NBC NEWS, OCT. 5, 2001
Afghan women defy Taliban
Refugees tell stories of resistance, including secret schools for girls
By Yuka Tachibana
NBC’s Ron Allen looks at the life of women in Afghanistan -- held hostage, in effect, by the Taliban.PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct. 5 — Fatima is an Afghan refugee living in a camp in the outskirts of this northern Pakistani city. She teaches English to a class of a dozen teen-age Afghan students. In most countries, there would be nothing extraordinary about a classroom full of girls and a female teacher, but for these women it is a hard-won prize. Back home in Afghanistan, a scene like this could bring death to those involved.
IN AFGHANISTAN, under Taliban’s harsh regime and its extreme interpretation of Islamic law, women are not allowed to go to school, work or even leave their homes without a close male relative accompanying them. And when they do go outside, women have to cover themselves completely in a burqa — a heavy veil that covers every inch of their body. Even their faces are obscured, with the exception of a thick mesh cloth, which covers their eyes.
Breaking the Taliban’s rules can mean anything from flogging, to death by stoning. Many women have ended up on the streets begging for money. Some have even resorted to prostitution in order to buy a piece of bread, women’s rights workers say.
A report published in 1999 by the Physicians for Human Rights reveals some shocking statistics: 97 percent of Afghan women are in a state of major depression, 42 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 21 percent have had suicidal thoughts quite or extremely often.
BEATEN WITH STICKS
“One day, I went to the market with a friend,” Fatima said. “Our burqas revealed more of our faces than what the Taliban police found acceptable. So they beat us with sticks — we only pulled the burqas up because the heat was stifling.”
Fatima is from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. She taught English until the Taliban came to power five years ago.
“I left Afghanistan because I was no longer allowed to teach. All I could do was sit at home, and do nothing. But I desperately wanted to teach. That’s why I came to Pakistan.”
If the Taliban had caught Fatima teaching, her fate would have been death by stoning.
An underground Afghan’s women’s rights group has been defying Taliban’s iron fist.
RAWA, or the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan run a network of clandestine home schools where female teachers risk their lives by providing education for young girls.
The group also runs secretly held income-generating projects, so mothers and widows can make handicrafts to sell in the markets.
RAWA member Sahar Saba said that “being a woman in Afghanistan means that women know how to resist, and how to battle the hardships imposed on them. I think RAWA and women who think like us are the biggest examples that we will not so easily give up.”
Saba described the Taliban regime as “a handful of brutal, misogynist, uncivilized, uneducated people ruling the country.”
WORKING IN THE CAMPS
With the ongoing threat of military attack on Afghanistan by U.S. forces, Saba said RAWA’s work inside the country is getting more and more difficult because tens of thousands of people are fleeing cities for rural areas, or crossing the border into Pakistan. But RAWA’s work doesn’t stop in Afghanistan.
In refugee camps located in Pakistan, the organization runs schools and income generating projects for women who managed to escape the Taliban oppression back home.
Fatima’s school is run by RAWA. “Here in Pakistan, we are far away from the Taliban, so we no longer live in fear. In Afghanistan, they can impose their rules, but here we are free. They cannot do anything to us here. So I feel safe.”
Although Fatima herself may now be beyond Taliban’s reach, she still would not give her real name out of fear the Taliban would recognize her and harm family she left behind in Afghanistan.
Fatima has lived in this refugee camp for three years. There are hundreds of thousands of Afghan women living in camps in the outskirts of Peshawar, 50 miles from the border with Afghanistan.
And it’s not difficult to find horror stories of living under Taliban rule.
Zeiba arrived in Pakistan in July after fleeing her village in northern Afghanistan. The 21-year-old said she lost her husband to the Taliban. Zeiba and her husband had only been married for a month before he disappeared.
“One night the Taliban came to our village. They rounded up all the men and tied them up and even blinded-folded them. We cried and begged them to let the men go. But instead, they beat us all, women, children and the men, with their rifles. The men were then taken away and executed.”
Zeiba said her husband’s only crime was to be a Shiite Muslim. The Taliban belong to the majority Sunni Muslim sect, and human rights organizations have frequently criticized the militia for their treatment of Shiites.
“The Taliban has destroyed my life — not just my life but the lives of all women in Afghanistan,” Zeiba said, trembling and wiping tears from her eyes.
Zeiba’s home these days is a RAWA-run orphanage in the same refugee camp where Fatima teaches and lives.
She spends her days learning how to read and write at Fatima’s school.
“I’m not educated, but I want to learn. I want to be a teacher so I can help my people back in Afghanistan.”
SIGNS OF DEFIANCE
Thirteen-year-old Belqis fled Afghanistan with her family in August. While living in Kabul, she only managed to receive five months of education. Now in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, she goes to a RAWA school and studies with children half her age, “I want to be a doctor, because there are lots of people suffering in my country and I want to help them.”
Belqis has made it to the top of her class.
Away from the voices of children in the classrooms, there is an eerie silence in the school principal’s office, where a shelf displays drawings created by students. The pictures show women being beaten, or being arrested by the Taliban. The artwork is a stark reminder of what continues to haunt Afghanistan’s women.
Back at the refugee camp in Peshawar, widow Zeiba is defiant. “We want the Taliban finished,” she says. “I’m fortunate. I’m here now, and I’m not under the control of the Taliban, but my country is not free. The women in Afghanistan are not free. We hope that the day will come when there will be no sign of Taliban, so we don’t have to live in fear.”
NBC producer Yuka Tachibana is on assignment in Pakistan.