The Struggle Continues

For the women of Afghanistan, the demise of the Taliban regime might be only the first step on a long march to equality and democracy.

November 25, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

THERE ARE FEW better illustrations of the waywardness of Taliban rule than its treatment of Afghanistan's women - harassed and brutalized for simply walking down the street, confined to their homes unless accompanied by a man, denied education, forced to wear the head-to-toe burqa that makes them look like faceless ghosts moving beyond the boundaries of perception.

Such images of capricious brutality have been used to sell the world that the war against the Taliban is just and righteous. But as the Taliban are defeated, Afghan women are afraid they will not be heard at the talks aimed at forming a new government.

This comes despite stepped-up efforts to speak out against the oppression of Afghan women by leaders of the war against the Taliban. Laura Bush took over her husband's radio show a week ago to denounce the Taliban's treatment of women. Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, made similar statements. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the issue at a conference on the status of Afghan women in Washington last week.

"The new government of Afghanistan must be broad-based and representational, and that means it must include women," Powell said. "It must respect the rights of Afghan women to choose how they will participate in their society.

"In every message that we have taken out to the new potential leaders of Afghanistan, we have emphasized the point that whatever comes after the Taliban must be broad-based, must include every element of Afghan society," he said.

But many concerned about the plight of Afghan women are looking for action to back up these words.

"People are talking about it," says Anne Brodsky, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has been active in Afghan women's rights for several years. "But what is really concerning us is who you hear and see at the meetings of the top-level leaders in Afghanistan.

"When you see the pictures of the next leaders, there are no women involved," she says of the Northern Alliance and others now taking power. "These are Islamic fundamentalists as well. They talk a little bit better game, they are politically savvy, have more friends in the United States and are Western speaking and acting and dressing, but nonetheless, they have never respected women's rights, or human rights for that matter, and they are not going to start now."

Brodsky is involved with the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA), a group that has been fighting for women's rights in that country since 1977. That was when Afghan women were seeing the benefits of two decades of impressive strides - dressing as they pleased, going to colleges and graduate schools, joining the government in Cabinet posts - made under various regimes friendly toward the Soviet Union, the global power on Afghanistan's northern border.

"This was largely confined to urban areas," says Larry Goodson, who recently published Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban. He says that in the rural areas, particularly those dominated by the Pashtun - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group that provided the Taliban with most of its membership - women were expected to remain at home, behind veils, even as they put on skirts and makeup in the cities.

To many Afghan traditionalists, the equality that women were enjoying in cities was seen as an unwelcome aspect of modernity imposed by Marxists. When the Soviets invaded in 1980, women's rights were part of the enemy agenda.

"If you were anti-Soviet, you were justified as being anti-women's rights," says Brodsky.

What concerns RAWA members today is that it was after the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahedeen took power in 1992 that the oppression of women really began.

The people who were in power then are the same ones who are now leaders of the victorious Northern Alliance. So RAWA members are not enthusiastic about seeing them back in the halls of government.

A record of brutality

"Between 1992 and 1996, when these people were considered the legitimate government, they were as misogynist and anti-democratic as the Taliban," says Taheema Faryal, an Afghan RAWA member who was in the United States last week for a series of meetings.

"They were just as brutal," she says, noting that it was during this time that Islamic dress for women became required, not the full-length burqa, but covered heads and, in some places, faces.

But Faryal and others say the real problem during those years was not legalized oppression but the daily brutality women endured.

In the chaos that was Kabul, some were abducted or raped. Others were claimed as brides by the warlords and forced into marriage. They might have had the right to go to school and jobs, but many were simply afraid to go out on the streets.

Legacy of fear

Faryal says this is why many women are still wearing the burqa today, even in cities where the Taliban has been forced from power.

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