In Aspen, Laura Bush continues push for rights of Afghan women
June 28, 2016
Empowering women will empower the world. That was the message delivered by former first lady Laura Bush and Mina Sherzoy, an activist for women's rights in Afghanistan, on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The first lady also urged the U.S. to keep a military presence in the male-dominated Afghanistan, a country that since 1979 has been ravaged by war with the USSR, a civil war, the reign and subsequent resurgence of the Taliban and fragile relationships in the Middle East. The Obama administration is considering pulling 4,300 troops from Afghanistan — from 9,800 to 5,500 — by the end of this year, according to published reports.
Withdrawing troops means "we would have to start all over again" in Afghanistan, Bush said, arguing that women would lose the ground they have gained since the U.S. targeted the country's Taliban regime after 9/11.
"Without transforming women, without getting women involved, I don't think we can progress, … and I don't think we can bring peace to this world," Sherzoy said, noting that "once the woman is empowered, the whole community is empowered."
Bush and Sherzoy, founder of the Afghan Women's Business Federation, have formed an alliance over the past 10 years to protect the rights of Afghan women. Sherzoy is featured in "We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope," a book published by the George W. Bush Institute. They also are members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, which was established by Bush's husband, former President George W. Bush, and then-Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in 2002. Laura Bush also launched the American University in Afghanistan, which opened in 2006.
Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson interviewed the two at the Greenwald Pavilion.
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War and conflict have been the core cause of the treatment of women in Afghanistan, who until recently had not been given the chance to be educated or even leave their homes, Sherzoy said.
"Before the war (with the USSR, from 1979 to 1989), the girls were going to school, had all of kinds of options," Sherzoy said, adding that "insecurity is a major barrier to development, a barrier to the importance of progress, to everything. So, people stopped sending their daughters to school because of the insecurity of war."
Aggravating their plight was the Taliban, "which was the icing on the cake for everybody," Sherzoy said. "It made it worse for everybody. No woman was allowed to do anything. They had to stay home, they couldn't get out" unless they were accompanied by a man. "Otherwise, they'd be beaten to death."
Now in Afghanistan, 10 million children are going to school, 40 percent of them girls, Sherzoy and Bush said.
Isaacson asked the first lady about what was indisputably her most famous talk when she delivered the weekly radio address traditionally handled by the president. That was Nov. 17, 2001, when she cast the spotlight on the treatment of women in Afghanistan.
"It was really the first time that people did listen to what the first lady said," Bush recalled. "It also showed them how much America wanted women in Afghanistan to succeed. The Taliban had been there and we just hadn't paid any attention. The plight of the women there was a shock to American women."
In that radio address, Bush said: "Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable."
The first lady hasn't visited Afghanistan since her husband left office. That's chiefly because she doesn't have the same level of security as when her husband was president.
The conversation didn't entirely focus on Afghan women.
Bush also discussed the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, which was launched by her husband and President Bill Clinton in conjunction with the presidential centers of Bush, Clinton, Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush.
The younger Bush will join Clinton for a function related to the program in Little Rock, Arkansas, around the time the Republican National Convention is held in Cleveland, from July 18 to 21.
"The Cleveland convention will be opening that week, and your husband will be with Bill Clinton in Little Rock," Isaacson observed, gaining a number of chuckles from the audience while Bush brushed off his comment.
Bush said her in-laws are doing well, despite their physical setbacks. Barbara Bush turned 91 on June 8; George H.W. Bush 92 on June 12.
"George and I believe they are showing us the way to age with grace," she said.