Commentary: Shamsia's spirit an inspiration for Afghan girls

The Miami HeraldJanuary 29, 2009 

Shamsia was walking with her sister when a man on a motorcycle pulled abreast of them. "Are you going to school?" he asked.

She was. And this was, by definition, an incendiary act in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Taliban is making a comeback and posters on walls warn, "Don't Let Your Daughters Go to School."

What happened next was monstrous. As recounted Jan. 14 by The New York Times, the man lifted the girl's burqa, exposing her face. Then he sprayed it with acid. In all, 15 girls and their teachers at the Mirwais School For Girls were targeted by six men on three motorcycles in the November attacks.

Seventeen-year-old Shamsia Husseini got it the worst, according to The Times. She was left with jagged scars on her face, and her vision was damaged.

The next day, the school stood empty.

And there the tale might rest, the girls and their teachers maimed, the school closed and dark, a sad story with a moral that speaks to the power of brutish thuggery to crush the things we dream. Instead, it has become a story with a moral that speaks to something else.

Shamsia, you see, is back in school. So are the vast majority of the other girls. This, after the headmaster held a meeting with parents and begged them to let their daughters return. When that was only modestly successful, he got local officials to promise the school greater police protection, a bus to transport the girls and a footbridge across the busy road. None of it has materialized, but the girls came back anyway.

Shamsia told reporter Dexter Filkins, "My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed. The people who did this to me don't want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things."

A story for girls and women.

Not that anyone in this country throws acid on girls trying to go to school. To the contrary, the secretary of state is a woman as are the governors of Alaska, Kansas and several other states, as is the anchor of the CBS Evening News, as is the chairman of Harpo Productions, Inc.

So your response to what happened in Afghanistan is likely to be amazement but also, distance. Here, the oppression of women is seldom as immediate – or deadly – as in less developed places, where girls are sold to pimps by their families, sentenced to be stoned for adultery, splashed with acid for daring to learn. Here, we speak of "sexism," by which we mean the candidate who faced a double standard when she ran for office or the news anchor whose first-week reviews seemed to center on her legs or the athletes who were called names by the radio big mouth.

Which is not to diminish those things, but only to say they leave nobody maimed, they leave nobody dead.

But if there is a distance between what happened there and what happens here, it is just variations on a theme: the need to delimit the lives of women and girls, to say you may become this, but not that, go here, but not there, come this far, but no farther.

So this story for women and girls – and for men and boys who want the fullness of life for them – is offered as simple inspiration, a reminder to be defiant and courageous when others want them to be stupid things. The moral of the story could have been very different, after all. Shamsia could have hidden her scarred face at her home, could have folded down her personality and aspirations until she became the small, scared thing those vicious men tried to make her.

But the world those men knew is falling down around them. So instead, Shamsia went back to class. And each day, the school bustles with the activity of more girls than it was designed to hold.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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