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The face of fear hidden behind a veil of tyranny

Living under the Taliban's "campaign of gender apartheid" ... an Afghani woman.

Bought and sold, denied basic rights, women under the Taliban are treated only slightly better than farm animals. The Herald's Paul McGeough reports.

She came from Herat, in the drought-bleached far west of Afghanistan, and she had got to where she needed to be: the operating table in Herat's creaking 400-bed general hospital. And she had a qualified doctor at her side.

It was quite a feat, given the State-enforced oppression of Afghan women, which makes them least likely to get medical treatment.

Then came the ruckus. The zealots from the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue (PVPV), the brutal enforcers of Afghanistan's oppressive code of life, barged in.

The doctor was rounded up with the rest of the medical staff and herded into the hospital garden where they were lectured on beard length and other important issues. By the time the doctor got back to the operating theatre, his patient was dead.

Little more is known about the woman or her condition. But her anonymity suits this tale of a country in which more than half the population are prisoners in their homes and in their heads.

No other regime in the world is as methodical or as violent in its discrimination against such a big portion of its people. With few exceptions, the Taliban refuse to allow Afghan women to work, to study, to leave their homes or to dress as they might. They may leave their high-walled family compounds only if accompanied by an adult male relative.

Should they venture into the streets without the ubiquitous burqa - a cumbersome and billowing head-to-toe veil that leaves their shoes as the only indication of personality or individuality - they will be abused and possibly beaten in the streets by the swot-squads from the PVPV.

They may not wear white socks - that is the colour of the Taliban flag. Their shoes must not make a noise as they hit the pavement. They must never show their faces - the burqa has a roughly embroidered mesh through which they may have only a fuzzy view of the world. They cannot eat in restaurants, where the men hunker on the floor, eating rice and mutton knucklebones by hand. They are discouraged from even visiting the bazaar for tasks as mundane as buying food or fabric for clothing.

And they are bought and sold, even if the drought that now blights the land has wrecked the market for brides.

Prices have plummeted, from up to $A3,500 to as low as $A200; and girls who used to be offered for sale when they were 15 or 16 are now being put on the market at ages as low as nine in the hope that their prospective husband's family will cover the cost of feeding them.

Few women are seen out and about in the streets, and those who do venture abroad often are seen clinging to the mud-brick walls that shield the family compounds from prying eyes. They keep their burqas tightly wrapped about them and they ooze fear and uncertainty.

So when a tractor pulling a trailer filled with burqa-clad women passes on a dusty laneway in Khoja Bahauddin, in the north-east, it is difficult not to conclude that the women of this country are treated only slightly better than the farm animals that usually walk to market.

United Nations and other humanitarian agencies fight a running battle with the Taliban on what the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, Emma Bonino, describes as "this campaign of gender apartheid".

A UNICEF officer in Herat said that schools for the thousands of children in camps for the internally displaced around the city had been closed because girls over the age of 10 had been enrolled.

And the World Food Program (WFP), which uses a range of incentive schemes to get food to people, has difficulty getting the Taliban to understand the inequity of girls being denied the educational bonus that goes to the boys. The WFP is also up against Taliban implacability in Kabul, now a city of beggars, where its efforts to feed as many as 40,000 war widows are hampered by the bans on Afghan women working or even talking to expatriates.

These widows, their husbands lost fighting for their country, must beg to feed themselves and their children.

The Taliban's endless edicts on what women may or may not do tie these organisations in knots. A very few Afghan women are allowed to work in the health field - essentially so that Afghan women in need of treatment will have no contact with men who are not of their family.

But these female workers are not allowed to travel in cars in which there is a male passenger; they are not allowed to work alongside their male colleagues; and at the WFP compound in Kabul the Taliban insisted on the building of a separate entrance to the building and a separate gate to the compound for the women - and then declared that women could not work for the WFP.

There have been brief and sometimes glorious periods in history for Afghan women, like when the 15th-century Queen Gawhar Shad ruled all the land from the Tigris River to China from her feminist and caring throne in Herat. But since Gawhar Shad the women have been forced in and out of the burqa according to the views of the men who took charge.

However, no regime has been as tyrannical as the Taliban, and the pain for the women of today is all the greater because the Taliban crackdown came so fast on the heels of the 1980s Soviet occupation - a time in which women, particularly in the towns and cities, were allowed to work, study and play.

In opposition-controlled Faisabad the director of the local hospital, Dr Nafisa Khadija, 40, got misty-eyed as she recalled her days as an intern in Kabul in the 1980s.

"Kabul was good, the best; we didn't wear the burqa, and people had enough money to feed and enjoy themselves."

The departure of the Russians was a turning point, and the lights effectively went out for the women of Afghanistan with the emergence of the Taliban in 1994.

Overnight the 8,000 women studying at Kabul University were expelled; more than 100,000 young girls were pulled out of schools in the capital, except for Koranic studies; and all work - except in the area of health - was outlawed. Those who wore their burqas incorrectly were whipped with bicycle chains.

It was painful and frustrating enough for the women who first suffered the strictures of the Taliban, but think of future generations in which more than half of the population will be ignorant and uneducated - all by State design.

The ban on women working has thrown the whole field of education into chaos: thousands of those who taught boys as well as girls were women. Some of these teachers have taken to living dangerously by running "home schools" for girls that operate under the constant fear of discovery and forced closure.

The Taliban pull at the threads of Afghan culture and religion to justify their treatment of women. Women's rights is a communist-inspired plot for the titillation of men. And the burqa and all that goes with it? It is essential to protect the honour, dignity and personal safety of the women of Afghanistan.

But an Afghanistan scholar, Ahmed Rashid, attributes the cruelty of the regime to the barren life experiences of the Taliban leadership, who he describes as "the orphans, the rootless, the lumpen proletariat from the war and the refugee camps".

They grew up in the camps of neighbouring Pakistan, learning limitedly about life - either in the male-dominated madrassa Islamic schools that taught them about the ideal Islamic society of Mohammed's day; or in the brutal trenches of the civil war that erupted in Afghanistan upon the retreat of the Russians. The young Talibs were an all-male brotherhood, many of them orphans who grew up without the company of women; and the madrassa mullahs taught them by rote that women were a temptation to be avoided, a distraction from their service of Allah.

Mr Rashid argues that the Taliban took power in Afghanistan feeling utterly threatened by a half of the population they had never known, so it was easy to banish them.

The impact of the Taliban's discrimination on the health of women is appalling: a woman has to convince a male relative, if she has one, to escort her to a doctor or to a hospital; and the doctor she sees has to be a woman or an old man.

Dentists cannot properly examine a woman, unless they post lookouts. A male doctor cannot do a proper examination of a female patient because he is not allowed to touch her. And the Taliban's efforts to segregate health services have spread thin resources disproportionately in favour of the male population.

The result is shocking health statistics. Infant mortality is 250 per 1,000 live births, three times that of neighbouring Pakistan; maternal mortality is 1,700 per 100,000 live births, four times higher than in Pakistan and 100 times that of Britain.

A Western humanitarian worker said: "The situation can only get worse as women are denied health care and international NGOs [non-governmental organisations] come under pressure to withdraw support for health systems that discriminate in this way.

"The banning of training for women health staff will have a longer-term effect as well. You see girls playing in the streets till about age seven or eight, and then they disappear as prisoners of the family compound. When they are married off they'll have about eight kids each, and they will be lucky if half of them survive birth ... and that's only if the mothers survive all of the births themselves."

The Taliban has snuffed the candle of women's rights in most of Afghanistan, but the flame still splutters in the opposition- controlled areas in the north-east. It was there, in the town of Faisabad, that the Herald met Huda Mustafawi. She was not wearing a burqa, but as she talked about the if-and-when of Taliban control of this last pocket of relative freedom, she instinctively pulled an imaginary burqa around herself.

Ms Mustafawi runs a spinning and weaving workshop for women who work in a sunny walled garden, the clack-clack-clack of the loom shuttles rising above the hubbub of 42 women clearly enjoying their task.

This is not where Ms Mustafawi expected to be at this stage of her young life. When the Taliban marched into Kabul in 1996, she was in the third year of medical studies in Kabul. "Of course it made me angry. I have half a degree, which is hopeless till I can finish it."

Here in the Faisabad garden you can see the women's faces - some smiling, some shy, most troubled after years of hardship. And all of them harbour the fear that only Ms Mustafawi will articulate. "The women feel safe here. It is good for them to be working in groups, to get out of their homes and to talk among themselves. But I don't think the Taliban would approve.

"Here women can go to school and to the office. I hope and pray that they do not come here because I fear it would be the end for us here."

While the women in the garden produce richly coloured cloth for fancy garments and upholstery, three provinces away in bombed-out, dispirited Mazar-e-Sharif the Taliban have well and truly extinguished the flame for women.

The torment of the country's next female generation seemed well and truly fixed when a 13-year-old girl, learning how to sew in a neighbourhood women's group, was asked how she might use her new skills. "I would like to make burqas," she said.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 09, 2001


Powerful bomb blast rocks Afghan Taliban ministry September 8, 2001 Posted: 8:07 AM EDT (1207 GMT)

KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- An unknown number of people was wounded when a powerful bomb exploded in Kabul on Saturday inside the interior ministry of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, witnesses said.

They added the device went off during working hours inside the anti- crime department, injuring mostly officials.

"I don't know about deaths. Some of the wounded were in critical condition and it was a big explosion and many windows have been broken as a result," a witness said.

There was no official comment about the blast and nobody had so far claimed responsibility.

The hardline Taliban, who control around 95 percent of Afghanistan, have blamed previous blasts on opposition forces loyal to veteran guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Masood.

Masood, the military chief of the government toppled by the Taliban in 1996, says previous blasts were the work of disgruntled Taliban officials.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 09, 2001.

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