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Afghanistan's relentless war
on women

The Guardian
KABUL, Afghanistan
(December 17, 1997 11:24 a.m. EST)

In its drive to restore 12th-century Islamic purity and fundamentalism, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has launched the greatest assault on womanhood in nigh on a millennium.
And the women of Afghanistan have disappeared. It has been the "ethnic cleansing" of an entire gender from a country: 10 million women denied education, work, hospital care.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called its policies against women and children "despicable."

On Sept. 6, the Taliban implemented its latest policy: closing hospitals to women. This meant that sick and dying women were dumped into a derelict clinic without running water -- a place where the evening meal arrives at 6 o'clock on a wheelbarrow.
This decision may prove a watershed. International condemnation has for the first time forced the Taliban to back down. Last month it announced the reversal of the decision to withdraw health care for women.

"The Taliban want the Afghan seat at the United Nations," says one international aid worker in Kabul. "They still have an eye on international legitimacy, and even they realized that the women's hospital business was going too far."

Twenty-year-old Sultan, a student of English in Kandahar, the Taliban capital, says he misses the girls and women. The few who are outside on this autumn day move under nylon tents shaped like shuttlecocks.

Sultan used to be able to tell who the girls were by their eyes. Sometimes, Sultan says, a voice from under the shuttlecock whispers to him: "Hey, Sultan, it's me, Fatima. Remember me from school?"

After the faces disappeared, women's voices were banned. In shops or in the market, a woman must have her brother, her husband or her father to speak to the shopkeeper so that she will not excite him with the sound of her voice.

By March there was only one thing left to silence -- their feet. Women were forbidden to wear heeled shoes under their tents because it distracted men. Now they shuffle through the autumn mud in the ordained slippers.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar lives with his two wives and children in a compound with high walls. He's around 40 years old, walks with a battle limp and never leaves Kandahar. His dream of a laboratory of Islamic virtue is directed from here. His enforcers are the Koranic Police for the Prevention of Vice and the Propagation of Virtue.

Inside, the commander sits cross-legged with his 10 young mullahs. Abul Raman, an Islamic warrior for 18 years, has lost his youth, a dozen relatives and -- here, in a bare room furnished with a telephone and a spittoon -- any human joy he may once have known. He has been in charge of the Holy War against women that was so easily won.
The war against sexual crime was another victory. His one and only adultery case happened a year ago. If the couple had both been unmarried, the punishment for sex would have been 100 lashes. Each was married, so they had to be killed.

"What do you prove by burying a man and woman in the ground up to their neck and then crushing their skulls with stones?" he is asked.

"Nothing special," says Abdul Rahman. "It is the law of God."
The men who lead the Taliban today were trained in religious schools in Pakistan that were funded by the Saudis. (During Soviet rule, religious schools were banned in Afghanistan, so the mullahs moved to Pakistan.)

Dr. Omer Gebreel, head of the World Health Organization in Afghanistan and himself a gynecologist, described how he once appeared before the Taliban high command to make the case for women gynecologists being allowed to continue work.

"I rolled up the sleeve of my right arm and explained that in my work I have to examine a woman internally. I looked around the table, and they had all put their heads down and covered their faces with their hands -- some were giggling with embarrassment."

Chaupira Sunic is a beautician. She had just put the curlers in her customer's hair, a bride, and was about to apply black eyeliner when four men came into her beauty parlor. The bride, Zakia, was marrying a German, who was taking her back home. Three of the men were young -- 16, maybe 17 -- the fourth was older. He was the one who spoke: "You have started the bride so you can finish her, but she will be your last. This place is closed from today."

Chaupira finished the hair and closed the shop. The next day, she passed by and saw that the shop sign had been covered with sheets of white paper. She decided to stay in Kabul, keep her face covered and her head down and hope that the Taliban would be replaced by others -- as leaders and factions had come and gone so many times before during 19 years of war in Afghanistan. Three weeks later, she was visiting her mother's grave when she saw something that changed her mind.

It was early afternoon when she got to Kabul cemetery, and as she was walking up the hill to where her mother is buried she saw a young couple on a bicycle. The husband was perhaps 20, his wife younger.

A young Talib raised his hand and stopped the bike. Why, he asked the woman, was she breaking the rules and riding on the bike, showing her ankles. She replied: "I am with my husband. It is not your wish for me but his wish for me, and if he does not mind, then who are you to say?"

Chaupira Sunic saw the argument begin and end. An older Taliban came from behind. "He said, 'I will deal with this shameless woman.' Then he shot the husband in the foot and the woman straight in the heart. He killed her, and everyone who saw it ran like crazy and the two of them were left lying on the ground."

The next day, Chaupira took the refugee road across the Pakistan border to a U.N. camp, where 2,000 families have gathered -- some with tents supplied by the U.N., most living under sacks -- in a valley where there is nothing: no crops, no water, no shade.

"I would stay here for the rest of my life rather than go back there while the Taliban are still in Kabul," she says.




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