Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Commerce As Freedom, Afghan Style

That’s why the Taliban beating women on the street was so strange to us. That is not part of our tradition at all.

- Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S.

National Review has a neat little piece on women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan who recently came to the U.S. for training. In it the ambassador cited above describes a time, before the arrival of the Soviets and certainly before the arrival of the Islamist chaos that followed their departure, when Afghanistan was a very liberal place, where women were much more in control of their lives than they were subsequently.

We learn of women who supervise huge numbers of other women, who have to take risks, who have to make decisions with significant consequences for other people. With women, in other words, who in the course of pursuing their interests have to think about what one happens to those they do business with. Owning or operating or even managing a business is a significant social responsibility, and the ability to operate one freely has the salutary effects for society of encouraging independent thought and thinking about the consequences of choices, and reducing two sorts of toxic thinking: the proto-conspiracist thinking that says that bad things happen to you in life because of sinister forces beyond your control, and of the zero-sum thinking that says that you can only get something in life by taking it from someone else, usually via the state.

And a moment's reflection reveals that the cost for Afghanistan of jamming these women back into their burqas and homes and prying the girls out of the schools would be substantial. All of that productive activity and idea creation would be lost. And Afghans will increasingly come to know that. They will realize that the cost of sealing half their population on grounds of honor and protecting them for their own good is simply too high to pay. As usual, free commerce promotes freedom, period. We will know that Afghanistan has finally arrived as a free society when Afghan men are willing to answer to Afghan women above them in the business hierarchy, as is commonplace in the U.S. They are of course not there by a long shot yet, but business will be a better bet for putting women fully charge of their own lives than any ministry of gender equality ever could be.


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