The Globe and Mail, September 20, 2001, Page A13

Wente: The Taliban's forgotten war on women

By MARGARET WENTE


On Fridays, the shops in Kabul close and everyone goes to the stadium. There, they watch as thieves and heretics have their hands cut off. One day, the Taliban brought in three women covered in burqas. A smuggled video shows a man with a microphone reading from the Koran. One of the women, accused of adultery, is led to the centre of the stadium. A man puts a gun to her head and shoots her dead. The video ends.

"The Taliban actually sells popcorn before these events," said Freshta, a young Afghan woman, in a recent interview with a reporter from the West. "Executions have become entertainment for children."

The women of Afghanistan are the most oppressed group of people in the world. Their country has been destroyed by wave on wave of war, and now they live under the tyranny of brutal misogynists. The Taliban believes that females are scarcely more than walking wombs, and they treat them worse than animals. If when the Taliban is overthrown, the women of Afghanistan will probably be better off.

Freshta is 26 years old. She belongs to a secret organization known as the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, RAWA. They do not fight with guns. Instead, they set up secret schools to teach girls to read. They offer clandestine medical care to the sick and illegal jobs to women widowed by two decades of war. Many of their members have been killed.

Freshta's job is to bear witness. She and others document and report on Taliban atrocities to the outside world. A video of the summary execution in the stadium was shot by another RAWA member, who hid a camcorder under her burqa, the stifling garment that covers every Afghan woman from head to foot whenever she is in a public place. They communicate by way of the Internet. Their Web site is http://www.rawa.org/

That this group exists at all is testimony to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable hardship.

"Since schools for girls were banned by the Taliban, we run underground home-based classes for girls and literacy courses for women," Saba, another RAWA member, told a New York Times reporter last year. Based now in the Pakistan border city of Quetta, RAWA also runs schools and mobile health clinics in the refugee camps across the border. "If the Taliban caught me inside Afghanistan, they would definitely torture me and kill me, stone me as a prostitute," Saba said.

RAWA was founded in 1977 by Afghan women intellectuals with the aim of expanding women's human rights and working toward a democratic, secular government. There were educated women in Afghanistan then. In a largely illiterate population, they made up 40 per cent of doctors and 70 per cent of teachers.

Then came the Soviets. The women of RAWA resisted the Soviets, but they also resisted the forces of fundamentalism. They were targeted by both sides.

After the Taliban clerics came to power, girls were forbidden to attend school. Women aren't allowed to work, even if they have starving children and no husband or male relatives to support them. A girl can be killed if her hymen is not intact at marriage. Family planning is forbidden, and women cannot be seen by male doctors. Few female doctors are left, and agonizing deaths in childbirth are common.

Perhaps the cruellest rule is the one that requires women to live behind windows covered over with paint, so that no man can see them. Lack of sunlight and a wretched diet has created an epidemic of osteomalacia, a softening of the bones caused by vitamin D deficiency.

Until now, the outside world has turned the other way from the suffering of Afghanistan's women. It took a terrorist attack to get anyone to care about mobilizing against the Taliban.

"The nature and range of crimes perpetrated against Afghan women by fundamentalists has no precedence in modern history," says RAWA. That's true. If what is done to them were done to, say, Christians, it's unlikely the Western world would have turned its back. But after the Soviet defeat, the Americans abandoned Afghanistan for hotter theatres of war.

"No regime . . . that treats women the Taliban way should be allowed access to the community of nations," concluded a UN observer. But the UN did nothing either. There was no will. The Taliban and the terrorists they harbour are condoned or cheered on by millions throughout the Muslim world, including the refugee camps where RAWA does relief work.

RAWA's belief that it is possible to express the Muslim faith through a secular democracy is, simply, heretical to these believers, as is the notion of female equality. And the women of RAWA are nearly as hated outside Afghanistan as in it. "Just talking about women's rights in a system like this is revolutionary," said Zoya, a RAWA member who is just 23.

The Taliban war against the West is also a war against its own women. There is more than one reason to pray the West will somehow prevail.





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