Carolina Friends School hosted a discussion Thursday about girls' education in Afghanistan that included differing opinions on U.S. involvement, hope, frustration and progress in the war-torn country.
Panelists at the private Quaker school event were Fahima Vorgetts, founder of the Afghan Women's Fund, and Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University. Via Skype from Kabul, Afghanistan, Hassina Sherjan also joined the discussion, which was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Carolina Friends' Afghan Sister Schools Partnership. Sherjan is the founder of Aid Afghanistan for Education. She left Afghanistan as a refugee in 1979 and returned in 1999 to open underground schools for girls, then returned again to build schools in 2003.
Vorgetts, who grew up in Afghanistan, said the Afghan Women's Fund believes in empowerment of women and is all-volunteer. They build clinics and schools. Education and self-sufficiency are key to empowerment, she said.
Vorgetts talked about the Taliban oppression of women in Afghanistan, and seeing a professor during a 2002 visit who had to sell everything in her home for food.
"One of the biggest problems girls face is when they go to school, families can't afford school supplies," she said, or they give supplies to boys instead. So the Afghan Women's Fund also gives school supplies. Having a school building is also vital because outdoor schools don't have security, she said.
"We always need help. We always need support," she said. Vorgetts said the fund raises money from speaking engagements, donations and selling crafts and jewelry made by the women.
Antepli, who grew up in Turkey, talked about the current reality of Afghanistan not reflecting the nobility and quality of its people and history. He said the destruction of the country is a collective failure, including U.S. involvement. During a visit a few years ago, he said it was painful to see the religion he loves – Islam – "become the source of something I couldn't even recognize."
Sherjan, whose voice was heard via computer, said that Aid Afghanistan for Education supports 13 schools in nine provinces, with thousands of students. It was funded by the Danish government and then USAID, however, funding has just been cut and she doesn't know what will happen. They need a long-term plan and partner, she said, and the Afghan government is not ready to include the schools in its system.
Vorgetts talked about the deterioration of women's rights over the past 30 years and said she was frustrated by the U.S. policy in the 1980s, when the U.S. aided the mujahedeen during its war against the Soviet Union, and U.S. support of the President Hamid Karzai government today. Religious fanaticism is pulling the country down, she said. Vorgetts doesn't think the U.S. will leave Afghanistan.
Sherjan said talking about what will happen when the U.S. plans to leave in 2014 is a distraction, and that life will go on.
"I'm very optimistic. If I wasn't optimistic, I wouldn't be living here," Sherjan said. Educating boys and men as well as girls and women will improve the lives of women, too, she said.
"The real work, if we want Afghanistan to stand on its own feet, is education and economic opportunities," she said. "I think the insurgency will die down if we focus on what we need to do for ourselves to stand on our own feet. I also don't think it's all the fault of other countries and Americans – we need to take responsibility," Sherjan said.
Sherjan said Afghans need strong people to lead their country. It won't happen in 2014, she said, but probably in 10 to 15 years.
In the audience was retired Ambassador David Litt, who spent his career as a U.S. diplomat. In response to comments by Vorgetts and Antepli, Litt said he heard talk of American imperialism, bitterness toward the U.S. military and conspiracy theories of corporate interests driving policy. Many people who go to work in Afghanistan under the U.S. government work there because they believe it is the right thing to do, he said, and talk of the U.S. being imperialist hurts him.
Vorgetts said she has disappointment in U.S. government policy, not its people. Antepli said ordinary people need to confront "fat cats" and be part of a bigger movement.
Sherjan said it's about taking responsibility and not waiting for the government to save the world.
"People save the world," she said. "I don't think we can have democracy without education."
Discussion moderator Philip Gary, CFS teacher and director for cultural mindfulness, said that CFS can have discussions like this because "the Friends ship sails in turbulent times."