Those were the words of Belquis Ahmadi, a young lawyer from Afghanistan. I had invited her to a White House Human Rights Day celebration in 1999, and I am reminded what she said that day as I watch women in Afghanistan begin to emerge from the oppression of the Taliban. Some are choosing to remove the burkas they had been required to wear in public. Some are becoming journalists again, their voices heard on radio, their faces seen on television.
Thanks to the courage and bravery of America's military and our allies, hope is being restored to many women and families in much of Afghanistan. As we continue the hard work of rooting out the vestiges of Taliban control and al-Qaeda terrorism, we must begin the hard work of nurturing that newfound hope and planting the seeds of a governing system that will respect human rights and allow all the people of that nation to dream of a better life for their childrengirls and boys alike.
President and Mrs. Bush have properly highlighted the mistreatment of Afghan women by the Taliban and insist that women play a role in Afghanistan's future. We can help in Congress by completing our work on legislation to provide educational and health care assistance to Afghan women and children and promote the training of women to aid in the development of democracy and a civil society.
Criticssome domestic, some in the Islamic worldsay that America has no right to impose its values on Afghan society. They argue that to promote equal rights for women and a role for women in Afghan government and society amounts to cultural imperialism, destined to arouse the animosity of Muslims throughout the region.
I believe such criticism fails on at least two counts. One, it does not recognize that we, as liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban in Afghanistan. We cannot simply drop our bombs and depart with our best wishes, lest we find ourselves returning some years down the road to root out another terrorist regime.
Second, the argument that supporting the rights of women will insult the Muslim world is demeaning to women and to Muslims. Women's rights are human rights. They are not simply American, or western customs. They are universal values which we have a responsibility to promote throughout the world, and especially in a place like Afghanistan.
It is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. A post-Taliban Afghanistan where women's rights are respected is much less likely to harbor terrorists in the future. Why? Because a society that values all its members, including women, is also likely to put a higher premium on life, opportunity and freedomvalues that run directly counter to the evil designs of the Osama bin Laden's of the world.
There is an immoral link between the way women were treated by the oppressive Taliban in Afghanistan and the hateful actions of the al-Qaeda terrorists. Under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were forbidden to attend schools, to access health care, to work and even to appear in public unless hidden behind the head-to-toe burqas. Long before the Taliban was at war with the civilized world, they were at war with half their population.
The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11. Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for that war-torn nation.
But how, some might say, can women emerge from behind the burqas to positions of leadership in Afghan society so quickly? One reason is that pre-Taliban Afghanistan was a place where women did play an important role: before 1996, for example, nearly half the doctors, university students and teachers in Kabul were women.
Afghan women who fled the Taliban are, in fact, the best advocates for a resurgence of women's rights in their nation, and that is why my colleagues and I have invited some of them to speak at a November 29th forum on Capitol Hill.
They will make clear that, with support from the international community, there is little doubt that the power of women can be quickly unleashed to the benefit of all the people in Afghanistan. That is not to say women will become "westernized," or abandon important religious or cultural principles. The restoration of women's rights includes the right of free choice. The freedom to wear a burqa if one desiresnot to be forced to under pain of death. The freedom to become a doctor, or a homemaker. The freedom to worship in the manner of one's choosing.
By empowering women with the freedom to choose their own future, we can help Afghanistan become a symbol for people elsewhere who have yet to share in the opportunities provided when human rights include women's rights. In that way, America can do more than rid the world of an international terrorist network. It can promote the kind of values that will act like antibodies against the virus of evil that exists in too many hearts around the planet.
We can start by including women in the rebuilding process in Afghanistan. And just as the Clinton Administration withheld recognition of the Taliban government and condemned its treatment of women, we must not recognize any successor government until women have the right to determine what role they will play in 21st century Afghanistan.
In so doing, we can ensure that the measure of hope we've been able to secure for the women and children of that nation will not be lost in the difficult days that lie ahead.