The Middle East...
For many, the mere mention of this phrase brings to mind a hodge-podge of images: oil rigs, vast desert, ancient architecture and civilizations, and war. For what sometimes seems like forever, the countries in the Middle East have been fighting against each other, against the West, against Russia, and other opponents. Iran and Iraq are especially notorious; both have often been in the news with what many consider to be extremist ideologies. Other countries are no less involved in the fray, though. War-torn Afghanistan has been at its own throat for 20 years, as factions within the country struggled for control of an area that, although it contains no seaports, is nonetheless valuable as a trade route. In the last few years, the Taliban ("student") movement, a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist group, has been moving to replace the previous puppet Communist regime. The new leadership was small at first, but it grew quickly and, some say, mysteriously. By the summer of 1996, they were in control of over 75% of the country, and in September of that year, they took control of the country's capital, Kabul. From that point on, everything changed for the Afghan people, especially for the women.
The Taliban's version of Islam is extreme, to say the least. Even other Muslim countries do not practice Islam to the extent demanded by the Taliban soldiers. Taliban leader Mullah Omar says they are imposing Allah's laws, and that outsiders hate them because they practice the purest form of Islam in the world, as well as in history. Since the Taliban's rise, they've established a department of Amar-bil-Ma'roof Wa Nahi Anil-Munkar ("enjoining good and forbidding evil" called by many Afghan people the "religious police"). Other changes were quick to follow. Schools were closed to girls. Females over the age of 8 must not venture out of the home without being chaperoned by a close male relative; a father, brother or husband. Even then, they must cover themselves head to toe, including the face, with a burqa, or thick, heavy veil with a small net insert which allows the woman to see where she's going. While out of her house, she may not speak, as the sound of her voice may excite a man. If she must communicate with a shopkeeper, a male relative must speak for her. Even laughter is outlawed for women. She must not wear shoes with heels, as the sound of her steps might inflame a man's passions. Instead, the Taliban have ordered them to wear soft-soled slippers, and thick stockings or socks so that the color of their skin cannot be seen through them. Women cannot travel in private vehicles with male passengers. The windows in their homes must be covered or painted so that men on the streets cannot look in and see them moving about inside. One Taliban official was quoted as saying that there were "two places for a Muslim woman: in her husband's house or in the grave".
Imprisonment in their homes is bad enough, but the Taliban have taken it much further. There is no form of entertainment such as TV, which the Taliban view as corrupt Western immorality. Drawing, photographing or in any way depicting the human body is banned; even dolls are not allowed. Music and singing has been outlawed. Many homes are allowed no electricity or running water. For a while, at least, there were special women's bathhouses; these allowed the isolated females a time to be with other females. But this luxury, too, has been removed. Now, women must keep themselves and their children clean as best they can with cold water.
When the bathhouses were first closed to them, a small group of women in Kabul staged a peaceful protest. Taliban soldiers beat many of them, some so badly they required medical attention, then turned the business end of a firehose on them and said, "There's your bathhouse".
Red Cross and other aid workers in Afghanistan say the loss of these facilities has seriously endangered the women's health. Ailments ranging from scabies to vaginal and uterine infections have been on the rise ever since. These, in addition to severe depression and more serious mental illness, would be more than enough to keep medical caregivers booked to capacity. They would, except that women are no longer allowed to receive non-emergency care in the capital city's working hospitals. Instead, they are shunted to the Central Polyclinic, the women's hospital where conditions are less than deplorable. Most rooms have no electricity. There is no running water, no lab, no x-ray or operating equipment and instruments. Other hospitals, which were supposed to be allowed to offer emergency care, are being intimidated into turning away even those women who will die without care. Stories abound; one woman came into the emergency care facility with burns over 80% of her body, but Taliban soldiers would not allow the male doctor to undress her so he could treat her injuries. She died. Another woman died from intestinal complications because she did not have a burqa and so could not go out to seek help. A pregnant woman, on the way to her regular checkup, was overcome by a need for fresh air. She ducked into a little-travelled alleyway and raised her veil for a moment to catch her breath, but a Taliban soldier saw and immediately began beating her. The woman miscarried on the spot and later died from loss of blood and lack of care.
The Taliban have also forbidden women to attend schools, or work outside the home. Even widows (of which there are many in this country that has been at war for so long) may not hold a job. Instead, they are reduced to begging or sending children out on the streets to beg for money or food. A few women have special permission by the Taliban to hold positions that the men cannot do, such as assist at the women's hospital; yet the Taliban is so unpredictable that even if a woman has a permit to leave her home and work, she may still be stopped by the religious police and beaten or killed.
Taliban soldiers are always on the lookout for "shameless women" and other troublemakers. Women who violate the rules, such as going out without an escort, baring the face or ankles, or walking with a man who is not a relative, are met with immediate and brutal retribution. Punishments range from public lashings in the arena to beatings on the street which often end in death, or straight-out murder on the spot. Men are subject to their wrath as well several male thieves have been featured in Kabul's arena too. Islamic law, according to the Taliban, calls for the amputation of the thief's hand. Afterward, officials carry the severed hand around held high, shouting that such will be the fate of all who break Allah's laws.
In the beginning, before they came to control so much of the country, the tendency of officials in various countries (including the U.S.) was to see the Taliban as a blessing. After all, they were bringing the fighting to a stop. The were imposing a kind of peace in a place that had not known peace for many years. At least one corporation, Unocal, has its eye on the money that can be made by running a gas pipeline across Afghanistan from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Taliban-enforced law and order is in their best interests. However, as the fundamentalist leadership has progressed, the satisfaction of other nations' leaders has slowly turned to distaste, then in some cases to horror. The Taliban is now under increasing pressure to conform to international standards of human rights and decency.
As far as some Muslim scholars are concerned, the Taliban's brand of Islam is hopelessly incompatible with the present day world. While most Muslim women practice hijab, or wearing a veil and behaving modestly, they do not require the total covering of the face, as with the Taliban's required burqa. According to the Prophet, post-menarche-age girls and women should cover the body entirely, except for the face and the hands. And the Qu'ran states in many places and in many ways that men and women are to be equal in all things; that women should earn their living, just as men do; and that it is a requirement of all Muslims, male and female, to pursue knowledge from the cradle to the grave.
The Taliban, naturally, sees things in a very different light, and resists Western insistence that they change their ways. On the contrary, they state flatly that women's rights were defined by Allah, not the Taliban; they are only enforcing them. "People who do not acknowledge the western-bestowed rights at all", said one Taliban official, who remained nameless, "to force them into obeying them, to complain against their attitude, to accuse them of not giving these rights to their women...would be denial of their freedom, denial of their religious rights. And this is in itself against the principles of the West". Taliban leaders have promised over and over to restore women's right to work and to be educated, and their access to basic medical care "when the time is right," or "when peace is restored," or "when we control the entire country." In the meantime, the Taliban maintains firmly that they are merely protecting their women from physical, spiritual and moral dangers. They also say that they have been welcomed with open arms by most of the Afghan people, and that this is why they have found it so easy to take control. They see their cause as just and their jihad as more superior and holy than any other going on in the world today. Members of the Taliban movement even feel that it is compulsory upon every Muslim to support their cause and aid them in whatever way they can, as they are the blessed and the chosen of Allah.
While the gap remains between international expectations of improvements in Afghanistan and Taliban willingness to change, the UN and other aid providers face a tense dilemma. In order to be allowed to stay and help the women and children, who might otherwise starve or die of neglect, they must compromise their own feelings on human rights. If they insist on better treatment for the women, they may be refused entry by the Taliban, and thus not be able to help the suffering at all. There is no easy decision for them.
Meanwhile, the Afghanistan seat at the UN, which is currently held by the representative of the Rabbani government, is being held out of the Taliban's reach. No member of the UN (except Pakistan) recognizes the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan. Last summer, the U.S. suspended operations in the Afghan Embassy due to fighting among the factions therein; and in April of this year, the UN gave the Taliban an ultimatum: make rapid progress in negotiations regarding women's rights and better working conditions for UN staff, or they would reduce activities in Afghanistan. Still, Omar's followers have historically shown little concern for international opinion. As long as the pressure to conform comes from a human rights point of view, they aren't likely to change. Abdullahi An-Na'im, a Muslim and U.S.-based legal scholar, challenges the Taliban claims that their edicts come from the Qu'ran. He writes, "Unless Muslims [condemn these policies and practices] from an Islamic point of view as well, the Taliban will get away with their false claim that these heinous crimes against humanity are dictated by Islam as a religion."
Several women's groups have formed to help the Afghan women's plight. Of these, the most notable may be the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). This political group works toward the goal of freeing Afghanistan from the fundamentalist tyranny of the Taliban. Activities include the publication of Paikaar-e-Zan ("Women"s Struggle" a publication of militant Iranian women), audio cassettes, demonstrations, media interviews, and establishing schools for girls. Unfortunately, in several Middle-Eastern countries, the simple act of possessing a copy of "Woman's Struggle" is against the law, and is punishable by imprisonment. Needless to say, RAWA's activities are somewhat oppressed; still, they do what they can, and as much as they can.
While the misery of the Afghan women's situation is heart-wrenching, for many in the West, Afghanistan is a million miles away, and not a very big concern for us. To those who do not feel fear at hearing of these things, I say look to your own backyards...we have a Western version of the Taliban right here in the U.S., and the threat is quite real. Fundamentalism in all its forms is cause for concern to those of us who do not fit the enforced standards. If we don't want to find ourselves in the same predicament as the Afghans, we must stay alert to signs of danger from the Religious Reich. They are as much an extremist group as the Taliban.
As for what you can do to help the women in Afghanistan, write to your congressman or senator. Urge them to bring the subject of these women to the table in political arenas. Send funds for supplies and help bring sustainable, income-generating work to the thousands of Afghan women refugees along Pakistan's border. Help raise awareness of this situation so that others will become involved. And light a candle for peace in this ravaged nation...not a cowering, terrorized, enforced peace but a true, lasting peace of contentment and well-being, the peace of a country rebuilding and rising from the ashes at last.
Author's note, 8/22: I began researching this article about two and a half weeks ago, and committed it to these pages just four days before followers of Osama bin Laden, international terrorist loyal to and perhaps part of the Taliban, stated for the press that the U.S. could face a "black fate", and five days before the United States sent cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. Since then, tensions have grown, with more violence expected and prepared for on both sides. Just how nasty the escalation will get remains to be seen. Whether or not you agree with the President's decision to retaliate against bin Laden for the Embassy bombings, the fact remains that the Taliban and its fundamentalist regime is a threat to freedom and peace-loving people. Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen the ties of our communities and networks, so this scenario of fundamentalism will not appear on our own doorsteps.
Farewell, good ol' Marjan... The lone king of Kabul zoo succumbs to his age at 48, after surviving years and years of deprivations and symbolizing to kabulis the spirit of resiliency itself Well.....that's sad news, indeed. To my eyes, Marjan symbolized hope. However, in thinking about that dear old lion's death I choose to believe that when he heard the swoosh of kites flying over Kabul, heard the roars from the football stadium, experienced the renewed sounds of music in the air and heard the click-click of chess pieces being moved around chessboards....well, the old guy knew that there was plenty of hope around and it was okay for him to let go and fly off, amid kite strings, to wherever it is the spirits of animals go.
Peace to you Marjan and peace to Afghanistan.
[Diana Smith, via the Internet]