From Frederick Douglass to Afghanistan Women?

What connection could that possibly have? So read on. One year ago America left Afghanistan, leaving it in shambles after nearly 20 years of occupation. There was no graceful way out for Americans, no matter what the prevailing wisdom was. Worse, there is no way out for Afghan women from their oppressors. The brief respite Afghanistan school children found in education and learning had come to an end. After promising that their education will not be interrupted, that is exactly what their new government proceeded to do. Why? Tradition, we are told. I understand tradition. A head scarf, I get it. Cover all but eyes, maybe I get it too. But no education for girls? I don’t get it.

This summer on my vacation I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave — Written by Himself, and published in 1845. If you have never heard of Douglass, you are far from alone. Douglass is not to be confused with Senator Stephen Douglas of Lincoln-Douglas debates. The writings of Frederick Douglass are credited with bringing Americans a true accounting of the terrible plight of slaves near Baltimore, Maryland, arguably a place where the conditions were better by a wide margin over what existed in southern plantations. At a future date, I hope to share excerpts from the classic for those of you who don’t prioritize reading this masterpiece (pun intended) imminently. The context is this. A seven-year-old Douglass had been chosen and released from the plantation to Baltimore to be a slave to Aulds and to take care of their son Thomas. In explaining how he was motivated to learn, Douglass writes:

“She (Mrs. Auld) very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her among other things, that it was unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his
master — to do as he is told to do. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” he said, if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”…These words sank deep into my heart…From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom…to learn how to read.”

As we ponder how remarkable it is that Douglass, precluded from learning and against all odds, learnt to teach himself and compose passages such as the above in his narratives in the 1800s, we also realize the central role of denying education as a tool for oppression. Banning the learning of slaves was by design.

If we re-read the writing of Douglass from the perspective of an Afghanistan girl, the message comes through clearly. Now we get it. It is not a stretch to imagine what terrified the white masters who by design deprived their Black slaves of education is also what terrifies Afghanistan men in power who are forbidding their girls from going to school in the name of tradition. All nations must come together to insist on education for all Afghanistan children. Now that is a war worth fighting, though it is a war of minds and not one of arms that we have in mind.

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Vijay Violet

I am an American. I care about the planet, its people and animals. I care about the oppressed and marginalized. And I care about the poor, both working and not.