A Turning Point for Terrorism

Many feel the past few weeks have been a turning point in the history of terrorism. That may well turn out to be true, but it cuts two ways, because it was also a time of astonishing courage and hope in the face of terrorist aggression.

Two days before the horrific Paris attacks, and the day before the Beirut suicide bombing, tens of thousands of Afghan women, children and men marched against violence in the largest mass demonstrations in Afghanistan's history.

They were protesting the brutal killings of seven members of the mostly Shia Hazara ethnic minority, including two women and a nine-year-old girl. It's unclear whether they were killed by ISIL, or Daesh as the French call it, or by the Taliban, or by a band of the Taliban acting under ISIL's aegis. These distinctions are increasingly murky in any case.

What is clear is that after all they have suffered, Afghans are standing up with stunning bravery to reject violence and theocratic fascism, and restore peace and human rights. It's the heroism of civilian women and men like these across Afghanistan these that gives me hope for the future as I grieve for Paris and Beirut.

I traveled to Afghanistan in March to tour programs for victims of gender violence. A week later, Farkhunda Malikzada, a Muslim woman who had just finished a religious degree and was about to take a teaching post, was killed by a Kabul mob after a mullah she argued with falsely accused her of burning the Quran.

After her death, thousands of Afghan protestors, many of them with faces reddened to symbolize her bloodied face, demanded justice, and Farkhunda has become the symbol of committed citizen activism. She's all the more powerful a symbol because of the misogyny of the terrorists, who deliberately target women as well as minorities like the Hazara.

Although they are fierce competitors, the Taliban is becoming more like ISIL. It has adopted ISIL's inhuman treatment of women, and now carries out ferocious assaults on them. Some call it "the new Taliban." When it invaded Kunduz this fall, even as it was promising not to commit atrocities, it conducted a ruthless campaign to target women's service providers and find and destroy the Women for Afghan Women shelter. WAW is the largest NGO providing shelter to Afghanistan's victims of gender violence, currently housing nearly 1000 women and children in its transition homes and shelters.

Day one of the Kunduz invasion in late September, the Taliban raided all the WAW facilities, took its vehicles, broke its equipment and burned down the women's shelter. It used a hit list to go from house to house, targeting, beating, kidnapping and murdering those who would not give up the whereabouts of WAW clients or staff, shooting the husband of a WAW caretaker point-blank in their home. Taliban fighters also targeted, gang-raped and killed two midwives, accusing them of providing reproductive health services.

Fortunately by the time the rampage hit, WAW had evacuated many women and children, and many other children had already left to visit their mothers in prison for the Islamic festival of Eid. WAW staff hid the women and children who remained in their own homes alongside their own families.

Now that Kunduz is retaken, WAW is working to rebuild its shelter and other facilities, and pooling resources with other NGOs, human rights activists and government staff to ensure no one falls through the cracks. Every day, its psychologists and caseworkers hold mediation sessions between the women who sought shelter and their estranged families, reconciling many. Judge Rahima, the female director of Kabul province's family court system, balances religious law with the rule of Afghan law, including the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW), which sets criminal penalties for abusive practices targeting women and girls.

Across Afghanistan, women are working hard -- some behind the scenes, some vociferously -- to assert and expand women's rights despite terrorist misogyny. First Lady Rula Ghani maintains women's rights are essential to Afghanistan's development. Female members of parliament advocate full implementation of EVAW. The governor of Balkh province (a former warlord who fought the Taliban) has appointed the first three women to head key agencies in his cabinet, where they are changing policies and programs.

Many of the women I met are running great risks to do this work: Shukria Barakzai, a female MP who continues to speak forcefully for women's rights after surviving a car bombing; Mumtaz, a young woman who was doused with acid by the man she refused to marry; the WAW province manager who negotiated with Taliban elders for release of her kidnapped colleagues.

Many men are struggling right alongside them: The father who brought his 5-year-old daughter, who had been raped, from Badakhshan to the WAW office in Kabul so that she would not be killed to save "honor;" the hospital doctors who work tirelessly to treat women's injuries from domestic violence and help connect patients to shelters and services; the men who work for NGOs like WAW because they believe equality is right and supported by the Quran.

Violence is still pervasive, and these are all acts of astonishing personal bravery as well as signs of collective hope. And they are widespread. They prove the mob that killed Farkhunda does not represent Afghanistan, and has not prevailed.

The Obama administration is under pressure to escalate the military response to ISIL after Beirut and Paris. U.S. special forces and tactical guidance were factors in Afghan forces retaking Kunduz, and I'm convinced continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is needed to help protect women's shelters and services targeted by the Taliban.

But what will ultimately bring peace, security and freedom to women, children and men in Afghanistan and around the world isn't U.S. troops. It's the courage of the ordinary people confronting and rejecting violence and standing up for human rights.