Still No Place for the Ladies

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Facing global condemnation of their dismal record on women's rights, the Taliban are easing up--but only a little

The scene was extraordinary by Afghan standards: a crowd of 700 women gathered in a Kabul hospital courtyard, applauding speeches and poems about the importance of women in society. The women's faces--normally hidden under the mandatory burka--were uncovered and alive with emotion. Many wiped away tears as two women who had just been released from jail were brought to the podium. Ordinarily, such a gathering would represent the height of subversion--and would be broken up by Taliban police. But this show of female solidarity, to mark International Women's Day last March 8, took place with full Taliban sanction. Those attending the celebration couldn't have been happier. I think I am walking on air, said Dr. Meher Afsoon, a 36-year-old obstetrician who helped organize the event. It's like a dream come true.

In promoting International Women's Day, the Taliban did not suddenly embrace feminism. But the gesture did prove they have become more attuned to world opinion about their dismal record on women's rights. The celebration was a shrewd public relations exercise and a symbolically important event. But it reflects little about the reality of most Afghan women's lives.

gathering's participants--a narrow cross-section of health and education workers, the only women allowed to work--are among the lucky few. The dreams of most Afghan women have been dashed by 20 years of war. They have lost husbands, children, homes, jobs and educational opportunities. Widows are among the hardest hit. About 30,000 women in Kabul alone have lost their husbands; many struggle to support large families, hampered by Taliban restrictions on working outside the home. Only last year did the Taliban issue an edict allowing needy widows to seek employment, and critics contend jobs are nearly impossible to come by.

More women than ever have resorted to begging on the streets--an unthinkable humiliation in a strict Muslim society and one that contradicts the Taliban's obsession with preserving women's honor and purity. Indignity is our destination, says Seema, 30, who used to work at a health center and now roams the streets of Kabul begging to support her five children while her husband seeks work in neighboring Iran. She is often beaten by Taliban religious police for appearing in public without a male relative. I'm afraid, she says, but with five children, what can I do? Destitute women also resort to selling family heirlooms to help make ends meet, yet another indignity. The most recent U.S. State Department human rights report says that despite Taliban security measures, which have lowered crime rates, women still face abuse including beatings, rape, forced marriage and even death. But the Taliban have also relaxed some of the earlier restrictions on women. These days, teachers in home-based schools quietly educate hundreds of girls, who are also allowed to attend mosque schools up to the age of 10. Women are now permitted to work in hospitals, treating other women.

In many ways, Taliban strictures have hit urban women hardest. Unlike their rural sisters, they were once accustomed to fairly widespread liberties. When I was young, says Naveeda, a 22-year-old Kabul resident, education was available to girls, we went to Indian movies, there were parties and we learned to sing and dance. I wanted to be a doctor or a teacher. I miss all of that very badly. But in the countryside, where 95% of Afghan women live, life remains much the same. Indeed, at least one thing is better: crime is down. Rural women continue to do farmwork, as they have done for centuries. And they are used to wearing the all-encompassing burka, so Taliban edicts requiring the costume simply formalized what was already in practice. (Even urban women say the burka is not an important issue for them. We would wear iron if necessary, says a Kabul teacher.) Afghanistan's female literacy rate, now a dismal 4%, is not so much worse than the 7% rate of 20 years ago.

Even in Kabul most women simply long for normalcy, an elusive notion in a ravaged country. Time and again, they say their first wish is for an end to the civil war. Beyond that, they are reluctant to dream. In Afghanistan, we cannot have special hopes about the future, says Suraj Begum, 35, a widow who supports her three girls on the 30 a day she earns washing clothes. I wish you could take one of my daughters away with you, anywhere. For them and millions of others, Afghanistan is still a troubled place to be a woman.