Waiting to exhale
Afghan women exult but wonder if freedom will last
Saturday, November 17, 2001
(11-17) 04:00 PDT Kabul, Afghanistan -- Nurull Haq used to be a busy merchant. Every day at his stall in the bazaar, he would sell 10 to 12 burqas -- the head-to-toe garment women were forced to wear in public under the Taliban regime.
But since U.S. air strikes began last month, he hasn't sold a single one.
"When America started bombing, people thought it was the end for the Taliban," said Nurull, theorizing on why his sales have plummeted.
Odds are he won't sell off his remaining merchandise, since the women of Kabul are too busy celebrating the departure of the Taliban.
"When I heard the Taliban was gone, I danced around my house," said Nasri, 30, a former bank employee forced by the Taliban to quit her job. "I was so happy, I blasted music from a cassette player."
Like all Kabul women, Nasri fell victim to restrictive social laws implemented by the fundamentalist Islamic government. Women were not only required to wear the burqa, which forced them to peer at the world through a 5- inch-square mesh opening, but were banned from working or from venturing outside the home unless accompanied by a male relative. If they broke the rules, they were subject to beatings by the "religious police."
War widows -- there are an estimated 30,000 in Kabul alone -- were particularly hard hit. Unable to work and as sole providers for their families,
many were forced to beg on the streets to feed their children.
Tradition and fear instilled from years of Taliban rule may keep Nasri and many other women in Kabul from throwing away their burqas just yet. Nevertheless, it is evident that changes are taking place since the Northern Alliance army rolled into Kabul.
Some alliance officials have said schools for girls will be reopened. On crowded streets, women now stroll unescorted, with their sockless feet in sandals peeking out from beneath their robes. They ride alone in taxis, and some have even returned to work.
Radio announcer Awa Nurstani, 29, gave her first broadcast in five years yesterday, reading the news for Pashtun listeners of Radio Afghanistan. She is one of three women hired this week by the station.
"I want to tell women that they should go to work and help rebuild Afghanistan," said Nurstani, who wore a black scarf atop a stylish hairdo.
Kabul was once a cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city's university. Afghan women held government jobs -- in the 1980s, there were seven female members of parliament. Women drove cars, traveled and went on dates. Fifty percent of university students were women.
But when the mujahedeen -- the "holy warriors" who were the forerunners of the Northern Alliance -- arrived in 1992, life slowly began to change.
For the next four years, warring factions fought among themselves, reducing half of Kabul to rubble. They closed schools and raped hundreds of girls. Amnesty International reported that the mujahedeen used rape and sexual assault as "a method of intimidating vanquished populations and rewarding soldiers."
When the Taliban took over in 1996, they established law and order but turned Afghanistan's 12 million women into virtual prisoners in their own homes.
Masuri, 50, is an obstetrician and one of the few women allowed to work under the Taliban -- health care workers and teachers of girls under 8 were exempt from their ban on work. At her home, Masuri proudly showed a visitor a photo of herself as a young woman dressed in a miniskirt.
"I felt like a bird trapped in a cage" during the past five years, said Masuri. "We were worried for our daughters, for whom there were no schools. The Taliban took away our rights. It was their culture. It was not our religion."
Masuri then produced a poem she had written about the religious police, who were known officially as the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. The poem is aptly titled "Death."
"Women, in their burqas, had no voice under the whip," wrote Masuri.
"Everyone was starving, while the Taliban walked around with resentment and whips."
The Taliban's religious police used brown, foot-long leather whips, three inches wide and half an inch thick, to punish those who committed infractions of their strict code.
The Kabul physician recalled an incident when she shared a cab with three female friends and was stopped by a police officer, who whipped both the driver and the women.
"We escaped out the other side, and tried to pay the fare, but the Talib was still whipping the driver. I was so scared."
Limitations were also placed on Masuri's medical practice. She could not treat male patients, deliver babies or enter a male stranger's house. If a woman in labor sent her husband to fetch the doctor, Masuri couldn't even come to the door. As a result, she opened a small clinic for women across the courtyard from her house.
Masuri has not shed her burqa, waiting for the alliance to introduce new policies regarding women. She is worried that the more conservative factions within the alliance could crack down on women, just as the Taliban did.Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/11/17/MN49111.DTL#ixzz1qKkbfDPx