11 September 2001: terrorists attack the United States. In the blink of an eye, 3,000 Americans are killed; my husband of six years and the father of our three young children is among them.
Americans wanted retribution. I wanted retribution.
But from whom?
We are just now coming to terms with the fact that this is not as simple a question as it once seemed. Our declared enemy is not a country, or even a group; it is a tactic: terror.
We have the most powerful military in history and our instinct is to fight, to “hunt them down” and “root them out”. We have all heard the rhetoric but these words still beg the question: how do we fight “them” when “they” are spread out all over the world with no identifying uniforms? They have no singular leader, no legitimate representatives with whom we can negotiate, and seem to be bound mostly by their common hatred for us.
Though none were Afghan, some of the terrorists who attacked the United States were trained in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Taliban government made it no secret that they were harbouring Osama bin Laden.
Thus, the United States struck them hard and decisively, embarking upon the so-called “war on terror”.
As our war in Afghanistan progressed and the American people began learning about the horrible conditions caused by decades of wars fought on Afghanistan’s soil, I became increasingly interested in the Afghan people and, specifically, in the widows there.
What I learned was eye-opening.
Afghan women – and widows in particular – are among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in the world. Under Taliban rule, women were forced to wear burqas (garments that fully cover a woman’s body and head) and were not allowed to work. Girls were not allowed to attend school.
Even after the Taliban’s defeat, life for women in Afghanistan remains bleak at best.
According to the United Nations, 85 percent of all Afghan women are illiterate and women’s wages remain about one-third of men’s. Women, especially in rural areas, can’t go out in public without a male relative accompanying them. There are about 50,000 widows in Kabul alone.
When an Afghan woman’s husband dies, his property is passed not to her, but to his family. How is she to survive? How will she provide for her children? The brutal truth is, without a husband, an Afghan woman may be forced to send her children to the streets to beg for money.
These women, I realised, are not our enemy.
They are victims of the same cruel terrorists who attacked us. And in many ways, they are paying a far heavier price. The support I received from my friends, family, community and government after 9/11 was enormous and overwhelming. But who was willing to offer help to the widows in Afghanistan?
Struck by this question, in the fall of 2003, I co-founded Beyond the 11th, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping widows affected by war and terrorism in Afghanistan.
We achieve our vision by making grants to international non-governmental organisations with programmes designed to teach widows a trade so that they might become self-sufficient.
It is our belief that to make significant change, Afghan women must be empowered to provide for themselves, which will in turn enable them to send their children, including their daughters, to school. With education, the next generation will have opportunities and choices that this generation of women was forced to leave behind.
In 2006, I went to Kabul for the first time to meet some of the women benefiting from our grants. The women I met are strong, devoted mothers who want only the best for their children.
We found common ground easily.
When they spoke of their children, they expressed the same desires for them that I have for mine – education, access to healthcare, peace and security. These ideals are not American. They are universal.
And it is universally understood that children who do not have these basic needs met sometimes grow up to become angry, disenfranchised adults who are easily manipulated by ideologues to cause harm to others.
We ignore their struggles at our own peril.
Why? Because they are us and we are them. We have merely tricked ourselves into believing that we are different. Is there common ground between us? I offer this for consideration: our differences are harder to find and far less significant than our similarities.
* Susan Retik, co-founder of Beyond the 11th, is a recipient of a 2008 Common Ground Award, which acknowledges the unique contributions that individuals and non-governmental actors can make in creating and sustaining peace. This article originally appeared in The Boston Herald and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).