Arundel women decry life under the Taliban

Two Afghan sisters speak about the oppressive regime

September 22, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Fahima Vorgetts and her sister, Atia, fled Afghanistan two decades apart. Now, the Anne Arundel County residents say they want Americans to remember the people of their native land: poverty-stricken and suffering under the Taliban.

From Fahima Vorgetts' Annapolis shop and restaurant, the sisters describe Afghanistan as war-torn and primitive, a place where women are abused and oppressed under the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islamic code.

As the United States edges closer toward military conflict with Afghanistan, the sisters say they hope Americans consider the plight of the Afghan people and won't confuse the latter with the fundamentalist regime that controls most of the country, or equate them with the terrorists who find safe harbor there.

"Right now, my goal is to educate people that we Afghans are not terrorists -- we are the hostages of terrorists," Vorgetts says as she sits among the piles of rugs in her shop, Aaryana Imports. Vorgetts, who donates a portion of the profits from Aaryana to Afghan women's groups, is taking this message to churches, community groups and news organizations that have contacted her since the terrorist strikes put Afghanistan in America's crosshairs.

Vorgetts, 46, fled the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1979 and became an American citizen in 1997. She says she has seen how anger can turn into hate: Two days after the terrorist attacks, a taxi driver noticed her dark skin as she crossed Maryland Avenue toward her shop, one block from the State House, and began screaming obscenities at her.

"I called the police because I was afraid to open the store," Vorgetts says. "It was a shock to me because I was crying day and night for friends in New York."

Since then, Vorgetts has been rebuked by customers who said they do not want to buy her rugs because they are Afghan, and has received nasty e-mails from people who don't distinguish between the Taliban and the people who have committed their lives to fighting against it.

"The terror that the world is living with because of the New York event, Afghans, especially women, have been living [with] year after year in their daily lives," she says.

Political asylum

A few blocks away at the Moon Cafe, Vorgetts' restaurant on Prince George Street, her sister, Atia, speaks nervously about the regime she fled two years ago. Atia, a 30-year-old English major at the University of Baltimore who asked that her last name not be used, is living here under political asylum. She fled Afghanistan after being targeted by the Taliban for running an underground school for girls.

Atia's is a life transformed by the Taliban. In 1996, when the regime came to power, Atia was attending medical school. The Taliban closed the university and forced women into their homes and under the shroud of the burqa, a garment that covers them from head to toe save for a small patch of thick mesh at eye level.

"It was so hard for someone who went to school and attended activities to suddenly have to stay home all the time," Atia says.

She recounts stories of a woman who died because she was denied medical assistance, and another whose fingers were cut off because she was wearing nail polish. One of her cousins was beaten because her ankle was visible under her burqa. Women are not allowed to work or leave their homes unless escorted by a close male relative. Music and television are taboo. Starvation is rampant.

"Under the Taliban, life is like prison," Atia says. "You are a prisoner in your own home."

She and another sister started teaching girls, who are forbidden to attend school by the government. The Taliban learned about their activities and the sisters fled. Atia arrived in the United States in October 1999 and spent 3 1/2 months in a New York detention center before being granted asylum. The other sister is living in Pakistan, as are their four brothers. Their mother has obtained a visa and will join them in Anne Arundel County next month. Their father, a moderate Muslim leader, was assassinated in 1972.

`The real face' of the Taliban

Atia, who has asked friends and family to drive her to school since the terrorist attacks so she would not have to travel alone, says she wants Americans "to know the real face of the Taliban."

Others share that goal. The Rev. Fritz Longabaugh and members of his church, Presbyterian Church of Havre de Grace, invited Vorgetts to address the congregation at its Thursday night service.

"It is so important, I think, to have a face on a nation we might be about to bomb," Longabaugh says. "It can help us to show restraint and to differentiate between the people we are targeting for military action."

If the United States enters Afghanistan, the sisters say, they hope it will be precise in striking military targets to spare the people further suffering. They also hope that the increased attention Afghanistan is receiving will help it to break free of the Taliban's control.

"We have cried all these years, we have screamed that we had terrorists in our country -- the Taliban -- and the world didn't listen," Vorgetts says.

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