Belfast Telegraph (UK), July 10, 2002

Out of the darkness
By Mary Fitzgerald

Despite the end of the Taliban's oppressive rule, many women say they will continue to wear the burqa because it makes them feel safer For six years the only contact Sharifa had with her fellow doctors at the Guardians Institute in Kandahar was through an intercom system. Under Taliban rules, she was not allowed to speak in person with men other than her husband.


Despite tentative efforts to include women in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, for some Afghan women things are not changing fast enough.

I meet Mariam at an agreed location in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Mariam - she uses an assumed name to hide her identity - is a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a clandestine feminist organisation set up more than 20 years ago.

Despite operating in the face of hostility from the communists, the mujaheddin, Islamic fundamentalists and more recently, the Taliban, RAWA claims more than 2,000 members. Their work took on particular significance during the dark days of the Taliban regime when, through a network of underground schools, orphanages and makeshift hospitals housed in private homes and refugee camps, RAWA provided shelter, education and medical services to Afghan women.

It was a RAWA member who secretly filmed women being executed in Kabul's football stadium and smuggled the footage out of Afghanistan to bring the plight of Afghan women to international attention.

Their battle for women's rights and a secular, democratic Afghanistan is far from over, as their website, with its exhaustive documenting of post-Taliban violence, demonstrates.

Mariam, a frail looking woman in her mid-twenties, is softly spoken but her voice rises when she talks of the current administration.

"Things have not changed very much at all. We are getting reports of women being attacked and raped. Women are a long way from feeling safe. How can they when some of the people in power are those who committed the worst war crimes? The remaining fundamentalists along with the Northern Alliance should be tried in an international war court."

Mariam joined RAWA when she was 18 and living in a refugee camp in the Pakistani town of Peshawar. Forced to flee her Kabul home after the Taliban came to power, she attended a RAWA school at the camp.

"I was very inspired by RAWA's work for women's rights and welfare. As an Afghan woman I felt I should try to make a difference and the only way I could was by joining an organisation like RAWA because they were the only ones trying to expose the true nature of the Taliban to the world."

While RAWA has a strong support base in Europe and the US, in Afghanistan they have been accused of trying to foist alien Western values on an Islamic society.

Their strident feminism and left-wing ideas sit uneasily in a country where the forces of conservatism still hold sway and leave them open to accusations of being communist, a word which stirs memories of the hated Soviet occupation. RAWA is often condemned by hardliners as "an organisation of prostitutes" and death threats have been issued against members. "Too radical," I heard numerous times when inquiring about RAWA's reputation. "Too extreme", "Too militant," "Too Americanised".

Roya, a young Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, rolls her eyes when asked about RAWA.

"RAWA is a Maoist organisation with their own political agenda and while they have a lot of support in the West they don't reflect the thinking of most women," she says.

"I agree that the issue of women's rights needs to be addressed but only after we have established a stable political system. There are more important issues now such as fighting poverty and the threat of violence."

Mariam, however, defends RAWA's vision for the future. "We are working for a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. Why is that seen as too radical?

"Unless we have a government which is truly democratic and secular, a government which allows both women and men all their basic rights, then we cannot talk about freedom and peace in our country."

The heavy cloth of the Burqa falls against my nose and mouth like a curtain. I am invisible

My first thought is to wonder if I will be able to breathe properly. As I lower the burqa onto my head, positioning the padded top piece over my skull, the heavy cloth falls against my nose and mouth like a curtain.

The front part of the burqa comes to just below my knee - Afghan women have to constantly struggle to keep the turquoise cloth wrapped around their bodies, leaving no part of the trousers and tunic they wear underneath exposed.

Though a fan swirls above me, it soon grows stiflingly hot inside the burqa's accordion pleats and folds. Made of around three square yards of embroidered synthetic material, it feels heavy and the skullcap-like top is tight and painful.

If it is uncomfortable wearing the burqa here, away from the midday sun outside, what can it be like to walk around Kandahar's dusty streets in 45 degree heat?

I struggle to see through the small strip of gauze in front of my eyes. To look through the latticed grill, with its crocheted surround, is to look at a world reduced to tiny snapshot images. With the burqa cutting off all peripheral vision, it is easy to lose sense of your surroundings, forcing you to rely more on sounds to guide your way.

Trying to walk without tripping and falling over is difficult and when I look into a mirror the effect is unsettling.

The burqa seems to make you disappear. I am invisible, just like the women I have seen carefully picking their way through the markets of Kandahar like ghosts, with nothing to identify or distinguish me from anybody else.


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