Daily Herald, Nov.1, 2001
Woman speaks of Taliban oppression
By Teresa Mask Daily Herald Staff Writer
As soon as she tried on the burqa, Oakton Community College professor Linda Zimmerman understood some of the oppression women in Afghanistan (news - web sites) face daily.
"It was stifling. It was limiting. It was dark," she said. "I felt as if I lost my identity in that moment."
That was just the point Tahmeena Faryal, an Afghan activist for women's rights, hoped to make.
Forcing women to wear a burqa - a heavy sheet that covers them from head to foot with a small netting to see through - is just one way females are mistreated in Afghanistan, Faryal said.
"Even their hands cannot show," she said.
Faryal, a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, was a guest speaker Friday at Oakton's annual Women's Day at the Des Plaines campus. Zimmerman, chair of Oakton's Women's Day committee, said the idea to bring Faryal to the school occurred well before Sept. 11.
Faryal said her purpose was to raise awareness about the plight of women in Afghanistan, and now to also spread her belief that bombing her native country is not the answer to ending terrorism.
She shared gruesome pictures of women being murdered and limbs amputated for disobeying the rules of Taliban, the ruling power in Afghanistan. In 1997, Taliban leaders rolled out a list of restrictions on women.
"Women do not have a right to get an education," she said. "They can't wear shoes that make too much noise. Animals have more rights than women."
She said most Afghan women in their 20s have mental illnesses because of the severe oppression. Many women have turned to begging and prostitution because they are widows and aren't allowed to work.
"It has become a very common practice to put some kerosene on their bodies and burn themselves to death," she said. "That's the only way they can get out of this tragedy."
American women in the audience appeared moved by Faryal's presentation.
"I find it hard to believe. I didn't know all of this was going on," Oakton student Fara Leone of Des Plaines said.
Faryal fled to Pakistan with her family during the Soviet invasion, when she was 10. She was educated in a RAWA school at the Pakistani refugee camp where she grew up.
Now in her mid-20s, she has dedicated her life to educating others and fighting for the rights of women. She teaches children in the refugee camps and distributes food and medical supplies to aid refugees.
Three years ago she returned to Afghanistan to help organize secret literacy classes for women there. She said the only good thing about burqas is that they allows members of her group to move about the country without being spotted.
But Faryal said RAWA, a 22-year-old organization, can't make changes alone. It has support from many outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, but needs more help.
She said that unless terrorism is put to an end, the grave situation for women will continue, but she disagrees with the method being used by the U.S.
"The solution is not by bombing," she said. "It's by stopping the financial and military support to the fundamentalist groups. That's what RAWA has been calling for for years."
She said she understands the U.S. is trying to overthrow the Taliban, but worries also about its relationship with the northern alliance, which she says is no better than the Taliban.
She said that when the northern alliance was in power from 1992 through 1996 it also proved to be a group of criminals and misogynists. RAWA is calling on the U.S. to forge a partnership with the former king of Afghanistan as a start to rebuilding the country.
Zimmerman said that as people are looking for ways they can help in the aftermath of Sept. 11, listening to accounts such as those from Faryal and becoming educated about issues affecting women is a start.
"We need to look at what's happening to women all over the world," she said. "We must push ourselves to see what's really going on in the world.
"We've had a wake-up call. We have a global connection and we can't be isolationist."