Horrors shrouded in secrecy no more

Taliban: An Afghan who fled the militants' oppression of women shows her face to tell the world of her nightmare.

October 29, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Maryam Shams is an unlikely emblem for victims of Afghanistan's Taliban, the Islamic militants who have brutally enforced a code of behavior that banishes women from the work force and schools, forbids them to leave home without a male relative and subjects them to beating and abduction.

This 21-year-old, who just months ago had to wear a head-to-toe shroud, now wears Nikes and black jeans and strikes back at her former oppressors.

The story leading up to her arrival in Washington last month, a four-year odyssey of horror beginning when the Taliban seized her native city of Herat in 1995, offers a glimpse at the lives of 10 million women living under the Taliban.

When women do leave their homes, they must wear a burqa, a shroud with only a mesh screen for vision -- which makes them look like ghosts.

"I felt like I'd fallen into a trap they use to catch a bird," Shams said in an interview in the offices of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which helped her escape to the United States as a refugee.

Shams, who wants to be a journalist, had to end her education in 10th grade when the Taliban closed most schools to girls. She says her brother was beaten and jailed for nine months because he spoke a different language than did the occupying Taliban militiamen. Her neighbor's wife and teen-age daughters were abducted and never returned.

Shams' mother, dying of pancreatic cancer, was so desperate to get her daughter out of Afghanistan that she arranged a marriage by proxy to a middle-aged Afghan-born psychiatrist living in Germany, whom Shams had never met. This is an increasingly common practice among Afghan families hoping to protect their daughters. Her new husband turned out to be a deranged man who abused and starved her.

Early last month, the tall, striking young woman with a long black braid made it to Washington, rescued by her aunt, Zieba Shorish-Shamley, who runs the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan.

Now, as she prepares to study English and complete her interrupted high school education, Shams is working with advocacy groups to raise awareness of Taliban abuses.

From the beginning

With the self-possession of someone beyond her years and a whimsical spirit that prompted her to joke about her former oppressors (When asked what they look like, she answered: "filthy") Shams described her ordeal as her aunt translated:

"I was angry, upset," she said. "I was crying, but at the same time I kept thinking I was having a horrifying nightmare and would wake up."

Life was productive and happy for Shams' family until 1995. (Shams is her married name, which she uses to protect family members still in Afghanistan.) Her mother was a tailor; her father was retired. One brother attended college; the other worked in a hospital. Female cousins attended university. For fun, she went to picnics and gathered at the homes of friends, listened to Persian-style pop music and danced.

The fun ended in September 1995. One evening, the family heard gunfire. The next morning, soon after leaving for work and school, the men returned home with reports of 25 dead bodies lying in the street near their house. Radio broadcasts ordered everyone to stay home, an edict that was lifted a month later for men but remained in place for women.

It was the beginning of the reign of intimidation by this extremist group, one of several factions that began battling one another after the Soviet Union pulled out its troops in 1989 and the United States withdrew support of the opposition, leaving a war-ravaged country with a power vacuum.

Today, the Taliban rules roughly 85 percent of Afghanistan, including Kabul, the capital and largest city, but it is recognized only by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Power through terror

The Taliban, whose members drive around in Japanese-made pickup trucks armed with guns and rockets, wields power through massacres, kidnappings for ransom, torture, rape, arbitrary detention and looting, according to the 1998 U.S. State Department report on human rights.

The religious police, known as the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtues and Suppression of Vice, conducts public executions for murder and amputations of one hand and one foot for theft. Adulterers have been stoned to death.

No `provocative' white socks

For women the edicts are particularly oppressive. Only those in health care may work outside the home, and then only with women and girls. No white socks or sandals without socks, which are deemed sexually provocative. In some areas, windows have to be covered or painted over if women live inside. Those who disobey are often flogged.

Women are routinely denied medical care, as male doctors are not allowed to see or touch their bodies. Public bathhouses, the only access to hot water, have been closed to them. Prostitution and begging are escalating among widows desperate to support themselves.

Plotting for survival

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