FW: The Taliban (fwd)

Craven, Jim jcraven at clark.edu
Fri Sep 14 17:33:48 MDT 2001

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From: Marilyn Davis [mailto:marilyn at deliberate.com]
Sent: Friday, September 14, 2001 4:14 PM
To: warriornet at lists.speakeasy.org
Subject: Fwd: The Taliban (fwd)

Buried Alive
Afghan Women Under the Taliban
by Jan Goodwin

February 27, 1998 --Thirty-thousand men and boys poured
into the dilapidated Olympic sports stadium in Kabul,
capital of Afghanistan. Street hawkers peddled nuts,
biscuits and tea to the waiting crowd. The scheduled
entertainment? They were there to see a young woman,
Sohaila, receive 100 lashes, and to watch two thieves have
their right hands amputated. Sohaila had been arrested
walking with a man who was not a relative, a sufficient
crime for her to be found guilty of adultery. Since she was
single, it was punishable by flogging; had she been
married, she would have been publicly stoned to death.

As Sohaila, completely covered in the shroud-like burqa
veil, was forced to kneel and then flogged, Taliban
"cheerleaders" had the stadium ringing with the chants of
onlookers. Among those present there were just three women:
the young Afghan, and two female relatives who had
accompanied her. The crowd fell silent only when the
luckless thieves were driven into the arena and pushed to
the ground. Physicians using surgical scalpels promptly
carried out the amputations. Holding the severed hands
aloft by the index fingers, a grinning Taliban fighter
warned the huge crowd, "These are the chopped-off hands of
thieves, the punishment for any of you caught stealing."
Then, to restore the party atmosphere, the thieves were
driven in a jeep once around the stadium, a flourish that
brought the crowd to their feet, as was intended.

These Friday circuses, at which Rome's Caligula would
doubtless have felt at home, are to become weekly fixtures
for the entertainment-starved male residents of Kabul. Now
that "weak officials" have been purged from key ministries,
says the city's governor, Manan Niazi, who like many of the
regime's officials is also a mullah, the way has been
cleared for such displays. "We have a lot of such
unpunished cases, but the previous civil servants didn't
have the courage to do what we are doing. These people have
now been replaced, and these events will continue." In
fact, the next scheduled program, as announced, would be
one stoning to death and three amputations.

Earlier that same week, three men accused of "buggery" had
been sentenced to death by being partially buried in the
ground and then having a wall pushed over on them by a
bulldozer, a bizarre and labor-intensive form of execution
dreamed up by the supreme leader of the Taliban, the
36-year-old Mullah Mohammad Omar. After another man, a
saboteur, was hanged, his corpse was driven around the
city, swinging from a crane. Clearly, there is nothing
covert about the regime's punitive measures. In fact, the
Taliban insure they are as widely publicized as possible.
Last March, for example, the regime's radio station, the
only one permitted to operate, broadcast to the nation that
a young woman caught trying to flee Afghanistan with a man
who was not her relative had been stoned to death. On
another occasion, it was announced over the airwaves that
225 women had been rounded up and sentenced to a lashing
for violating the dress code. One woman had the top of her
thumb amputated for the crime of wearing nail polish. And
when the Taliban castrated and then hanged the former
communist president and his brother in 1996, they left
their bloodied bodies dangling from lampposts in busy
downtown Kabul for three days. Photographs of the corpses
appeared in news magazines and newspapers around the world.

The Taliban now control between 65 and 85 percent of
Afghanistan, a country where statistics are anyone's guess.
(Even the population size of Afghanistan is uncertain:
possibly 15, maybe 22 million. The U.S. Department of
State's figure on war fatalities-1.5 million- has not
changed since 1985, although the armed conflict there is
now in its 19th year.) For the last two years, the Taliban
have been trying to win both a seat at the United Nations
and international recognition. Thus far, only three
countries have recognized the regime: Pakistan, the United
Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. And even Pakistan is
becoming embarrassed by its neighbor.

Until the Taliban came to power, Saudi Arabia was the most
oppressive country on earth for women, and many of the
Taliban's restrictions are rooted in that hardline Gulf
state's gender apartheid. Saudi Arabia has also been
financially supportive of the Taliban and the religious
schools in which they are indoctrinated. "We have long
regarded the Saudi kingdom as our right hand," says the
head of the Taliban governing council.

The Taliban regime claim they are restoring Afghanistan to
the "purity of Islam," and the Western press invariably
parrots them. But authorities in a number of Muslim
countries insist that few of the regime's dictates have a
basis in Islam. And just as the U.N. has denied the Taliban
a seat in the General Assembly, so too, the Organization of
Islamic Conference, a 55-country body, has withheld both a
seat and recognition from the regime. "The Taliban is not
the image the Islamic world wants to project," says one
Muslim diplomat. And with good reason.

Now in its fourth year of existence, the pariah regime has
expunged all leisure activities. Their list of what is
illegal grows daily: music, movies and television, picnics,
wedding parties, New Year celebrations, any kind of
mixed-sex gathering. They've also banned children's toys,
including dolls and kites; card and board games; cameras;
photographs and paintings of people and animals; pet
parakeets; cigarettes and alcohol; magazines and
newspapers, and most books. They've even forbidden applause
-- a moot point, since there's nothing left to applaud.

"Whatever we are doing in our country, it is not in order
for the world to be happy with us," Sher Abbas Stanakzai,
who until recently was the Taliban's 36-year-old deputy
Minister of Foreign Affairs, told me during my visit.
Explaining why his regime has banned virtually all forms of
entertainment, he says, "Time should be spent serving the
country and praying to God. Nothing else. Everything else
is a waste of time, and people are not allowed to waste
their time."

For women, the restrictions are even harsher. Female
education, from kindergarten through graduate school,
banned. Employment for women, banned. It's now illegal to
wear makeup, nail polish, jewelry, pluck your eyebrows, cut
your hair short, wear colorful or stylish clothes, sheer
stockings, white socks and shoes, high-heel shoes, walk
loudly, talk loudly or laugh in public. In fact, the
government doesn't believe women should go out at all:
"Women, you should not step outside your residence" reads
one of the Taliban dictates.

If women do venture out, it must be for an essential,
government-sanctioned purpose, and they must wear the
all-enveloping burqa. Even then they risk their lives. Not
so long ago, a young mother, Torpeka, was shot repeatedly
by the Taliban while rushing her seriously ill toddler to a
doctor. Veiled as the law requires, she was spotted by a
teenage Taliban guard, who tried to stop her because she
shouldn't have left her home. Afraid her child might die if
she were delayed, Torpeka kept going. The guard aimed his
Kalashnikov machine-gun and fired several rounds directly
at her. She was hit, but didn't die on the spot, as she
could have. Instead, Afghans watching the incident in the
crowded marketplace intervened, and Torpeka and her child
received prompt medical attention. When her family later
complained to the Taliban authorities, they were informed
that it was the injured woman's fault. She had no right
being out in public in the first place.

The burqa is a garment that covers women from head to toe,
the heavy gauze patch across the eyes makes it hard to see,
and completely blocks peripheral vision. Since enforced
veiling, a growing number of women have been hit by
vehicles because the burqa leaves them unable to walk fast,
or see where they are going. Recently in Kabul, a Taliban
tank rolled right over a veiled woman. Fortunately, she
fell between the tracks. Instead of being crushed to death,
she was not seriously hurt, but was severely traumatized.

To insure women are effaced as effectively as if they never
existed, the government ordered all exterior windows of
homes to be painted black. The only public transport
permitted women are special buses, which are rarely
available, and have all windows, except the driver's,
covered with thick blankets.

It is now illegal for women to talk to any men except close
relatives, which precludes them from visiting male
physicians, no matter how sick. At the time of my recent
visit, the evening curfew began at 7:30 p.m., after which
no one, except government troops, was allowed out, even for
medical emergencies. Even women in labor and needing
hospital care must remain at home until morning.

It would probably be quicker to list what the Taliban
haven't banned. The regime has even outlawed paper bags.
Like many of their edicts, this would be laughable if the
penalties for infractions weren't so severe. Break the
Taliban's law and you risk imprisonment, flogging, or
worse. And to insure their dictates are followed, religious
police, part of the "Department for the Propagation of
Virtue and the Suppression of Vice," constantly roam the
streets. Often teenage boys armed with automatic weapons,
they also carry broken-off car aerials or electrical
cabling to whip women they decide are not properly
observing the regulations.

Despite its disastrous and very public record on human
rights, when the Taliban was petitioning the United Nations
for a seat in the General Assembly last May, its then New
York representative, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, claimed his
government was "protecting human rights and liberties in
Afghanistan." He also stated that, having put a stop to the
"miserable living conditions under which our women were
living," they had "restored women's safety, dignity and
freedom." He then went on to justify the Taliban's ban on
women's education: Afghanistan lacks the resources to
educate them, he said, adding that the Taliban also do not
trust the values that became part of the education system
under previous governments. Those reservations, however,
only apply to women, since the regime continues to educate

Mujahid omitted to mention a personal detail-how he
circumvents the ban for his own daughter by sending her to
an English-language school in Pakistan. But this kind of
hypocrisy is common in Afghanistan today. Under the regime,
cigarette smoking is severely punished, yet in every
Taliban office I entered in Kabul, even that of the head of
the department of Virtue and Vice, Mullah Qalam-ad-Din,
from whom most of the restrictions originate, used ashtrays
were always in evidence. A senior official in the foreign
ministry chain-smoked throughout our hour-long
conversation. "Isn't that illegal?" I asked. "I can't help
it, I'm addicted," he replied with a smile.

While touting to the U.N. the Taliban's "improved" living
conditions for women, Mujahid didn't mention the regime's
banning of women's employment, or any of their myriad other
restrictions, which have so constrained women's lives that
half the population of the country is now effectively
confined to house arrest.

Amnesty International calls Afghanistan under the Taliban
"a human rights catastrophe." Afghan women, struggling to
survive in what has become a police state claiming to be a
theocracy, describe themselves as the "living dead."

Though it was always impoverished, before the Soviet
invasion Afghanistan was able to feed its people. Today,
after almost 20 years of war, this is no longer true.
Afghan women, in the rural areas, have always worked
alongside men in the fields. In the capital, until the
Taliban took over, they often wore Western dress, served in
parliament, and worked in a variety of professions,
including medicine, engineering, architecture, the media
and law. During the long years of fighting, as men were
killed, went missing, or became disabled, the survival of
many families came to depend on women's income.

Before the Taliban ban on female employment, 70 percent of
the teachers in Kabul were women, as were 50 percent of the
civil servants and university students, and 40 percent of
the doctors.

Why does the regime insist that women be confined at home?
Reducing women to mere objects, the minister of education
says, "It's like having a flower, or a rose. You water it
and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell
it. It [a woman] is not supposed to be taken out of the
house to be smelled." Another Taliban leader is less
poetic: "There are only two places for Afghan women-in her
husband's house, and in the graveyard."

I have been visiting and reporting on Afghanistan since
1984, and have traveled extensively throughout the country,
but it was only during my visit last fall that I saw for
the first time legions of women and children reduced to
beggary, the result of the Taliban's ban on women's
employment. Many families, having sold all their household
items, even blankets, are surviving on bread and sugarless
tea. Supplementary feeding centers, funded by foreign
agencies, are dotted across the capital. Here, malnourished
children-four-year-olds weighing 16 pounds, 18-month-old
toddlers weighing 9 pounds-are fed. Their mothers are not,
even though they, too, are malnourished. Women often eat
once every two or three days, preferring instead to give
whatever food they have to their children. According to new
U.N. figures, some 40 percent of the Kabul population now
exists on food handouts, either from humanitarian agencies
or from begging.

The legally mandated burqa has also become a severe
financial hardship. The veil now costs the equivalent of
five months salary-if any women were still receiving one.
Most cannot afford to buy the garment, and whole
neighborhoods must share one. It can take several days for
a woman's turn to come round; even if she has money to shop
for food, she can't go out until then.

In Kabul, the number of street children has risen from an
estimated 28,000 to 60,000 in the last year. This city,
once a symbol of modernity for Afghanistan, is now in
ruins-the most bomb-damaged capital in the world. It is
also the most land-mined. Mines maim and/or kill an average
of 25 people a day in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of them are
children. It is predominantly children who herd animals, or
search for fuel or for scrap metal to sell to help support
their families. Scrap metal merchants will only purchase
unexploded bombs or shells if the children disarm them
first. Kids doing this highly risky work earn on average
enough to buy just two or three pieces of bread per day.
Despite the terrible toll mines are taking, the Taliban
have interfered with programs to teach women and children
how to locate and stay clear of mines. Board games used by
foreign humanitarian agencies to instruct a mostly
illiterate population in mine-awareness have been
disallowed because they use now-banned pictures of humans
or animals coming too close to a mine; an alternative,
flash cards, has also been outlawed-as gambling.

Conditions are so deplorable for women under the Taliban
that many are now severely depressed. Without the resources
to leave the country, an increasing number are now choosing
suicide, once rare there, as a means of escape. A European
physician working in the city told me, "Doctors are seeing
a lot of esophageal burns. Women are swallowing battery
acid, or poisonous household cleansers, because they are
easy to find. But it's a very painful way to die."

International Complicity
A major concern today is how most of the international
community operating in Afghanistan is going along with the
Taliban's restrictions on women out of fear of having their
agencies forced to close. Complicating this issue is the
fact that a number of U.N. officials posted there in senior
positions are from developing countries where women are
traditionally second class. Consequently, they consider the
Taliban's restrictions on women unimportant, or choose to
look the other way. One such head of a U.N. agency in Kabul
has often told colleagues, "the gender issue is too
dangerous, I don't plan to risk my career over it."
The director of a major American humanitarian agency in
Kabul, who asked that his name not be used for security
reasons, admitted he found it "personally abhorrent," but
felt he had no choice when he had to tell his female
employees first to wear the burqa, and then to stay home.
"I felt awful that I was forcing them to veil. When you
only see women in burqas, you realize the power of covering
a woman like that. You don't treat them like people
anymore, just bits of cloth moving down the street. But on
a pragmatic level, that's what had to happen to keep
everybody safe, and to keep our program moving.

"When the Taliban started threatening and then beating our
guards and drivers, we had no choice. When I realized that
no one, no authority, was going to stop the Taliban from
beating women if they worked, it became an issue of
protecting the staff. I know that is a rationalization, but
they have demonstrated what the consequences are of not
complying with their edicts. And so you compromise."

He admits that there is an "incredible rift in the
international community here with regard to the gender
issue. Women are told: 'Stay home, suffer your fate, it's
easier for everyone.' It's a slippery slope we're on."

One agency in Kabul, Oxfam, which is headed by a retired
American professor, Nancy Smith, chose to make a stand
against the regime, and closed down her multimillion-dollar
program until such time as the Taliban remove the
restrictions on women. With her agency charged with
restoring 40 percent of the water supply system to Kabul, a
project that would also benefit the Taliban, Smith, a wiry
65-year-old, told the regime her agency's mandate was to
relieve poverty, distress and suffering, and that included
women's. "We concluded that our core principles are not
negotiable," she says. "Oxfam will work with women in
Kabul, or not at all."

Afghan women also defy the Taliban. I visited several
underground schools that women were running for girls out
of their homes. Operating one-room school houses
accommodating students aged six to 24, these dedicated
women were breaking the Taliban law on a number of counts,
including the one forbidding gatherings of unrelated
people. In a city where paper and pencils are now hard to
acquire, the teaching aids were handmade from scraps of
whatever they could find, including stones and twigs.

While these women risk their safety to keep teaching, much
of the regime that threatens them are either illiterate or
nearly so. Even the Taliban's Ministers of Education and
Higher Education have little schooling. Most Talibs (the
name means religious student) are young zealots, graduates
of the regime's madrassas, so-called religious schools that
are based, for the most part, in Pakistan, and funded in
part by the Saudis. In these cloister-like environments,
boys grow up totally segregated from any women, including
those in their own families. The highest honor they can
earn there is that of qari, a Muslim honorific given to
those who memorize and can recite the entire Koran, and a
number do. Sadly, however, they learn to do so in Arabic, a
language they do not understand, and is not taught to them.
Consequently, they have no idea of the rights given to
women in Islam.

"Islam dictates that education is mandatory for both males
and females," says Zieba Shorish-Shamley, Ph.D., chair of
the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in
Afghanistan, based in Washington, D.C. Hassan Hathout,
M.D., Ph.D., the director of the outreach program at the
Islamic Center of Southern California, agrees: "At the time
of the Prophet, Muslim women attained such scholarship they
became teachers to prominent men." They also worked. In
fact, the Prophet met his first wife because she was his
employer. "The medical corps of the Prophet's army was an
all-woman corps, and in some battles, women took up swords
and joined active combat. Women participated in public
affairs, were involved in negotiating treaties, were even
judges. Islam declared gender equality through the
Prophet's words, 'Women are the siblings of men.'"

Islamic scriptures are very clear on the veil: Only the
prophet's wives were required to cover their faces. In
fact, when women undertake the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca,
the Hajj, they are required to do so with their faces
uncovered. They also mingle with men not related to them.

"Obviously, the Taliban's military prowess far exceeds
their knowledge of Islam," says Dr. Hathout. Perhaps the
regime's most important oversight is the Prophet Mohammad's
teaching: "There is no compulsion in Islam."
When I raised these issues with the chief mullah of the
Department of Virtue and Vice, and asked him why, if such
things were good enough for the Prophet, they weren't good
enough for the Taliban, he grinned and changed the subject.
The regime's Sher Abbas Stanakzai was more honest when he
admitted, "Our current restrictions are necessary in order
to bring the Afghan people under control. We need these
restrictions until people learn to obey the government."


>Jan Goodwin, editor of On The Issues, is an award-winning
>journalist and human rights activist. She is the author of
>Caught in the Crossfire (E.P. Dutton), a book on the
>conflict in Afghanistan, and Price of Honor (Plume-Penguin
>Books), which examines how Islamic extremism is affecting
>the lives of Muslim women.

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