Lauryn Oates (Changent/Teacher)
I basically divide my life by the year 1996.
Many important things happened that year, including the arrest of the unibomber, the discovery that mad cow disease was transmittable to humans, a blizzard that killed 150 people in the US, the start of the fighting in Chechnya, Yasser Arafat was re-elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and…
the Taliban captured Kabul and subsequently become the de facto governors of Afghanistan.
Most importantly, I turned 14 years old in a suburb on the west coast of Canada.I started wearing blue eye shadow, tight pants and become a menacing specter of teenage subversion to my distraught parents, whose other offspring were perfectly well behaved angels.
I harped constantly about ‘rights’ and challenged authority at every turn. In an effort to channel my rage-cum-moral policing, one day that year my mom cut out a newspaper article and left it on my bed. I came home from school, picked it up and read it.
There was a black and white photo of an Afghan woman shrouded in a burqa, and an article beneath that described Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban, the brutal edicts they had imposed on Afghans, and the worst of their policies which were reserved for women and girls.
The twisted and nonsensical list of rules designed to control the behaviour of women, from women being banned from getting medical treatment from a male doctor to girls’ schools closing down across the country, were so outrageous that I had trouble believing the article was truthful. It didn’t help that I had never even heard of this place called Afghanistan; it made it all the harder to swallow that people there were strictly forbidden from getting “British or American hairstyles”, having “music and dances in wedding parties”, “kite flying”, or from “keeping pigeons and playing with birds”.
Everything from beard length to prayer time to clothing to where men and women should sit in vehicles was covered by the bizarre edicts dictated by the newly installed Taliban government. It was a stark contrast to my own life, in a sleepy coastal suburb, where every week I had a new life plan unrestrained by any notion that there were things I couldn’t do because I had been born a girl: I would invariably be a writer, teacher, doctor, actor, lawyer, architect or marine biologist.
I frequently complained when setting off to school every morning at 8:00am. It had never occurred to me that there was a place where it was illegal for girls to go to school.
Those who broke the rules suffered vicious punishments. Buried to their wastes in burqas, women accused of adultery or prostitution, were stoned to death in Kabul’s sports stadium in front of tens of thousands of unwilling spectators. Men, women and children were rounded up in the streets by whip-wielding Talibs, who shoved them into the stadium to witness the barbarism of murdering women for “moral crimes” like adultery or prostitution.
Another form of execution was to bulldoze a stone wall over a criminal, with the qualification that if he survived it, he could go free. No one ever survived. Thieves had their hands or feet cut off, their eyes gauged out, and the bodies of supposed criminals hung in the street to spread fear through the population. It worked. People were afraid. This is not the stuff of a bizarre science fiction movie. This was real life for the people of Afghanistan. But I could not believe that this was happening in the same world in which I lived.
That newspaper article turned my world upside down. I read it over and over, and each time, my rage grew. The only thing more shocking than what the Taliban were doing to the people of Afghanistan was that they were getting away with it. There was hardly any outcry.
One of the world’s worst human rights catastrophes, what some started calling “gender apartheid”, was just another news story in the back pages of the paper. The U.N. was saying very little.
Western governments were saying even less. And their publics hardly knew what was happening. And the women of Afghanistan were dying, literally. In my 14-year-old naivete, I kept wondering, isn’t there someone in charge who will stop this? How is this happening?
It happened for another five years. And thus started what my family came to call All Afghanistan All the Time, also known as, my life. In brief, I launched a petition demanding that the US, Canada and the UN stand up for the rights of Afghan women.
In the course of collecting signatures for this petition, I quickly learned about cultural relativism as I began confronting people refusing to sign it, claiming, “that’s their culture. It’s none of our business how they choose to treat their women.” It became a familiar refrain. It turned me into a lunatic of a human rights activist.
Fighting cultural relativism in the West and defending the universalism of human rights became the cause I embraced just as much as the human right to education in Afghanistan, by matter of necessity.
The two fights are inherently intertwined. When I am not in the field in Afghanistan, I am in Canada writing and speaking about the dangers of cultural relatism and the need for those of us who live in a privileged and free society to stop being afraid of offending others, and to speak out against fundamentalism, oppression and misogyny whether it comes from our own society or from another's.
Fifteen years have passed and I haven't stopped for a second. Today I channel my activism through the organization I first joined as a volunteer in 1998 when I founded their Vancouver Chapter, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan).
I work as Projects Director for CW4WAfghan, where I manage an in-service teacher training program and 12 other projects in Afghanistan, including village libraries, an orphanage, schools and training programs. By the end of 2010, CW4WAfghan had graduated over 1,600 teachers in Kabul province; and had put more than 50,000 girls in school. We've supported economic development by selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fair trade women-made Afghan products in Canada. We speak out against human rights abuses against women and have worked hard to see progressive Canadian policy to advance education and human rights in Afghanistan.
We have thousands of members and volunteers, 13 chapters across Canada, an affiliated group called the Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan, and have raised over $2 million to pay Afghan teachers' salaries. Every day, we see positive change in Afghanistan as a result of our work, most of which has occured from the accummulation of small donations from ordinary people and from diverse volunteers who stepped forward at some point, saying "I want to do something," and did.
In the course of researching my doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia, I've also been working with a group of teachers in northern Uganda to explore how information communication technology (ICT) can be used to create quality local language educational resources, which both bolsters learning outcomes in classrooms as well as helps preserve endangered small languages.
I am doing similar work in Afghanistan through the development of the first open educational resource (OER) collection in Afghan languages, the Darakht-e Danesh Online Library for Educators in Afghanistan (www.darakhtdanesh.org). In a country where few students have ever seen a textbook, and teachers work with little to no access to any kind of educational resources, this approach could radically improve the quality of education in Afghan schools. But I need support to make this happen.
I believe profoundly that a strong education system has the power to end wars. There is no greater place to invest resources that into education, if we wish to see security and peace finally come to Afghanistan. But education is still being marginalized in Afghanistan and the longer we fail to defend the right to read and the right to think, the more the hate-filled and deathcult ideology of the Taliban will spread. It's not up to someone else to stop this from happening: you are the someone else. Join me.
Lauryn Oates on Changents