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Behind the Burqa: Women in Afghanistan

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A Reuters reporter provides a first-hand view into women's lives in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
This is an excerpt from "Afghanistan: Lifting the Veil."

"Without prompting, the two women pulled their veils back over their heads. Seeing my shock, they both began to giggle. I don't know what I expected, but it was not this: two teenaged girls, with red lipstick and matching nail polish, one in a denim jacket and the other in a red sweater with a white satin love-heart sewn on the front. I had been in Afghanistan for three weeks. These were the first women's faces I had seen."

Rosalind Russell

On my second day in Kabul I told my translator Naim that I wanted to meet some women. "And talk to them?" he asked. He seemed unsure. He had found field commanders, mujahideen veterans, and politicians without a problem, but this was a far more sensitive issue. After some thought he drove me to a residential district in the north of the city where Soviet-era four- and five-story apartment blocks lined potholed streets. Along one street were market stalls selling vegetables, dried fruit, and spices, busy with the faceless shapes of women, shrouded in their blue burqas. We slowed down by two of the ghostlike shapes and Naim leaned out of the window to talk to their escort, a young man in jeans and a leather jacket. The women would talk to us, the man said, but not there. He would drive them to a quiet rendezvous about half a mile away.

We drove on and parked away from the crowds. Soon a white Toyota sedan drew up behind us, the male escort in the driver's seat and the two women in the back. I climbed in and knelt on the passenger seat facing backward with Naim perched beside me. Without prompting, the two women pulled their veils back over their heads.

Seeing my shock, they both began to giggle. I don't know what I expected, but it was not this: two teenaged girls, with red lipstick and matching nail polish, one in a denim jacket and the other in a red sweater with a white satin love-heart sewn on the front. I had been in Afghanistan for three weeks. These were the first women's faces I had seen.

Roya was 18 years old and her cousin Najia was 15. Both had been schoolgirls when the Taliban took over in 1996, and their education was brought to an abrupt halt. Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam, women were not allowed to work or study. They could only leave the house covered by the all-concealing burqa and accompanied by a close male relative or "mahram"—a husband, father, or brother. Women were forbidden from raising their voices or laughing in public, or wearing makeup or shoes with heels that clicked.

Taliban vice squads enforced the rules with vigor. If caught inappropriately dressed or without a proper escort, women were routinely beaten and often accused of more serious crimes such as adultery and prostitution. Married women would be stoned to death on such charges; single women could expect a public lashing.

For Roya and Najia, life under the Taliban meant one thing above all: boredom. In Afghanistan's traditional Muslim society they had never expected their teen years to be filled with boyfriends, discos, or illicit alcohol. But as middle-class girls they did at least expect to study with the hope of going on to university, to meet their friends, and to play music at birthday parties. Roya wanted to be a doctor or a journalist. "I was a good student, I always worked hard and got good grades," she said. "If it wasn't for the Taliban, I would be at university by now. But all this time I have been sitting inside the house, doing my sewing. It was boring. Sometimes we had nothing to say."

It was November 14, 2001, barely 24 hours after the Taliban had fled Kabul and Northern Alliance troops had moved in. The initial excitement had died down and there was a sense of uncertainty about what would happen next. It was no longer mandatory for women to wear their burqas, and some had dared to raise their veils, revealing shy and often beautiful faces for the first time in five years. But most stayed covered up. The Northern Alliance forces themselves had a poor track record of treatment of women when they held power in Kabul before the Taliban. Mujahideen soldiers were accused of raping women and girls and of using sexual assault as a means of intimidating the population. "We'll keep on wearing them until things settle down," said Roya. "We want to get rid of them, but we have to be careful."

The burqa is a garment that covers women from head to toe, the only window to the outside world a crocheted grille across the eyes. It can be white or gray, but blue is currently in vogue in Afghanistan. Inside it is dark and stifling, the wearer can hardly see more than a few steps ahead, and peripheral vision is completely blocked. Women bump into things, fall over, and even get knocked down by cars they cannot see coming. The obligation to wear the burqa was a severe financial hardship for poorer women, its cost equivalent to several months' salary. Sometimes women would share one garment, waiting several days for their turn and the opportunity to venture outdoors.

But the burqa was not an invention of the Taliban. In the cities, its strict enforcement came as a blow to middle-class, educated women. In rural areas, however, social convention ensured it was worn long before the Taliban took power. Women are considered as jewels to be seen only by their husbands and family. Without the burqa, they are regarded as immodest and unfit for marriage. In the patches of countryside held by the Northern Alliance during Taliban rule, women remained invisible and forgotten beneath the veil.

Women's groups in Afghanistan have criticized the West's obsession with the burqa and its removal; they argue that education and the right to work and participate in politics are the real issues that will emancipate Afghan women. According to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, RAWA, a 25-year-old women's rights group, the end of the mandatory burqa is "in no way an indication of women's rights and liberties in Afghanistan."

Leyla, a 19-year-old living in a poor area of Kabul, put her finger on the real problem. After her school was closed by the Taliban, she ran a secret beauty salon, earning small amounts of cash for her hard-up family until religious police from the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice raided her back-room parlor and confiscated makeup, mirrors, and a precious hairdryer. Now her business is up and running again, pulling in more and more clients as women warm to their new freedoms. But Leyla knows she must go back to school. "I know if I study I could do something even better," she said. "I am 19, but I have the education of a child."

Girls younger than Leyla have no education at all unless they were taught in secret. Afghanistan's interim government has promised it will not discriminate between girls and boys in education, and already in Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and other newly liberated cities girls' schools have reopened. Women teachers, who filled more than 60 percent of teaching posts before the Taliban, are coming back to teach both girls and boys in segregated classes.

But the schools that do exist are making do with very little—many have no desks, chairs, notebooks, pens, or chalk for the blackboard. Some were used by the Taliban as barracks or even for ammunition storage. In many areas of the countryside schools do not exist at all. The United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) estimates that just 16 percent of female adults in Afghanistan can read or write, compared to 46 percent of males. Other organizations such as RAWA say the figure is much lower—the result not just of Taliban policy but also of a rural social tradition that has never placed much value on the education of women.

Afghanistan's transitional government led by Hamid Karzai includes two women, both forthright advocates of women's rights, who have vowed to tackle the discrimination faced by Afghan women. Sima Samar, a 45-year-old medical doctor, was named as one of five deputy prime ministers—the highest office to be filled by a woman in Afghanistan—and given the portfolio of women's affairs. Samar has lived in exile in Pakistan since 1983, working as a doctor and running food relief programs for Afghan refugees, as well as establishing several schools, hospitals, and health clinics in Afghanistan as head of a nongovernmental organization. She has publicly condemned the compulsory burqa on the grounds that by reducing women's exposure to sunlight and consequently their vitamin D intake it aggravates common diseases such as osteomalacia, which softens the bones.

"My hope and my aim and my vision is that women's rights should be counted as human rights," Samar said after her appointment at a U.N.-sponsored meeting in Bonn. "Access to education, freedom of speech, freedom of working outside the house, freedom of choosing the way we are wearing the clothes, freedom of choosing their profession, access to health care, these are all basic human rights."

Samar's female colleague in cabinet is 62-year-old Suhaila Seddiqi, who was appointed health minister. A military surgeon with 38 years of service in the army medical corps, she was made a general in the early 1990s, the only Afghan woman in modern times to hold the rank. Seddiqi has seen regimes come and go, even surviving the Taliban, who at first fired her as the head of a 400-bed military hospital in Kabul, then asked her back to run the women's section. Seddiqi operated under her own rules. Known throughout Afghanistan as simply "the General," she eschewed the veil and lived alone with her sister—infringements of the law which the Taliban, whose wives and daughters she treated, chose to ignore.

Seddiqi trained as a doctor in the 1960s, one of the times of relative freedom for women which came and went during the twentieth century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah first moved toward the liberation of women. At a Loya Jirga, a meeting of the leaders of the country's ethnic groups, he condemned the mistreatment of women and requested that the queen lift her veil before the assembly. He introduced reforms permitting women to go without the burqa and opened several coeducational schools. But his liberated views alienated religious and tribal leaders and eventually cost him the throne.

Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud tried again in 1959 when he, his ministers, members of the royal family, and high-ranking army officers appeared at Independence Day celebrations with their wives and daughters unveiled, which again prompted a conservative backlash. Undeterred, in 1964 King Zahir Shah invited women to sit on the committee which drafted a liberal constitution guaranteeing equality for men and women.

The constitution was seen as a watershed for women's rights. The following year saw the appointment of Afghanistan's first woman minister, and in the cities women worked as doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs. The Soviet-backed communist government that came to power in 1978 moved to prohibit traditional practices deemed feudal in nature—including the "bride price" through which the husband's family would purchase a chosen woman. By 1980 Afghanistan had seven women members of parliament. But two decades later, Afghan women are fighting prejudice and discrimination all over again.

At the Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul, Dr. Fahima Sekandari is called into the director's office. In a white coat and headscarf she sits on the edge of the couch, looking meekly at the floor. "She can't speak English but I can translate for you," said the director Mohammed Hashim Alokzai. "What would you like to ask?" We conducted a short interview. The director answered most of the questions himself. "She likes working here very much .... We had no problems under the Taliban except for a lack of funds .... She doesn't know the maternal mortality rate; we don't have such information." I asked if I could see the maternity wards and Alokzai agreed. "Of course I cannot go in myself, but she will take you."

We walked down the steps to a courtyard where dozens of fathers-to-be stood or squatted against the concrete walls waiting for news from inside the hospital. Once behind the heavy gray blanket that marked the no-go area for men, Dr. Sekandari bent over in peels of laughter, grabbing my arm. "Of course I can speak English!" she said. "He knows nothing about me."

Dr. Sekandari, a 42-year-old mother with glossy black hair, was a gynecologist with 14 years experience. Unlike most of her female friends, she kept her job under the Taliban along with other specialists in women's health care. Sixty doctors and 50 midwives worked at Malalai, Kabul's main maternity hospital where around 80 to 100 babies were delivered every 24 hours. The hospital was clean with a warm, professional atmosphere. Salaries had not been paid during the last few months of Taliban rule, and Dr. Sekandari said they lacked medicines, especially anesthetics for Cesarean sections. But compared to other hospitals in Afghanistan it was fairly well equipped and even had 10 incubators. It treated the lucky few; most women give birth at home and the World Health Organization estimates 45 Afghan women die every day due to pregnancy-related complications.

"Put these on and I'll take you into the delivery room," she said, handing me a white plastic cap, apron, and plastic covers for my shoes. Inside, a 10-minute-old baby boy had been weighed and was being wrapped tightly in white cloth. His mother lay exhausted and half-smiling on a delivery bed. The winter sun gleamed through a frosted glass window. This was a sanctuary the Taliban never touched. "No men are allowed in here," said Dr. Sekandari. "So we know it is a safe place."

Sadly, the security of the delivery room at Malalai hospital is far from the reality of most women's lives in Afghanistan.

During two decades of warfare in Afghanistan there have been few safe havens for women. They have rarely participated on the battleground but few have escaped violence. From whippings by Taliban militia for revealing an ankle, to the destruction of entire neighborhoods in fighting, women have carried the heaviest burden.

During the war of resistance that followed the Soviet invasion of 1979, millions of people left their homes and fled across the border to Pakistan and Iran or to relatives and camps inside the country. Civilians who remained in the firing line, including women and children, were targeted by Soviet and Afghan government troops in reprisal for what was seen as their support for mujahideen resistance fighters. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but within a few years rival mujahideen factions had turned their guns on each other. Under the nominal rule of President Burhannudin Rabbani from 1992 to 1996 the capital descended into full-scale civil war, with indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas.

There are more than 30,000 widows in Kabul as a result of war. Often destitute, they had one important lifeline, the so-called "widow's bakeries" funded by international aid agencies. The bakeries were run by Afghan women and sold bread at subsidized prices to the city's widows. For thousands it was their only means of survival. The Taliban had allowed a limited number of Afghan women to work for foreign agencies, but in July 2000 they issued an edict banning all women from such employment. It was hoped that the bakeries would be exempt, but in August 2000 the Taliban ordered their closure.

Poverty and bereavement were not the only scourges of war for Afghan women. Mujahideen soldiers fighting in Kabul in the early 1990s engaged in rape and sexual assault as a means of dishonoring entire communities and ensuring their surrender. RAWA says that throughout the years of war "women were looked upon as war booty, their bodies another battleground for belligerent parties."

The threat of violence kept many women on the run for years. Nooria used to live in Kabul with her husband and four children. "We had a good life. My husband was an engineer, an educated man," she said. They left in 1994. Civil war had torn up the city, she said; they didn't feel safe. They made for the northern town of Taloqan, where they had relatives, and started to establish a new home. But soon the Taliban came, and again they feared for their lives. Her husband was an ethnic Tajik, a natural supporter of the opposition Northern Alliance who had taken up arms against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. "They didn't like us. They came to our house, beat down the door, threatened us, and took our property." Again they moved on, this time to a village further north, but that became a front line in fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. They sent her son to Iran to stay with his uncle. The couple and their three daughters packed up their meager belongings and walked north again, ending up at the Khumkishlak refugee camp, a sad collection of tents and makeshift shelters on a dusty river plain near the border with Tajikistan. Nooria's husband died there in 2000. "He was weak, he didn't speak," she said, unable to explain how he died.

Nooria was left living the precarious existence of many women in Afghanistan, who, without a male breadwinner, are dependent on begging and charity. She lived with her daughters in a canvas tent with two mattresses, some blankets, and little else. They cooked on an open fire in front of the tent. A French aid agency provided them with basic food, but on Fridays she would sometimes go to the nearby town of Khoja Bahawuddin and wait in line with other burqa-clad women outside the mosque, hoping for a small handout as the men came out of midday prayers. A 10,000-afghani note was enough to buy one loaf of rough flat bread.

It was early November and the wind had started to blow up dust in icy, gritty gusts, signaling the start of winter. The U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban was in full swing, and from Khumkishlak you could hear the thud of American bombs pounding Taliban front lines 20 miles across the plain. Nooria had no idea what the new war would bring. "We know what they are doing, we know they are fighting the Taliban, but all we think about is how we are going to eat," she said. "If peace comes, maybe we can go home, to Taloqan or Kabul. But we don't think about it. We only think about the day we are in."

An Afghan woman holds a baby as she waits for humanitarian
aid to be distributed in central Kabul, November 24, 2001.An Afghan woman holds a baby as she waits for humanitarian aid to be distributed in central Kabul, November 24, 2001.—Damir Sagolj

A girl peers between poor Afghan women wearing burqas at a
World Food Programme distribution point in the city of Kabul, December 10,
2001.A girl peers between poor Afghan women wearing burqas at a World Food Programme distribution point in the city of Kabul, December 10, 2001.—Damir Sagolj

An Afghan mother carries her daughter at a refugee camp near
the Pakistan capital of Islamabad, November 8, 2001.An Afghan mother carries her daughter at a refugee camp near the Pakistan capital of Islamabad, November 8, 2001.—Jason Reed

Three Hazara girls sit in their cave in Bamiyan, December
15, 2001. The destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas outraged world leaders,
but a story of human horror also unfolded in the town and the surrounding area
as forces of the Sunni Muslim Taliban, fired by a strict interpretation of
Islam, forced tens of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to flee into the
mountains.Three Hazara girls sit in their cave in Bamiyan, December 15, 2001. The destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas outraged world leaders, but a story of human horror also unfolded in the town and the surrounding area as forces of the Sunni Muslim Taliban, fired by a strict interpretation of Islam, forced tens of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to flee into the mountains.—Peter Andrews

Afghan actors perform in a stage play at a damaged theater
in Kabul, January 2, 2002. Drama was banned during Taliban rule.Afghan actors perform in a stage play at a damaged theater in Kabul, January 2, 2002. Drama was banned during Taliban rule.—Erik de Castro

Marines carry the Stars and Stripes during a ceremony at the
American embassy in Kabul, December 17, 2001. The United States reestablished a
diplomatic presence in the Afghan capital for the first time since its diplomats
left the city shortly before the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989. On a cold
and drizzly afternoon, two Marines hoisted the same Stars and Stripes on the
same flagpole from which it was taken down on January 30, 1989.Marines carry the Stars and Stripes during a ceremony at the American embassy in Kabul, December 17, 2001. The United States reestablished a diplomatic presence in the Afghan capital for the first time since its diplomats left the city shortly before the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989. On a cold and drizzly afternoon, two Marines hoisted the same Stars and Stripes on the same flagpole from which it was taken down on January 30, 1989.—Damir Sagolj

Peter Andrews- A Marine stands guard outside the entrance to the American Embassy in Kabul, December 18, 2001. The Stars and Stripes flew over the U.S.
Embassy in Kabul for the first time in almost 12 years, as the United States
reopened its mission in time for the installation of a new Afghan
government.Peter Andrews- A Marine stands guard outside the entrance to the American Embassy in Kabul, December 18, 2001. The Stars and Stripes flew over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for the first time in almost 12 years, as the United States reopened its mission in time for the installation of a new Afghan government.—Peter Andrews

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