A recent cover of Time magazine features a photo of an 18-year-old Afghan girl whose face has been mutilated as punishment for running away from an arranged marriage.  It’s an important, vivid reminder of the ongoing violence and discrimination that confront too many women in the Middle East.  Attacks like this are not rare.  The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women are murdered each year by Muslim family members in “honor killings.”

In Afghanistan, women who work in publicly-visible jobs constantly face threats or acts of violence, in part because the consequences for abusing women are so easily avoided.  In recent months, schools for girls have closed as fears increase that the Taliban will return to power.  In Iraq, women and children who leave their homes face high risks of abduction and rape, and men who abuse or murder women are frequently never brought to justice.

As America considers an exit strategy from the wars in the Middle East, we cannot forget the plight of women in these countries.  The fate of females in this volatile part of the globe will affect the prospect for peace worldwide.  As long as the United States stands for freedom and equality, Americans must stand up and speak out against the oppression of Middle Eastern women and the threats to the modest progress that has been made.

Aside from the moral argument that Americans should care about Middle Eastern women and their families as a human rights issue, it is in our best interests that Afghanistan and Iraq develop successfully.  And this can only happen if women share basic, fundamental rights, including having the opportunity to become educated and participate in the economy.  As George W. Bush said in 2008, “No nation that cuts off half its population from opportunities will be as productive or prosperous as it could be.”

In fact, the World Bank has found that when a country improves education for girls, its overall per capita income increases and its population growth stabilizes.  Other benefits of girls’ education are higher crop yields, lower HIV infection rates, and reduced infant and maternal mortality.  UNICEF’s annual “State of the World’s Children Report” calls gender equity in education a “double dividend” for developing countries.  Sending girls to school improves the quality of health and life for everyone in the community.  And the effects multiply with time, because educated mothers are more likely to enroll their children in school and are less likely to allow their sons to join terrorist groups.

And terrorism, after all, is what precipitated the current U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Before the current conflict, women were practically prisoners under the oppressive Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.  In these countries, women suffered years of cruelty.  They were forced to stay within the yards of their houses, raped or tortured as political pawns, and in countless cases, brutally executed.  Those protesting these abuses were silenced through violence or intimidation.

The United States’ purpose in invading Afghanistan and Iraq was to root out political leaders sympathetic to the jihad against the West.  However, both as a part of that goal and as a goal in its own right, the United States sought to cultivate political systems that recognized women’s fundamental value as human beings and provided the opportunity for women to participate in elections, seek an education, and work for pay.  And while the U.S. invasions of these countries certainly brought hardship and the accidental loss of innocent life, women experienced important progress.

Before the end of the Taliban’s rule in the fall of 2001, girls were forbidden from going to school.  According to the World Bank, by 2004, three years after the Taliban’s removal, female school enrollment in Afghanistan had risen to 839,000.  Between 2004 and 2008, female school enrollment more than doubled to 2.2 million, the highest in the nation’s history.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had witnessed a return to religious and tribal rules that undermined the legal status of women and inhibited their freedoms.  But in 2004, after Saddam Hussein was ousted, female protestors succeeded in maintaining the tenets of Personal Status Law 188, which keeps jurisdiction over family law in secular courts, not religious ones.

Both of these countries still struggle to see the enforcement of equality under law, but they have moved in the right direction.  It is important that these governments stay the course and look forward instead of losing ground.

As we formally exit these theaters, the United States government – and its people – must continue to make the protection of women’s rights in the Middle East a priority.  We must continue to talk publicly about the centrality of women’s rights to a functioning country and support policies and rulers who actively encourage women to participate in public life.

Fortunately, even in the midst of great uncertainty about the future, there are women in Afghanistan and Iraq pressing for more progress and fighting those who would turn back the clock on women.  Groups that support the freedoms of Middle Eastern women – access to education, work, equality – are often the targets of hatred and terror.  Their bravery should inspire us, and encourage us to stay committed to raising our voices against the mistreatment of women in every part of the world.

Hadley Heath is a Policy Analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.  Hers is the fifth in our fall series, “Stiletto Nation,” focusing on women’s issues.