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Behind the veil of oppression

It is hard to believe that barely six years ago, most professionals in Kabul, Afghanistan, were women. Under the Taliban, their oppression has been systematic and has official sanction. Now faceless, anonymous and invisible, a range of edicts has severely restricted their mobility and access to healthcare, education and employment. Afghan women, says SUDHA RAMACHANDRAN, will tell you that they are the `living dead', targets of gender-specific abuse in the name of `honour', tradition and religion.


An Afghan boy giving alms to a woman. Many women have been reduced to begging on the streets of Kabul for survival.

LONG, ugly scars run down Hafisa Rashid's back. Scars of the 20 lashes she received from the Taliban four years ago for dressing ``promiscuously''.

``I was wearing the prescribed burqa,'' Hafisa recalls. A member of the Taliban Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Suppression of Vice stopped her on the road and arrested her. Her crime? Her ankles were visible. Hafisa was then lashed in public. ``I cannot tell you what they did to me after that,'' she whispers and looks away. The 40-year old woman from Herat now lives in Delhi. She has built a new life for her family. The wounds have healed. But the scars remain.

Ask Afghan women to describe their lives and the overwhelming majority will tell you that they are ``the living dead''. Two decades of civil war have inflicted unimaginable suffering on them. In addition to the hardships all Afghans have had to endure because of the fighting — death of family members, disability and displacement — women have suffered in particular as targets of gender-specific abuse. Innumerable restrictions have been imposed on women in the name of ``honour'', Afghan tradition and Islam. As in other societies, notions of honour and shame are linked with a woman's chastity. Over the last two decades and especially between 1992-95, warring mujahideen used rape as a weapon of war, to dishonour entire communities and to weaken their capacity for resistance. Women were often treated as the spoils of war and leaders condoned rape as a method of rewarding their soldiers.

Under the Taliban, the oppression of women has been systematic and has official sanction. They have imposed the tent-like burqa on women, rendering them faceless, anonymous and invisible. More damaging for women and society, however, have been the range of edicts that have restricted physical mobility of women and their access to health facilities, education and employment. The literacy rate for women in Afghanistan stands at a dismal four per cent. The Taliban announced a ban on schooling for girl children in 1996. Subsequently, limited school facilities for girls between the ages of six-10 were provided but none for older girls.

``Women in Afghanistan are dying of treatable illnesses,'' says a French doctor who worked until recently with a non-government organisation in Kabul. ``The Taliban prohibited women from being treated by male doctors and since women doctors were not allowed to practice, sick women had nowhere to go.''

In the last couple of years, women have been allowed to go to male doctors but have to be accompanied by a male relative. According to United Nations statistics, the maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is among the highest in the world. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on violence against women, observes in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences that women are discriminated against in the services provided. The Rabia Balkhi Women's Hospital in Kabul did not have even the minimum infrastructure, except for an X-ray machine. ``The limited health resources that do exist are pumped into the male hospitals,'' she says.

The Taliban have banned women from working outside their homes (this was later amended to allow them to work in the health and social service sectors). This has created a huge problem especially for widows who need to provide for the family but are restricted from seeking employment. Large numbers of women have taken to begging on the streets of Kabul and there has been a dramatic increase in prostitution. ``Many of the women who today roam the streets seeking alms were some years ago qualified teachers and engineers,'' points out Hafisa, who taught history to high-school students till the Taliban closed down schools for girls.

There are edicts that control the way a woman behaves. She must not laugh loudly. She must remained confined to her home and if she steps outside she must wear a burqa, be accompanied by a male relative, not loiter around and must have a specific destination to go. When she walks, her footwear must not make any noise and attract attention.

Non-compliance with the edicts, even if unintentional, can invite public flogging with an instrument that looks like a leather cricket bat. Women have been lashed for not being properly clothed — for wearing thin socks or brightly coloured shoes — and jailed for speaking to men on the streets.

In its 1998 report, The Taliban's War on Women: Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan, the Physicians for Human Rights pointed out that 94 per cent of the Afghan women they interviewed in Kabul were depressed. An increasing number of women are choosing suicide, once rare in Afghanistan, as a means of escape. According <147,1,0>to doctors who have worked in Kabul, there has been a sharp increase in cases of oesophageal burns. Women are swallowing battery acid or poisonous household cleansers, which are easily accessible.

It is hard to believe today that barely six years ago, 70 per cent of the teachers, 40 per cent of the doctors and 50 per cent of the civil servants and students in Kabul were women. During the 1980s, women were present in the ranks of the ruling PDPA and its Central Committee. There were women in the Government (although not in the Council of Ministers) and in the Loya Jirga (traditional council). In 1989, Parliament had seven women members. Women held prominent positions — Dr. Soheila, chief surgeon of the military hospital held the rank of general — and were employed in areas that were male bastions. Hafisa's mother, a qualified engineer, did electrical wiring at the Kabul Construction Plant and was a member of the Central Trade Union.

All this was possible because of the social reforms introduced by the Marxist Government in 1978 and thereafter. It is a fact that the communists were responsible for the torture, death and disappearance of thousands of Afghan women. But with regard to legislation and social reform on issues of concern to women, they made a significant contribution. Decree No. 7, for instance, banned bride price, which the Marxists believed made marriage a monetary transaction between families that ignored the wishes and well being of the woman. Women were granted greater freedom of choice in marriage. In a society where girls were usually married off upon puberty, the Government decreed the minimum age for women and men at 16 and 18 years, respectively. The Government also embarked on an aggressive literacy campaign for women. Soraya Palwasha, a lawyer who worked in Kabul during the 1980s, recalls that family courts, mostly presided over by female judges, provided hearings for discontented wives. ``These courts protected women's rights to divorce, alimony, child custody and child support,'' she says.

Traditional sections deeply resented the changes. They pointed out that the ``godless Communists'' were outlawing the Islamic practice of bride price and that the reform measures were making women vulnerable. But below their supposed concern for women and Islam, lay hard material and political interests. Fathers of daughters resented their access to large bride price payments being cut off. Other men opposed it for weakening the elaborate patriarchal system and their hold over their wives and daughters. The core of the opposition to the pro-women legislation came from those who subsequently became the mujahideen and are today part of the Northern Alliance. Western writers have said that women played important roles in the ``holy war'' and that the mujahideen respected the women. The truth was that unlike most liberation movements, the Afghan mujahideen prohibited the participation of women.

In fact, they threatened and even killed Afghan women, like the founder and other members of Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) who protested the violence and oppression of the last two decades.

Following the exit of the Soviets, the Peshawar-based mujahideen ``Government-in-exile'' issued a fatwa forbidding women from wearing western clothes, bangles or perfumes. Veils had to cover the body at all times and clothing was not to be made of material that was soft or rustled. ``Women were not to walk in the middle of the street or swing their hips; they were not to talk, laugh, or joke with strangers or foreigners,'' recalls Soraya.

When they took over Kabul in 1992, the mujahideen factions began to fight each other. But the men all agreed on the question of women. The first order of the new Government was that all women should wear the burqa. However, given the unstable nature of the alliance that made up the interim government, the enforcement of the restrictions on women was inconsistent. Consequently, women were able to study and work to some extent, but they did so under constant threat. The Taliban completed what the interim government had left undone. Systematically, they killed the spirit of women. Most Afghan women will welcome the likely fall of the Taliban. But the possible return of the mujahideen, now the Northern Alliance, to Kabul is hardly the positive change they have been waiting for.

Names of some women have been changed on request.

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