Women flee grip of rigid Taliban

Network of schools caters to Afghans seeking knowledge

Terrorism Strikes America

September 30, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - When the Taliban won control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, the new fundamentalist Islamic regime wanted to change the status of women. Women were banned from attending school and banned from holding jobs. Women, the newly empowered Taliban decreed, should remain at home.

Roya Haidari defied the rules. Thirteen years old, she attended a clandestine school with 19 other students in a friend's living room. On her way to class, she would hide her books beneath her burqa, the head-to-toe sheath women were compelled to wear. She also carried a pair of scissors.

If the Taliban's religious police stopped her, she planned to claim she was meeting friends to weave carpets.

But one by one, the students became frightened and dropped out. "In the end, we were three," Haidari recalled. And then the Taliban discovered the school and closed it.

Long before President Bush threatened military action to punish the Taliban for harboring terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, human rights groups had targeted the Taliban for their oppressive treatment of women.

Under the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law, women are virtually prohibited from leaving home except with their husbands or a close male relative. They cannot wear makeup. They are restricted in their shopping: Women can venture into small shops but not into the bazaars that are the commercial hubs.

Defiance for education

Out of this suffocating existence, some Afghan women have found comfort from an education and health network called Shuhada that serves women and children in Afghanistan and refugees who have reached this oasis town 60 miles from the Afghan border.

Roya Haidari, who is now 18, and her 19-year-old sister, Wida, arrived from Kabul last month and enrolled in one of Shuhada's schools for girls. It's the first schooling for the sisters in years.

"Over there I was in grade nine," Roya said. "Now, here, I'm in grade seven." They study the same subjects they did in Afghanistan in pre-Taliban days: biology, chemistry, geography, math, science, history and English. In Afghanistan, the Taliban insisted that "68 percent" of all studies be devoted to Islam.

The rules created problems. "How can we do physics according to Islam?" said Sima Samar, a physician from Kabul who founded Shuhada in 1989.

Samar fled Afghanistan in the 1980s and established Shuhada for the most vulnerable refugees - women and children.

The organization has clinics and hospitals on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border and schools in Afghanistan with a combined enrollment of more than 18,000 boys and girls.

Samar manages Shuhada's network with a mixture of politics, diplomacy and subterfuge.

In areas where Shuhada operates schools, Taliban officials forbid the education of girls beyond sixth grade.

Samar's solution: call grades seven through 12 "sixth grade" but teach the material for the upper grades.

Shuhada's 50-bed hospital in the eastern Afghan city of Jaghori has been looted numerous times.

After the Taliban stole the toilets and electrical wiring, the commander who was responsible arrived in Quetta with his ill mother.

Samar admitted the woman to a hospital, then told the commander that his mother couldn't leave until he returned what he had stolen.

He returned most of the toilets and most of the wiring.

Samar released his mother.

When all else fails, Samar said, she tries to get along with the Taliban. "When they say, `Wear the burqa,' we wear the burqa."

Hardship under Taliban

Many women have some story of misery from the Taliban's five years of rule.

Eighteen-year old Ruqia Mahmoodi recalled a Taliban official in 1996 accosting a woman in the city of Ghazni because she had ventured into the local bazaar by herself.

She had come without her husband, the woman had explained, because she was a war widow.

The Taliban official beat her with a rubber baton until she fell to the ground.

A crowd gathered, but no one challenged the official or helped the woman.

There is also 30-year-old Nazeefa Mayar. She was wounded by shrapnel when a rocket blew through her living room in Kabul and killed her 2-year-old son. Her shrapnel wounds made her burqa painful to wear - almost suffocating.

Unable to bear it more than 5 minutes at a time, she spent years at home.

"I hate the burqa," says Mayar, who came to Pakistan five months ago. "Everybody hates it."

For most Afghan women, the passage to Pakistan spells liberation. Shuhada operates two schools for refugee girls in Quetta where demand is so high that classes take place in four-hour shifts.

Thirty-seven girls crowd into a classroom so small that their desks are wedged together in a room in an old private home. As many as three girls share each book.

They put on their matching purple scarves out of politeness when strangers approach, then relax and drop the scarves to their shoulders.

The girls seem enthusiastic and unfazed by the crowding. They shoot their hands up at every opportunity, hoping the teacher will chose them to read a passage from the Quran.

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