By Laura W. Bush
Sunday, October 10, 2010; A19
The haunting portrait of a young, disfigured Afghan woman on Time magazine's cover this summer issued a stark reminder that the stakes in Afghanistan are high -- and that the consequences of failure are brutal, especially for women.
On Friday I met with Bibi Aisha in California, where, thanks to the compassion of many individuals and organizations, she is receiving reconstructive surgery and beginning the long road of healing. The visible scars of her disfigurement will heal with time, but moving beyond the emotional and psychological trauma of her torturous mutilation may be more difficult.
Bibi Aisha's story and the prevalence of intimidation and violence against Afghan women raise important questions for those working to establish this young democracy. Will Afghanistan embrace and protect the rights of all people? Or will it be a nation that allows the oppression of women to continue unabated?
These questions are central to the challenges confronting those who seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan today.
Nine years ago, many around the world learned of the severe repression and brutality against women that was common in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Girls were forbidden to attend school. Women were imprisoned in their homes and denied access to doctors when they were sick. And Afghanistan had the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.
Today there are encouraging signs of progress: More than 6.2 million students are enrolled in Afghanistan's schools, and 35 percent of them are girls. Afghan women serve as government ministers and lead as provincial governors. Women have been elected or appointed to the National Assembly. Afghan women work as entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers and community health workers. And their work is essential to the growth of the Afghan economy.
Yet serious challenges remain. A culture of fear still silences women. In many rural areas, those who dare to teach receive letters threatening not only their own lives but their children's as well. And though the Afghan constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats in parliament to female legislators, assassinations of prominent women have driven many from public life. Among those who remain, many are muted by fear.
Though some Afghan leaders have condemned the violence and defended the rights of women, others maintain a complicit silence in hopes of achieving peace. But peace attained by compromising the rights of half of the population will not last. Offenses against women erode security for all Afghans -- men and women. And a culture that tolerates injustice against one group of its people ultimately fails to respect and value all its citizens.
Only four years ago, one Kuwaiti woman fighting for universal suffrage spoke out with a compelling message: "Half a democracy is not a democracy." The truth of her statement resonated among the people of Kuwait, and that year women there attained the right to vote.
Today, Rola Dashti's words call to account Afghanistan and all nations in which women are oppressed and persecuted. A democracy that allows half its population to be silenced by fear, violence or intimidation is not a democracy. And a society that fails to protect the rights of women is not a free society.
Afghanistan's leaders must defend women's rights with action and policy, not just lofty rhetoric. True reconciliation cannot be realized by sacrificing the rights of Afghan women. To do so would reverse Afghanistan's progress and return its people to the perilous circumstances that marked the Taliban's rule.
There are clear choices for those entrusted with ensuring Afghanistan's peace and prosperity. Will Afghanistan be a nation that empowers women, or one that oppresses them?
Now is a moment of decision. It is incumbent upon the Afghan people to make the most of this moment in their history.
Laura W. Bush is a former first lady of the United States and an honorary adviser of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. She leads the Women's Initiative at the Bush Institute in Dallas, with the goal of advancing social and economic opportunities for women and girls in America and around the world.