Middle East Times, 9 MAY 1999

Searching for freedom from the Taliban

Carmen Gentile Middle East Times Staff

Surrounded by 30,000 Taliban faithful in the Kabul Sports Stadium in February 1998, a young Afghan woman was given one hundred lashes for an alleged act of adultery while a speaker chanted Islamic slogans.

"Thanks to the Taliban, the army of God, that we can protect the honor of our people... thanks to God that we are followers of God and not the West," cried her persecutor.

Since taking control of the Afghan capital of Kabul in September of 1996, the Taliban have followed a strict and disputed interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which according to Amnesty International (AI) and other international NGOs has systematically stripped women of their basic human rights.

In an effort to curtail the growing number of atrocities perpetrated by the Taliban, groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) have petitioned for the help of human rights groups to aid them in their struggle.

Founded in 1977 by a group of women intellectuals during the Soviet regime, RAWA has carried over their quest for women's rights against a much more formidable foe.

"Though the Soviet regime was not a democratic one and it didn't have an acceptable record on human rights, it was nevertheless nothing like the fascist, anti-women rule of the Taliban," RAWA representative H.Saeed told the Middle East Times.

"The Taliban's behavior towards women is barbaric without compare in any other country," said Saeed. "However, we cannot urge them directly for human rights because we know the true nature of these pathologically misogynous fundamentalists."

According to the latest AI study on Afghanistan, women's rights under Taliban rule have taken a decided turn for the worse.

In addition to being removed from the work force and banned from attending Taliban-controlled schools, the literacy rates among women have plummeted to less than five percent.

Taliban edicts forbid women from leaving the home unless accompanied by their husband or a male relative and encasing themselves in the all-encompassing black burqa veil, lest they tempt men into thinking "impure thoughts."

"It is the very existence of women as human beings which we struggle for," said Saeed. "Before [the Taliban] it was just some of our rights that were being ignored, but now it is the dignity, honor and reputation of our women which has been brutally trampled."

A report published by the Physicians for Human Rights stated that the health and well-being of Afghan women has worsened in the past year with the addition of new restrictions, such as forbidding male doctors from treating sick women.

According to one AI South Asia representative, Afghan women living in constant fear for their lives, many suffering from clinical depression and other mental disorders.

"Most women live in a state of perpetual hiding, paralyzed by the Taliban's daily threat of beatings and death," said the representative on condition of anonymity. AI monitors women's rights violations in Afghanistan through UN studies and close communication with women's groups like RAWA and the Afghan Women's Council, which operate from outposts in Quetta and Kandashar Pakistan.

Although RAWA documents women rights violation in their magazine Payam-e-Zam, published in Pashto and Farsi, and in their English website (http://www.rawa.org), they have failed to gain the popular support of many international NGOs.

"Many NGO's have shied away from aiding RAWA because of the word 'Revolutionary' in their title because organizations don't want to be associated with groups with the potential for violent actions," said the representative. "Though most groups claim to be a non-violent, there is a legacy of mistrust caused by the Afghan reputation."

Even though RAWA claims to be a non-violent activists, boasting of a "revolution of the mind," they are often perceived to be a "left-of-center" group whose stability and goals are questioned by many women's groups.

Although AI lacks the resources to directly aid the Afghan women's groups, they do place them in contact with UN agencies and international women's right's groups that address the issue of women's suffrage.

According to the AI representative, RAWA and other Afghan women's groups have yet to respond to organizations offering assistance.

"We feel that the problem is that they [RAWA] don't have the understanding necessary to respond to the questions posed by donor agencies," said the representative. "We haven't seen action on these groups' parts to embrace the aid being offered."

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