Afghan women slowly embrace new freedom

Transition: Taliban are gone, but liberation comes step by careful step.

War On Terrorism : The World

November 26, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Chuncha Ghul went back to nursing school this month after five years of forced vacation. When she stands from her small wooden desk in a narrow classroom to tell you about it, her face is open to the light of the noonday sun - a revolutionary act in itself by the Taliban standards of only a month ago.

She looks her male questioner straight in the eye, another small act of liberation, and her joy is unmistakable.

"You can't imagine how happy I was when I heard the school was reopening," says Ghul, 25. "My friends and relatives, we embraced and kissed each other.

"We are thankful to God it has opened again."

When the Taliban left town 13 days ago, men had few inhibitions about returning to their old ways. They shaved their beards, played music, bought televisions and spoke their mind to all who would listen.

But for the women of Kabul, freedom has come on the installment plan, step by careful step, and the reopening of the women's wing of the Intermediate Medical Institute is only the latest such move.

"It's great to finally be able to continue my education," says Chameez Haqyar. "I'd been calling the school for even a month before the Taliban left, and when I heard four days ago it was reopening, I got in touch right away."

It's been a long time since she or any other woman could cut loose like this, especially with men present, and the body language of the people in the classroom speaks volumes about the changes under way in much of Afghanistan.

The school's assistant director and three teachers, all men, stand unsmiling with their arms folded or with hands in pockets, not making a sound. They don't seem unhappy, merely uncomfortable.

The eight students, women ranging from age 20 to 25, glance about shyly from their desks. As their visitors arrive, they reach for scarves to cover their mouths, but after a few moments they relax, leaving faces uncovered and joining in the discussion, giggling occasionally as Ghul speaks her mind.

Ghul acknowledges that it will be a while before she'll feel free to act as she did before 1996, when the Taliban began kicking women out of schools and jobs, virtually banishing them to their homes.

One can roughly gauge the progress of female boldness in Kabul by the slow, steady climb of their burqas, the billowing garments intended to cover a woman from head to toe, with only a patch of mesh for an eyehole.

Nicknamed the "shuttlecock," for its triangular shape topped by the bulb of the head, it was mandatory during Taliban times that a burqa almost brush against the pavement, showing nary a toe.

Violators risked a beating, as Maliha Faqirzada once found.

"Once I was invited to a relative's house, and when I went to step onto the bus, my feet could be seen, and a Taliban came and hit me on the ankles with sticks. He beat hard, and it hurt for three days."

Now she, too, is back at the nursing school, picking up where she left off in 1996, five years behind her male contemporaries, who were able to continue with their studies. She wears a full-length dress and has folded her covering burqa across the back of her desk. But she'll put it back on before going outside.

So will Ghul, even though she used to fantasize about setting fire to one of the town's burqa shops, where the garments - almost all of them blue - hang in rows like uniforms.

"But once a day," Ghul says, triggering more laughs, "I pull up my shuttlecock in the streets so that my skirt can be seen."

She's far from alone in such demonstrations. This week, visible for the first time: high heels and bare ankles appearing Saturday, with sightings multiplying yesterday.

The longer the week progressed, the shorter the shuttlecocks became, with entire skirts visible. As with the hemline creep of America in the 1960s, the burqa seems to be making a quantum move, the bravest fashion statement in the hemisphere.

But why not just throw it off altogether? The women say they have plenty of good reasons for keeping their progress in check. It's not their fathers or husbands who are holding them back, they say. It's fear, the built-in fear of five years of conditioning that won't easily be forgotten.

"We still cannot dare to uncover our faces in the city because we are afraid the Taliban will come back," says one of the nursing students, who offers only her first name, Parwana.

They also don't fully trust the Northern Alliance, which blew its last chance to rule the city in the early 1990s with a wave of violent retribution.

There is also a creeping sense that men might not be ready for a street full of uncovered women after five years of seeing nothing but cloth. Kabul is the most modern city in Afghanistan, but much of its population is still guided by tribal codes of hill people and strict Islamic upbringing.

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