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Finding Inspiration for Afghanistan in America's Election




Two weeks ago, I was standing among a throng of students in Hotung Café at Tufts University—a crowd burning in anticipation to learn the outcome of the presidential election.

I had left my quiet dorm room just ten minutes before with a friend of mine, after finishing my assignments, to witness this historic moment.

The area was packed; I could only cram into the room by jostling and shoving other students aside. The predictions for most of the eastern and southern states had already been announced; Governor Romney had a marginal lead over President Obama. After a while, the emcee announced that CNN’s prediction for Ohio, one of the key swing states, was out. Breaths were held, dead silence prevailed, and all eyes were fixed on the two TV screens.

***

In my mind I was transported back to the Afghan presidential elections in 2009.

The number of candidates was 22 times the number running in the American elections – 44 candidates – yet the thrill of the election was barely noticeable. In fact, I don’t even recall following the news about it. No matter how many candidates there were to choose from, there was little faith that any of them could or would bring much change.

Unlike in the U.S., the dominant political system in Afghanistan is one based on religious ideas and ethnic politics. This situation hinders even the most astute politicians from making much progress without bringing a complete revolution, an agenda that I believed none of the candidates promoted.

A ballot from Afghanistan's election in 2009. This one is from a polling station in Kandahar (Photo: Reuters)
A ballot from Afghanistan's election in 2009. This one is from a polling station in Kandahar (Photo: Reuters)


The U.S. presidential election had sparked many debates on campus over the issues of foreign and domestic policies. Many Tufts friends — both Republican and Democrat — constantly debated the varying issues. I too enjoyed enthusiastically engaging in discussions on American policies towards Middle East, China, or different regions in the world. At times I even dared to comment on the domestic policies of the two candidates. Passions on campus ran high.

In contrast, in 2009 most Afghans didn’t think their voices or votes mattered. The estimated voter turnout was a mere 30 to 35 percent. Many people in the rural areas were utterly oblivious to the elections, partly due to lack of media access and partly because the Afghan government plays no tangible role in their lives. Afghanistan may have been a “democracy” in structure, but due to the illiteracy and isolation of millions, a true democracy would be hard to establish.

***

“The 18 electoral votes from Ohio go to President Obama.”

The whole room exploded in exhilaration. “Obama, Obama, Obama,” the crowd roared, “Four more years, four more years, four more years.” I found that I also was standing there beside my American and international friends cheering for Obama.

Video from election night at Tufts University, by student Angela Sun


Tufts University Election Night Extravaganza 2012 from asun2013 on Vimeo.

I too was excited, but not because I truly embraced or even understood many of his domestic or international policies, or because I was against Governor Romney’s proposed strategies. I didn’t even agree with all of President Obama’s policies in the Middle East or Afghanistan. The reason was something more intimate.

The hope I felt was that one day I could be standing in a similar room in Afghanistan among the thunderous roar of people. People who were as equally excited about their own future.

America’s elections aren’t perfect, nor were its candidates. But I felt hope that one day Afghanistan could have candidates as capable and motivated as both President Obama and Governor Romney. I had hope for a leader who was not chosen due to ethnicity or religious sect, or who he was related to, but because of the potential he had for holding the office. I had hope that one day we too would have a free and fair election.

Afghanistan may have a long road ahead to tackle the issues of corruption and Taliban control, and to create the capacity for an authentic democracy, but for that one brief moment Obama’s victory rekindled my belief that anything was possible.

His victory speech wasn’t just to the American people, but to me and other Afghans of my generation.

President Obama gives his victory speech on election night (Photo: Reuters)
President Obama gives his victory speech on election night (Photo: Reuters)


When Obama challenged us to cherish “the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression; the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope,” he gave me inspiration that we too could move forward. I identified with Obama’s messages, as they were the mottos I wished my countrymen held: hope, change, and moving forward.

Our hopes need not remain buried under the ruins of war by Kalashnikovs, tanks, and bomb explosions. We, too, could move forward. If we only believe we could.

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Taliban push for normalizing male-only higher education

FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.
FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.

In coming weeks, tens of thousands of students in Afghanistan are set to sit for university entrance examinations.

Notably absent from the list of candidates will be females.

The upcoming exams are expected to determine the admission of about 70,000 students to public academic and professional institutions this year.

Last week, when officials from the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education unveiled the specifics of the upcoming exams, they conspicuously omitted any mention of the exclusion of female students from university admissions.

Despite facing widespread domestic and international criticism for their prohibition of women from educational and professional opportunities, the Taliban have persisted in enforcing discriminatory gender policies.

“The exclusion of women from higher education significantly limits the country's economic potential, as half the population is unable to contribute effectively to the workforce,” David Roof, a professor of educational studies at Ball State University, wrote to VOA.

In December 2022, the Taliban suspended nearly 100,000 female students enrolled in both public and private universities across Afghanistan.

With the nation already grappling with some of the most dire female literacy rates globally, Afghanistan has failed to produce any female professionals over the past two years.

According to aid agencies, the absence of female medical professionals, compounded by other restrictions, has contributed to the deaths of thousands of young mothers in Afghanistan.

The United Nations reports that over 2.5 million Afghan school-age girls are deprived of education.

“The interruption in education can result in a generational setback, where entire cohorts of women remain uneducated and unqualified for professional roles,” Roof said.

'Hermit kingdom'

The elusive supreme leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, purportedly responsible for the ban on women's education and employment, has never publicly clarified his directive.

Initially, when secondary schools were shuttered for girls in March 2022, Taliban officials said the action was "temporary," insisting that the Islamist leadership did not fundamentally oppose women's education.

However, more than two years later, Taliban officials have provided no rationale for the continued absence of girls from classrooms.

“They have normalized gender-apartheid,” said an Afghan women’s rights activist who did not want to be named in this article, fearing the Taliban’s persecution.

“This is a new norm in Afghanistan, however insane and destructive it may look in the rest of the world,” she added.

In January 2022, the U.S. Department of State appointed Rina Amiri as the special envoy for Afghan women, aiming to garner international backing for Afghan women's rights.

Amiri has actively engaged with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the importance of women's rights in Islam, in hopes of influencing Taliban leaders.

Despite these efforts, there has been no indication from Taliban leaders of any intention to abandon their discriminatory policies against women. “There is no indication this will subside,” Amiri told a Congressional hearing in January.

Senior U.S. officials have also warned the Taliban that there will be no normalization in their relations with the international community unless they allow women to return to work and education.

Thus far, the Taliban’s response has been that they value depriving women of basic human rights more than having normal relations with the rest of the world.

Hong Kong can help link students in US, China 

FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.
FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.

Pandemics, climate change and other global challenges require nations and scientists to work together, and student exchanges are a great way to foster that cooperation.

Writing in The South China Morning Post, Brian Y.S. Wong explains that Hong Kong has a crucial role to play in connecting students in the United States and China. (May 2024)

Learn about religious accommodations in US colleges  

FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.
FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.

From prayer services to housing options and vegetarian meal selections, colleges in the United States offer ways to accommodate students of various faiths.

In U.S. News & World Report,Anayat Durrani explains how you can learn about religious accommodations at colleges and universities. (April 2024)

US community colleges create unique bachelor’s degrees

US community colleges create unique bachelor’s degrees
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In the United States, community colleges traditionally give two-year associate’s degrees and certificates. That is changing as more of these colleges develop bachelor’s degree programs. The higher degree from these schools is making college more accessible and affordable nationally and internationally. Robin Guess reports. Camera: Roy Kim.

Purdue U student from Nicaragua loves soccer and her studies

FILE - The Purdue University Marching Band plays with facemasks in place before the start of the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, May 30, 2021.
FILE - The Purdue University Marching Band plays with facemasks in place before the start of the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, May 30, 2021.

A student from Nicaragua blends academics and athletics to excel at Purdue University in the U.S. state of Indiana.

Andrea Martinez talks about her passion for soccer and her studies here. (April 2024)

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