Beyond Good or Evil
The Herald Magazine, August 1999
From M. Ilyas Khan in Kabul
Forced to fend for themselves due to the death or incapacitation of their male breadwinners, and banned from seeking gainful employment under the Taliban dispensation, scores of Afghani women are turning to prostitution to eke out a living
Clad in the ubiquitous shuttlecock burqa, she crosses a street in Kabul’s Shahr-I-Nau district and enters a cosmetics and toiletry store. She walks up straight to the clerk and stretches out her hand as if to ask for alms. But this gesture is just a ruse. “It’ll be two lakh Afghanis (equivalent to 250 Pakistani rupees) per head, nothing less,” she tells the clerk under her breath, casting a veiled glance at me and the one other man present in the store. “I was expecting some good business, but I dropped it when I received word from you.”
“I’m sorry, but this call is just for an interview with our journalist friend here,” replies the clerk apologetically, pointing in my direction. “It’ll still be two lakhs,” she insists. “I told you I dropped some good business to come here.”
As radiant as her name, which means an oil lamp in Pushto, Diva is a stunning beauty. In the privacy of the store’s attic, she throws off her tattered burqa to reveal a beautiful crimson blouse and an ankle-length black Afghani skirt. Diva’s shoes are worn, but pepping from underneath the hem of her skirt is a shimmer of gauze stockings. Her neatly trimmed brunette hair falls in straight tresses to her shoulders. Her eyebrows are plucked thin into perfect arches and there is no make-up to mar her glowing complexion. Though she looks barely 20, Diva claims she’s 28.
“I graduated from collage in geophysics and used to work for the government,” she says. But life changed dramatically for Diva in 1995 when she was abducted and raped allegedly by some fighters of the Hizb-I-Islami in the southern Chilistoon district of Kabul. “I returned to work for a brief period, but in September 1996 the Taliban overran Kabul and ordered women to stay home.” Left without a dependable source of income, Diva was forced into prostitution.
Diva lives with her aged mother and three sisters, one of whom is a prostitute and the other a widow with three children. She has a 15-year-old brother who works at a smithy for 100,000 Afghanis a month. With their combined incomes, the family appears to be in a position to survive, however modestly, on its own.
Aqazad, a 35-year-old Tajik woman, is not as glamorous as Diva and only half as business-like. But her price is the same: 200,000 Afghanis. “The money is only enough to buy 10 naans, which is less than what my family needs to feed itself for one day,” she points out, defending her rates. Aqazad has four daughters and two sons. The daughters sometimes take in laundry, while thee sons, both of them less than 10 years old, beg on the streets. Her husband was an Afghan army officer who died in the battle of Jalalabad in 1989. Between 1992 to 1996, Aqazad ran a grocery stall in the northern Khairkhana district. That lasted till the Taliban ordered all stalls run by women to be closed down.
According to Aqazad, she is extremely good at tar-shumar, the cross-stitch embroidery which is used to decorate women’s wear and shoulder bags. “I could embroider for large handicraft exports who pay well, but the Taliban do not allow women to interact with male businessmen. And I have no male relatives through whom I can deal with the exporters.”
Both Diva and Aqazad hail from that enormous cross-section of Afghani society whose male breadwinners have either been incapacitated or consumed by the 20-year war, leaving the women and children to fend for themselves. The World Food Program estimates that this segment numbers between 60,000 to 120,000 individuals in Kabul alone. Banned from work by the Taliban, these women have very few options other than begging on the streets or becoming prostitutes in order to feed themselves and their dependants.
“There are hundreds of prostitutes roaming the streets of Kabul and their numbers are rising every day,” asserts Zarghuna Hashemi, a Kabul-based spokeswoman of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). “They are not the regular professionals we had in Kabul before or during the war. These women are a product of the economic turmoil of the last three years.”
The economic turmoil in Afghanistan has indeed been severe. Over the last three years, the price of wheat flour has risen by around 450 per cent to 80,000 Afghanis per maund. While a five-Kilogram canister of ghee carries a price tag of 210,000 Afghanis, kerosene oil costs 60,000 per gallon. The prices, moreover, continue to escalate while the average government salary remains stuck between 110,000 to 300,000 Afghanis per month. The monthly wages of manual laborers are even lower and do not exceed one million Afghanis, provided, of course, that work is available throughout the month.
The ban on working women further complicates the scenario for households headed by women. Pushed into a corner, most such women first came out in droves to beg. Now, many of them are turning to prostitution as a more convenient source of income.
“Pretending to be beggars, these women have easy access to clients who are mainly shopkeepers and their trading partners in Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf,” contends a former member of Taliban’s religious police, popularly known as Amr bil Maroof. Most shops in Kabul contain a storeroom or an attic, which can be used for the purpose. But more security conscious clients prefer to fix appointments elsewhere such as their homes. For Diva and others like her, such an invitation can translate into a million Afghanis in one night, which, as far as they are concerned, can buy 100 nanns.
The more wretched of Kabul’s prostitutes live in brothels, where they have to share their income with the madam and the resident pimp. RAWA claims that there are some 25 to 30 brothels operating in Kabul. A Taliban source in the Hauz-I-Awwal police cannot confirm this figure, but admits that brothels do indeed exist. “I know of one place in the Ashiqan-o-Arifan neighborhood, and I have heard that there are others in Qalae Zaman Khan. But they change their location every few months to avoid detection.”
When they do get caught, judicial authorities are bribed and the accused gets away with only a few lashes. Aqazad, who worked at a brothel in Qalae Musa, recalls one such incident. “The Taliban once picked up one of the girls on charges of zina, but the pimp paid the judicial officer six million Afghanis who in turn advised the girl to plead not guilty. The prosecution was reined in, and she was only imprisoned for 60 days and received 20 lashes.”
In Kabul, however, court cases based on charges of adultery are few and far between. “It is difficult to keep an eye on all the beggars and monitor shops throughout the day. Even if a suspect is found in a shop, she can conveniently plead that she was just begging. Besides, it is very difficult to prove adultery under the Islamic Law, which requires four God-fearing witnesses who have seen the act’ as clearly as a thread going though the eye of a needle’” explains the source in Hauz-I-Awwal.
As an added protection, the brothels entertain the Taliban free of charge. “One of the reasons I left the house (brothel) was that every two or three days a group of Taliban youngsters would drop in and want to do it for free,” says Aqazad. “I decided to move out.”
A former member of the religious police confirms the involvement of the Taliban in such affairs and even provides an explanation.
“Communists and lechers have grown beards and infiltrated the Taliban ranks. They will do anything to defame the Taliban.” He recalls the time when some of his colleagues took him to a brothel.
“There they smoked hashish, performed adultery and cracked jokes about Islam. Some four months later, the entire gang disappeared without a trace. And it was only later that a friend told me that they were ex-communists from the Ningarhar province, out to have fun.”
There are indications that poverty-driven prostitution is not confined to Kabul alone. Faced with abject poverty, women in other cities of Afghanistan are also turning to this profession. Mariam is one of them. She lost her husband in a rocket attack on their house in the western Border City of Heart two years ago. She lived for six months without the means to buy food for her six starving children. Following a period of acute anxiety during which she went as far as contemplating suicide, she turned to prostitution.” Among my clients were many Taliban soldiers and qomandans (commanders) who were generous as well as gently,” she recalls. But things got really bad when the massing of Iranian troops on Heart’s border around mid-1998 brought hordes of unruly Taliban youth to the city. “They were wild and tight-fisted, and when I demanded money, they said they would prefer to pay my daughter who was reaching puberty.” Four months ago, Mariam sold whatever little she could muster to buy a ticket to Pakistan.
The wisdom of the Taliban’s so-called Islamic policies is being debated all over the world. While concerned members of the international community continue to express their outrage at the state of affairs, the predicament of the women living in Taliban controlled Afghanistan goes from bad to worse. Taliban rhetoric may claim that the ban on working women has been imposed to protect them from the “ignominy” of dealing with men and braving the world on their own. But it is these very repressive policies that are forcing increasing numbers of Afghani women to resort to the beasts of professions in the desperate struggle to survive.
Prostitution Under the rule of Taliban
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