Filkins: “Afghan Girls Live Their Lives in Reverse”

From the New York Times Magazine “special issue” I mentioned below, a compelling piece by Dexter Filkins, “A School Bus for Shamsia,” (a follow-up to his November story — which I wrote about then —about an acid attack on Afghan girls walking to school):

One day, standing inside the compound of the Mirwais Mena School and watching the girls rush through the front gate, I suddenly realized that Afghan girls live their lives in reverse. Behind the school’s walls, the girls of Afghanistan comport themselves with confidence and self-possession. They are alive, alert and literate; they run, jump and laugh out loud. They confront male visitors, point their fingers, ask questions.

They do everything, in other words, that an adult Afghan woman, just outside the school’s walls, could never imagine.

Filkins describes his departure from a longstanding “standard” of journalism:

Journalists are not supposed to become involved with the people they write about. That’s one of the craft’s tenets. I have occasionally given some money to one or another of the more luckless people I’ve interviewed — a widow whose husband was killed by a death squad in Baghdad, for instance. But mostly I’ve kept my distance.

This time, I decided to set the rules aside. There was just too much e-mail [sparked by his November story] to ignore. I decided that if some journalistic standard was preventing me from helping a group of woebegone Afghan school girls, then that standard probably wasn’t worth saving, at least not in this case. I wrote a letter to [a reader who responded to his article, asking how he could help], saying I would set up a bank account for the girls and spend any money I received helping Shamsia and the school. I copied the letter several hundred times and sent it out…

When I returned to New York a month later, a stack of envelopes awaited me. There were 75 letters with checks totaling $11,970….

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.