August 20, 2021

The Taliban in Afghanistan: Lessons Ignored

Anorgul and her brother                 



The physical impediments to a woman in a burqa are obvious. She is confined, the air hot and suffocating under layers of fabric. The cap fits tightly around her head, often causing massive headaches. She has no peripheral vision—dangerous enough when crossing streets and walking through the bazaar, but there are other, insidious consequences. She can see only what is in front of her. If she hears a voice from the side and turns to identify the speaker, her intentions are revealed. She cannot look at anything or anyone freely. She never knows who may be watching.

—Excerpt from Little Women of Baghlan, Susan Fox


The description is from 1969, Afghanistan, as experienced by Jo, an American Peace Corps Volunteer, working in Baghlan. She teaches nursing to a group of young Afghan girls, including Anorgul, the girl in the photo, posing with her younger brother.

The late 60s are a time of promise in Afghanistan; the country is at peace, making progress toward becoming a modern nation. It is a time of transition, so although there are still women who follow the old tradition, living behind burkas, there are others, young girls like Anorgul. Girls who are going to school, anticipating a better life.

And then the Russians invade Afghanistan.

In 1979, not long after Jo returned home, Soviet tanks rumble into Afghanistan, igniting a ten-year war. Afghan guerilla fighters—the mujahideen– force Russia to withdraw in 1989, but not before 15,000 Soviet soldiers are dead, along with roughly two million Afghan civilians. Homes, farms, and entire villages are destroyed, leaving millions of Afghan families homeless, internal refugees in their own country.

Since then, Afghanistan’s timeline reads like a systematic litany of tragedy and failure.

With Russia out of the picture, and no semblance of a central government, Afghanistan falls into disarray. Chaos becomes Civil War, causing more destruction, more Afghan deaths.

The Taliban emerge out of Kandahar in 1996, and take control of the country with one, powerful promise—they vow to restore ‘law and order.’ Tired of fighting, the Afghans eagerly embrace this new sect, but they pay a high price. The Taliban notion of ‘Law and order’ is nothing more than an excuse for the most severe interpretation of Islamic law, in particular laws that strip women of their rights.

Then on September 11, 2001, militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda hijack four planes and fly two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing some 2,750 people. The United States retaliates, and one month later, on October 7, 2001, U.S. and British warplanes pound Taliban targets. Dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign is designed to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan and dismantle al-Qaeda.

President George H.W. Bush promises financial assistance for the operation, but from the start, development efforts in Afghanistan are poorly funded. To make matters worse, in March 2003, the United States invades Iraq. Almost immediately, resources, military support, personnel, and attention swivel from Afghanistan to the Iraq War. (Readers may remember the Tom Hanks movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.)

Now, with the spotlight directed the other way, the Taliban mount a slow and methodical resurgence. They take advantage of anti-American sentiment among Afghans, feelings that are amplified by the sluggish pace of reconstruction, allegations of prisoner abuse at U.S. detention facilities, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, and civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO bombings.

On April 14, 2021, President Joe Biden announces full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a process that begins on May 1, 2021.

Afghanistan has been called the “Graveyard of Empires,” a phrase that has survived from antiquity. When the Afghans drove the Soviet Union from its borders in 1989, that fact should have been a red alert, a lesson—but it was largely ignored. Why did we think our outcome would be any different?  The solution to Afghanistan’s quagmire cannot be solved with a military intervention. And so, twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and a cost of over $2 trillion, the country will once again become the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Military intervention did not work in Afghanistan, nor did it work in Vietnam, or Iraq, and yet, according to John Sopko, Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “We will do this again.”

With the Taliban take-over, sadistic, cruel behavior will be accepted as normal. Little boys will grow up in a society where women are absent in public life; gone from the streets, gone from schools, gone from the workplace. These same little boys will watch and learn as their fathers routinely humiliate women, beat them, force them into burkas, and deny them any semblance of a normal life, all in the name of religion. How can we be surprised when these little boys grow up to perpetuate a skewed, pathologically brutal, and oppressive society? That is the sadness. The world is watching; more to the point, the little boys of Afghanistan are watching.

Photo Credit: Jo Carter Bowling, Afghanistan Peace Corps Volunteer

March 10, 2019

International Women’s Day

Facebook posts,  messages, Wonder Woman logos and breaking news—March 8, International Women’s Day was a time to celebrate women, to protest, to reflect on how far we have come, and to recognize how far we still have to go until we reach gender parity.

The United States Women’s National Soccer Team put their own exclamation point on this year’s International Women’s Day. On March 8, 2019, the team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. The U.S women’s team has won three World Cup titles, and four Olympic gold medals. As the lawsuit points out, in spite of their success, the women have been paid less than a third of what the U.S. men have been paid. The women filed the suit as a team, in solidarity. How cool that the date they filed was International Women’s Day.

Sometimes it takes more than words to make a point, or cause things to change.

Still, words are necessary—words express what we feel, motivate our passions, and inspire action. And once in a while the words are so perfect they make us laugh. There was a lot of that floating around on Facebook the past couple of days. Truth to power.

  • Coco Chanel: “A woman should be two things: who and what she wants.”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: “Well behaved women rarely make history.”
  • Maya Angelou: “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels . . .”

Finally, my daughter posted the following:

“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” To which she added: “And may we raise men who respect them. Happy International Women’s Day!” As the mother of two young boys, she is my Wonder Woman hero.

The first “Women’s Day” was celebrated in New York in 1909, followed by the first International Women’s Day gathering in 1911 that was supported by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Prior to this, the Socialist Party of America, United Kingdom’s Suffragettes, and other groups campaigned for women’s equality. Today International Women’s Day belongs to all groups everywhere. It is not specific to any one group, country, or organization. It is celebrated around the world every year on March 8.

As full disclosure, I will tell you that I found this information at

Who knew International Women’s Day has its own website!?

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our sisters around the globe, particularly those in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The women of Afghanistan marked International Women’s Day with a public holiday, but in reality they await their fate. Most are fearful that in all likelihood the Taliban will return to power as American and NATO forces retreat.

Godspeed to women everywhere.


About the Book


February 21, 2019

Girls Dressed like Boys


Bacha posh describes Afghan girls who are dressed by their parents as boys, then presented to the world as sons, rather than daughters. The term bacha posh is Dari, and means literally “dressed like a boy,” in this case, girls dressed like boys.

Throughout history, women have disguised themselves as men to navigate a male dominant society, or escape a repressive gender role. They have dressed as men to fight in wars, to have more personal freedom, or prosper professionally. In Afghanistan, however, the reasons are more complex, and gender roles are not switched by the girls themselves, but rather by their parents.

As in many countries, the birth of a son in Afghanistan is a happy occasion, a reason to celebrate. A male brings the family honor and status, for he will be the one to carry on the family name, and inherit the father’s property. His future wife and children will join the family unit, making it bigger and more powerful, and eventually he will care for his parents in their old age.

A daughter, on the other hand, is brought home quietly, often with shame, especially if the family already has several girls and no boys. A girl is considered a burden, the mother a failure.  Families without sons are to be pitied. Is it any wonder that a logical response to this public stigma has evolved? The solution is simple: transform a daughter into a son. Cut her hair short, dress her in traditional boys clothing, and give her a boy’s name. She is now a bacha posh, “dressed like a boy.” More often than not, teachers and family friends are aware that the boy is actually a girl, but they accept the status quo without comment, in deference to the parents’ wishes

Sometimes the reason for a bacha posh is more than status and honor—it is a matter of economic survival. Families with no sons simply need a boy to work outside the home. Boys can sell fruits and vegetables on the street. They can run errands, go shopping, help in the family business, wait on customers in a store, bring their sisters home from school, and make deliveries. Girls cannot do any of those things, but girls who are dressed like boys can work outside the home and provide the family with a better life.

Superstition also plays a role. Many families believe that having a bacha posh will make it more likely for the mother to give birth to a son in a future pregnancy.

I came across the tradition of bacha posh for the first time when I picked up a book titled “The Underground Girls of Kabul: in Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan,” by Jenny Nordberg.  A New York-based foreign correspondent, Nordberg originally broke this story for The New York Times in 2010. Her report revealed a practice of Afghan women and girls clandestinely living as men and boys in a country that gives women almost no rights and little freedom.

Author Deborah Ellis also wrote a children’s novel about girls dressed like boys after visiting Pakistani refugee camps as early in 1996. She had many conversations with Afghan women who had escaped from the Taliban, and those conversations inspired Ellis to write “The Breadwinner.” Published in 2001, the story follows an 11-year-old girl named Parvana who lives with her family in Kabul. After her father’s imprisonment because of the Taliban’s disdain for his western education, her mother and school teacher disguise her as a boy so she can work and become the sole breadwinner in the family. As a boy, she brings in an income for a household of six.

In 2017 Ellis’ story was released as the film “Parvana,” and was nominated for an Academy Award in the category ‘Best Animated Feature Film.’

Daughters who are disguised as sons have a place of honor within the family. They are allowed to speak freely, go outdoors anytime they choose, attend better schools, and play sports. For many bacha posh, what’s not to like?  For a young girl, it’s a time of freedom, of feeling strong and confident. They come and go as they please, learn to walk with a masculine swagger, and look people directly in the eye. They are taken seriously, compared to their sisters. They are challenged mentally and physically, adding to a sense of self-determination and competence. Bacha posh learn to drive, to repair engines, and climb trees. Nordberg says it best in the book dedication: To every girl who figured out that she could run faster, and climb higher, in pants.

The decision to make a daughter a bacha posh is a complex one. It provides benefits and freedoms, but some daughters wish to remain girls, especially if they are required to work long hours, or give up the things that girls traditionally do. And what happens to these girls when they reach puberty, and their status as a bacha posh ends? How are they expected to return to a traditional gender role?

A young women raised as a bacha posh has an extremely difficult time making the transition from life as a boy to life as a female, especially in a patriarchal society where women have very few rights or privileges. Nor does she have much safety, for that matter. Afghanistan has been deemed by the UN as the most dangerous country in the world to be a women.

Many young bacha posh want nothing to do with a forced marriage and by extension forced childbirth. Everything about their lives has to be re-learned: how to wear a burka, and walk with the fabric wrapping around their legs, their vision impeded. As a bacha posh they never had to cook or clean house, and now they must do it every day. They can no longer look anyone in the eye, or offer an opinion, but rather must lower their gaze among strangers and remain silent.

Nordberg addresses this dilemma in her book through four main characters. Azita, is a female parliamentarian whose youngest daughter is chosen to pose as her only son, Zahra is a tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and resists her parents’ attempts to turn her into a woman, Shukria, is forced to marry and have three children after living for twenty years as a man, and Shahed, becomes an Afghan special forces soldier, still in disguise as an adult man.

I wrote about girls’ education in “Little Women of Baghlan,” concentrating on the years 1968-70, a time of relative stability in Afghanistan.  Peace Corps Volunteer Jo deploys to Afghanistan  in 1968, before the Russians or the Taliban, and establishes a school of nursing for Afghan girls. I feel that Nordberg’s book picks up the story where mine ends. Unfortunately for the women of Afghanistan, the situation has not improved, and the very existence of bacha posh indicate that girls are still required to make a choice between gender and freedom.

I found Nordberg’s book to be informative, well researched, well written, and profoundly moving.





Additional information about bacha posh.

The Hidden Girls of Afghanistan: National Geographic YouTube

December 7, 2018

Why Books Make the Best Gifts

Christmas shopping? Looking for ideas?  Consider giving books. There are dozens of reasons why books make the best gifts. For example, books are . . .

  1. Easy to wrap
  2. Can be personalized
  3. Don’t need batteries
  4. Won’t go out of style
  5. One size fits all
  6. Won’t shrink
  7. Inexpensive
  8. Easy to mail
  9. Re-giftable
  10. Last a life-time

Few gifts can match the variety that books offer.  Fiction and nonfiction are the first two broad categories. From there, the possibilities are endless. For the practical, do-it yourself person on your list, there home maintenance guides for plumbing and electricity; there are small engine repair books,  volumes on landscape and gardening, books on travel, or how to win at blackjack in Las Vegas.  Some books are whimsical; think about those science fiction stories, or dystopian novels. There is a sports story for almost every athlete that ever played, in every sport known to man. You can even find one about umpires. (Planet of the Umps: A Baseball Life from Behind the Plate, by Ken Kaiser and David Fisher).  For the hands-on, nuts and bolts person in you life, look to nonfiction for the books to make the best gifts.

Someone on your list into art or photography? Easy! Hard bound books in this genre are are gorgeous, and when the visual element portrays a person or time in history, the results are stunning, as in the book   Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs, by Pete Souza).

There is no age limit to giving—recipients can be six months old for one of those flexible, crinkly-page ABC books to handle, rustle, and chew on. The classics for children such as Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown never get old, and Dr. Seuss continues to entertain the next generation.  A newer addition, and one of my favorites, is Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Schreffler. What a clever protagonist,  the witch with ginger hair—she practices a bit of magic and deftly spins a lesson about diversity and inclusion.

Ideas for the best book gifts are everywhere: Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, to name a few. Or, just google, “Ideas for book gifts.”

If you are looking for a book to spark a lively book club discussion, consider the novel The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, the story takes place on a North Dakota Anishinaabe Reservation, and is told through the voice of 13 year old Joe. It is a coming of age story, and a search for justice within tribal sovereignty. A great book for book club members, with discussion questions online.

My favorite genre, however,  is narrative nonfiction—a true story that reads like a novel. And one of my favorite books in this genre is Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. By the time I reached the last few pages, I was so moved, I had tears streaming down my face. My husband happened to walk by, did a double take, and gave me a look of concern. “I know,” I answered, shrugging my shoulders. “It’s about a boat!”

Actually, it’s about much more than just a boat. It’s a true story about a rowing team, the Great Depression, an abandoned boy learning how to become part of a team, and the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It was this genre—narrative nonfiction—that I tried to emulate as I wrote Little Women of  Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban.  For two more timely examples of a narrative nonfiction book, check out All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and Red Notice, by Bill Browder.

There is a book out there for everyone. So think about books for your Christmas list–ask for them! Give them!

Consider Iceland, where residents have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. This custom is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is the reason for the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood.” This ‘flood’ occurs between September and December, when the majority of books in Iceland are sold in preparation for Christmas giving.

November 15, 2018

Writing Groups Support Authors

The Literary Writers Network in Chicago, is one of many writing groups that support authors.  I joined shortly after starting my book, “Little Women of Baghlan, even though it was over an hour’s drive each way to attend the meetings, I quickly realized how fortunate I had been to find a group that was dedicated to the craft of writing, and equally dedicated to an honest critique of our individual work. I remember feeling that we all welcomed, indeed craved, a candid, straightforward review of our efforts. It was always about the writing, not about any of us as individuals.

But the meetings were NOT unrelenting drudgery, the members grim and serious. Even when a writer had his or her work on the ‘chopping block,’ the suggestions were given in a collegial, helpful manner. We were all in it together, helping each other become better writers.

Often I was shocked to discover that my writing, which had seemed so clear in my own head, so clever, so obvious and insightful, was perceived by my fellow writers as muddy, hard to follow, and poorly written. The ‘rules’ were that I could not interrupt the discussion to clarify. I could not stop everyone and explain what I meant to say. I could only go back and revise, until my words stood on their own, with no further explanation needed.

Over time, we developed a shorthand for writing comments on our colleagues’ work. POV meant that the author had slipped from one point of view to another—apparently something I did frequently. AWK was shorthand for awkward construction; the prose grammatically correct, but . . . awkward. Ungainly. Cumbersome. And then, there was the evening that I had my work returned with a red circle around a paragraph, and the acronym WTF in the margins. I re-read the paragraph in question. Umm hmm. What the . . . was I thinking, anyway?

Recently I was a guest at the Kankakee Writers Club, a small group that meets at the Public Library in Kankakee IL. Although the members did not critique each other’s’ work, as do many writing groups, they do share resources and ideas. Acting president Emma Kemp had prepared a “self-education resource list,” a bibliography of writing resources, and a web reference guide, among other materials.

There is a wealth of information about writing groups on the internet. One resource is Jane Friedman’s blog advising writers to be discerning when choosing to become part of a group. You can find her blog post at:

As I shared my own experience of writing “Little Women of Baghlan,” that evening, I was transported back to the days when I was immersed in Jo’s story and the background research for the years 1968-70. Since I am one of those obnoxious early morning personalities, I was at the computer at 5 AM on most days, barely aware of the sky becoming light, and the first birds chirping outside my office window. I miss those days—the focus of creating a story, of harnessing the power of words. I miss the pleasure of language, of listening for the musicality of the rhythm and cadence in every sentence, and yes, I miss my writing group.

October 30, 2018

Why Should I Vote?

Your Vote Counts

If you don’t like what’s happening in our country, you have both the opportunity and the responsibility to do something about it. Vote. If you want to ensure that our Constitution endures, vote. If you need a reminder of just why it is so important, it is this: according to the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, were gunned down in cold blood last week, simply for exercising their first amendment right. If you are horrified that people have been killed while at prayer, vote.

If you are appalled at the emerging reality of our country as a place where citizens increasingly take up arms against each other, or send pipe bombs in the mail, vote.

If you are concerned about the uptick in hate crimes against the Jewish, Black, gay and lesbian, Latino, and Muslim communities, vote. The hate rhetoric originates at the top of our government, with a president who follows the playbook inspired by George Wallace. That playbook includes ‘White Nationalism’ as a belief that citizenship should be defined by the color of one’s skin, their eyes, and hair, how they dress, and how they worship.

If you want the script to change—then vote.

If you want a congress that will protect the Mueller investigation, in spite of recent judge appointments, including that of Bret Kavanagh to the Supreme Court, then vote. In the 1974 case of US. v. Nixon, the Court ruled unanimously that Nixon was not above the law, and that he was required to release his White House tapes. Kavanaugh later wrote in 1999 that perhaps the case was “wrongly decided,” and that as a justice, he might support the president’s right to refuse to turn over evidence to Mueller’s team. If this makes you uneasy, vote.

The midterm elections are not glamorous, not as exciting as the presidential elections, but they are no less important. Congress makes our laws. Congress needs to be a check and balance to the judicial and executive branches. If you feel that Congress is not doing its job, then vote.

We live in a democracy, by definition a country in which the supreme power is vested in the people. That power is exercised directly or indirectly through a system of representation, with periodically held free elections. And yes, your vote matters. Every American that does not take the time or effort to vote, simply gives away that ‘supreme power’ to someone else.

Like the United States, Afghanistan is currently in the midst of parliamentary elections. Out of around 12 million eligible Afghans, almost 9 million are registered to vote, including 3 million women. If you think it is an inconvenience to vote in the United States, think of the Afghans. They face the possibly of violence from the Taliban just by showing up at the polls. Throughout Afghanistan, more than 54,000 members of the security services have been deployed for protection.

Incidentally, in Afghanistan’s lower house, the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), 69 of 249 seats are held by women, or approximately 28 percent. In the US Congress, there are 106 women serving, making up just less than 20% of all 535 seats in the House and Senate. The 2017 global average of seats held by women in parliaments around the world was 24%.

50 years ago, Richard Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election of 1968. A young Peace Corps Volunteer voted for the first time in that election, and her experience is captured in the book, “Little Women of Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban.” As described in the book, the young Volunteer didn’t just fill out her absentee ballot, and drop it in the mail box.

She carried it to the taxi bazaar in Baghlan, where she hired a driver for the fifty-mile trip to Kunduz. From there one of the Volunteers would take it to the post office in Kabul. One vote cast among millions, but her vote nonetheless, and she was strangely moved by her participation in the process so far from home.”

A half century later, we still breathe the air of freedom, and in this midterm election, we cannot take this freedom for granted. Threats to our democracy do not always come from outside our borders; often they come from within. Democracy is eroded by lawmakers who legislate voter suppression, by congressmen and senators who remain silent during riots in Charlottesville, who look away from children orphaned at the border, who echo anti-Semitic, racist language, are willing to roll back women’s rights, deny climate change, refuse to acknowledge the gay community, ban Muslims, and put personal gain above the good of our country.

But there is a simple defense against these lawmakers.

Vote them out. While you still can.