Taliban mistreat women
By Donna Bryson
Associated Press, August 5,1998

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- A mother watched her daughter writhe with stomach pain for days. But she did not take her to a free clinic because she could not afford the head-to-toe burqa that Afghanistan's Taliban religious leaders insist women and girls shroud themselves in when they venture out in public.

The 22-year-old daughter died, a casualty in what a human rights group describes in a report released today as the Taliban's "war on women.''

In the report, the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights calls on foreign companies to protest the abuse by halting investment in Afghanistan and urges the United Nations to consider removing its aid workers from the country.

The strongly worded report comes as the Taliban army is claiming new victories over its opponents in northern Afghanistan that could soon put the entire country under its extreme interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban has ruled most of Afghanistan since 1996, and has barred girls from school and women from work.

"The 'peace' imposed on that portion of the country under Taliban rule is the peace of the burqa, the quiet of women and girls cowering in their homes, and the silence of a citizenry terrorized by the Taliban's violent and arbitrary application of its version'' of Islamic law, the report said.

Zohra Rasekh, who worked on the report, said in a telephone interview that women she met earlier this year in Afghanistan and in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan have the will to oppose Taliban ideas, but have few defenses in the face of Taliban weapons.

"They need outside help to get themselves out of this mess,'' said Rasekh, a Muslim woman who spent part of her childhood in Afghanistan before moving to the United States.

Attempts to obtain comment from Taliban officials were not immediately successful. Taliban officials have shown little concern for international opinion in the past.

Rasekh spent three months questioning 200 Afghan women -- 40 face-to-face and 160 in written surveys -- about how their lives had changed since the Taliban captured Kabul, the Afghan capital, in 1996. The women were not named, to protect them from reprisals.

Rasekh, a fluent Farsi speaker trained in public health, spoke to the woman whose daughter died for want of a burqa. In another interview, a woman described how her 8-year-old sister had been caught outside without a burqa and beaten by religious police. The girl was so traumatized she would no longer leave the house.

One woman doctor said a special order allowing her to continue working at a clinic offered little comfort.

"The Taliban are very unpredictable,'' she was quoted as saying. "One day the religious police may stop me on the street and ask where I am going. At that point, the fact that I have permission may mean nothing to him; he can beat me or harass me or arrest me at his whim.''

Of the women who filled out Rasekh's questionnaire, 97 percent showed symptoms of major depression. About three-quarters of them said their health and access to health care had deteriorated since the Taliban took over.

In a foreword to the report, Abdullahi An-Na'im, a Muslim and U.S.-based legal scholar, challenged Taliban arguments that their policies are spelled out in the Koran, Islam's holy book.

"Human rights organizations ... are condemning these policies and practices from a human rights point of view,'' An-Na'im wrote. "Unless Muslims do the same from an Islamic point of view as well, the Taliban will get away with their false claim that these heinous crimes against humanity are dictated by Islam as a religion.''

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