: You may have noticed I’ve taken a brief hiatus. I’ve recently undergone an eye procedure and it has taken me some time to be able to look at screens again. I’m still not at 100%, so this story was partially typed, partially dictated. Please forgive any mistakes or character flaws.

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