Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - Afghanistan's women : a confused future

The country's female population face a very difficult future. Some support the strict religious, cultural and economic code imposed by the Taliban while others say the country has plunged back into the dark ages

The country's female population face a very difficult future. Some support the strict religious, cultural and economic code imposed by the Taliban while others say the country has plunged back into the dark ages.

By Rupert Colville

Shireen Baba is an unmarried hunchback refugee who has lived in Pakistan for 22 years, but is now thinking of going home at last because of the rise to power of the Taliban. "May God punish those who oppose the Taliban," she says dramatically. "They should be kicked out of the country. Every Afghan should adapt to Taliban culture. God bless Pakistan for helping the Taliban." A rural Pashtun like most of the Taliban, Shireen Baba is wedded to old traditions: "The girls don't go to school here. None of us can read or write. The Taliban say girls shouldn't go to school - that's why they don't go. And the fees are 300 rupees a month, so it's too expensive anyway."

Nasreen [not her real name], by contrast, epitomizes the modern Afghan woman and thinks very differently. "I support my family of nine people. I have to work," the 25-year-old engineer says. "I've studied for seventeen years, and if I can't work it has all been useless." She was the only family breadwinner when the Taliban arrived in Kabul but was forced to give up her job with an aid agency and don the traditional burka, the head-to-toe covering with a lattice grill over the eyes. "Wearing the burka is part of our culture," she concedes, before adding, "but it is not an obligation."

It is a battle of the old and the new, the city against the countryside. Many women, particularly in cities like Kabul and Herat, agree with Nasreen. In rural Afghanistan and in refugee villages in Pakistan, many women side with Shireen Baba. They believe that security for women is paramount and female education and employment are irrelevant to their lives.

The Taliban have imposed a string of social, cultural and economic restrictions on the population since they captured Kabul on 27 September 1996. With few exceptions, women are forbidden to work outside the home and must wear burkas on the street. Girls are banned from school and university. In a matter of months, the urban Afghan woman has effectively lost most of the freedoms it has taken her a century to win. Men have suffered equally under the prohibitions which initially were issued at the rate of two or three a week, though the rate recently slowed. They cannot shave or even trim their beards, listen to music (Taliban checkpoints are festooned with the innards of music cassettes), watch television or possess photographs of living creatures.

Many of these prohibitions were enacted in the name of Islam. Afghan scholar Nancy Dupree points out a dichotomy in the rural Afghan approach to the women's issue. "While standards of acceptable female behaviour, and the treatment of women, differ greatly among Afghanistan's diverse populations, there is nevertheless, throughout the nation, an innate belief in male superiority which requires that men keep strict control over women," she said. "The most stringent practices are those embodied in the tribal code of the Pashtuns, known as the Pushtunwali. Many of these practices impinge on the rights of women and are alien to the spirit of Islam, which is the other force governing Afghan social behaviour. Islam emphasizes equality, justice and education, for both men and women."

This more tolerant Islamic approach was reflected during this century in a series of constitutional and legal reforms which gave Afghan women the vote, freedom of movement and education and employment rights. Urban women benefitted the most from these changes and it is this group which is now most affected by the arrival of the Taliban.

Hameeda, her husband and three children, fled to Pakistan six months after the Taliban captured Kabul. The 28-year-old mother had been teaching in the northern suburb of Khair Khana for five years, but on the very first day the Taliban arrived in the capital "they said no women can teach." Worse followed. The Taliban seized her husband's taxi and, after being shuttled fruitlessly from one department to another, he finally gave up the search for his vehicle after one month. "Most of our capital was invested in that car," Hameeda said. "We both lost our livelihoods. I was not able to go out any more. Finally we'd got through all our savings, so we decided to come to Pakistan." There was a bitter irony in Hameeda's tale. Her family survived four years of fighting only to be forced to flee Afghanistan during the Taliban-imposed peace. The family taxi was also eventually located, but "it was just a shell."

Perhaps the most unnerving element for Kabul women has been the threat of physical violence for inadvertantly running afoul of the bewildering array of new restrictions. Virtually all females have been victims, or know someone who has suffered. Hameeda's cousin "was beaten by the Taliban for wearing a chador [a scarf which covers much of the face, but not the eyes] rather than a burka. They hit her ten or twelve times on her legs with a shoe," Hameeda said. "She could not walk for three days afterwards. She was very shocked." Sureya is a fellow refugee who had to abandon her veterinary studies when the Taliban arrived. "I could not go out any more, only if there was an emergency, to take someone to hospital or something like that," she said. "My husband did the shopping. He asked me not to go out because the Taliban were insulting females. Jobs were discontinued, women were abused. Prices went up."

The divide between city and country has rarely been starker as the Taliban appear to be forcibly imposing their own rural culture onto the cities. It is a direct reversal of attempts in the 1970s by young Communist ideologues to force an extremely conservative, rural population to send their girls to school, thereby creating considerable resentment which still affects women's issues today.

Rural Pashtun women such as Shireen Baba, in contrast to their urban sisters, feel comfortable with the Taliban regime. Security has been improved, bandit leaders who terrorized the countryside have disappeared, and often some of the more extreme dictates, such as the mandatory wearing of the burka, are simply ignored. This split is reflected in the pattern of refugee return. Thus, while thousands of refugees, including women, continue to repatriate from Pakistan to stable areas in the southern and eastern Pashtun belt of Afghanistan, virtually none of the more educated and urbanized refugees who fled to Iran are returning home.

This has major implications for the future of Afghanistan. During 18 years of fighting, the number of women entering the marketplace or taking greater family responsibilites, increased dramatically in the cities and towns, in a pattern similar to that of Europe during two world wars. Professional women became essential participants in the economy as surgeons, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers and civil servants. When the Taliban entered Kabul, more than 25 percent of government employees were female. Tens of thousands of widows and wives of disabled men or absent fighters became heads of family. Women such as Nasreen, Hameeda and Sureya eventually decided to flee Afghanistan for a combination of reasons, including the denial of economic, cultural and educational opportunities as well as the preservation of their own psychological well-being.

"The Taliban regard the chasteness of women as central to their image of superior Islamic virtue," says Nancy Dupree. "Guaranteeing the sanctity of the family, with women at its core, is an avowed priority. To accomplish this, women must be protected by being required to envelop themselves in the burka and confine themselves to the home so as to carry out their primary function of nurturing men and children," she added. "When moving outside the home, they must be accompanied by a male relative. Although the repercussions are most traumatically felt in Kabul, they affect all regions under Taliban control, as well as some regions they do not control, as non-Taliban authorities attempt to pre-empt defections by Taliban sympathizers by imposing similar restrictions."

The Taliban responded to international criticism, including attacks from other Islamic countries and institutions, by insisting that women were entitled to education. However, when schools reopened in March, Kabul University refused to accept female students and headmasters were instructed not to register girls at school. "This highlights the contradictions characterizing all Taliban actions," said Dupree. "Present restrictions are said to be necessary because females are not safe outside their homes. Yet the Taliban laud themselves for establishing security." Though Dupree acknowledges this accomplishment, she added that many women in Kabul still "cite fear of being beaten by the Taliban as their main security concern." Because of restrictions on their movements, women often forego medical treatment. Attendance at pre-natal and post-natal clinics, for instance, has dropped - and this in a country which currently has probably the worst maternal and child mortality rates in the world.

However, the rural-urban divide may not be quite as clear-cut as it now appears. There have been major population upheavals during the war years. Refugees and internally displaced people are carrying new ideas and expectations back to rural areas. "Education, once anathema because it was seen as the path that was used to spread communism, is now avidly sought by men and women," Dupree noted. "There is plenty of evidence that in many rural communities women now actively want to learn and broaden their opportunities to earn a living." And, most importantly, according to Dupree, "male family members and some local authorities are willing to give their support. Central policies are not always mobilized at local levels and the wide spectrum of Taliban includes moderates as well as extremists." That, at least, lends some hope for Afghanistan's future.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)