Taliban Rules Weigh on Afghan Women
AP, October 11, 1998
By Kathy Gannon

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Concealed in giant swaths of blue cloth, an Afghan woman steps out of the shadows and whispers in accented English: ``I am an educator. Do you have a job for me, not in Kabul, in the provinces?''

The rancid smell of an open sewer hangs heavy in the mid-afternoon heat and the bark of stray dogs makes the whisper barely audible.

Another woman outside a blue-tiled mosque eyes a foreigner. Quickly she tucks her chin to her chest and stoops her shoulders trying it seems to bury herself deep inside her burqa. She steps forward, her hand outstretched.

``I'm not a beggar, but I have no choice. I need food for my family,'' says a voice from within.

In the capital, ruled by Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban religious army since 1996, women have been on the receiving end of most of the militia's harsh Islamic edicts. They can't work and are forbidden to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. Taxi drivers routinely are beaten if their fare is a woman alone.

The Taliban defend their edicts, which also ban girls from school, in the name of Islam. They remind critics that Kabul's previous rulers, led by ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani, destroyed the city in four years of bitter factional fighting that killed 50,000 people, many of them women and children.

The Taliban, who control 90 percent of the country, say the streets were not safe from marauding bands of men who would steal and rape. But for women, it seems the movement's puritanical edicts are taking a toll on their mental health.

At Kabul's only mental health hospital, Dr. Shaheen Shah Wasah, says since the Taliban takeover the number of women patients is on the increase.

Theirs is a small, shabby ward. Even behind closed doors several women bury themselves in their burqa, lying listlessly on the bed. Some moan and rock back and forth. Others squat in a corner.

Depression is their greatest enemy, says Wasah.

``Some of them were students or teachers or worked in the government,'' he said. ``Now she is in her home. She has no picnics. She can't go anywhere ... anymore. Of course it affects her brain.''

There have been reports, although not documented, that suicide among women in Afghanistan has increased dramatically in Kabul since the Taliban takeover.

Wasah agreed, but said that suicide in Islamic Afghanistan is shameful and victims are buried quickly and quietly.

``Many more women are coming to my hospital ... they are suffering from depression,'' he said. ``But many more are coming for medicine and going back home.''

But the medicine is running out, Wasah says.

International aid workers, who have left Kabul to protest a Taliban order relocating them to abandoned school dormitories, were supplying Kabul's only mental health hospital with its medicines.

Another week and Wasah's stock of medicines will be gone.

``Then I don't know what I will do,'' with my patients, he said. ``Maybe I will take them and leave them outside the presidential palace.''

On the street outside the mental health hospital, children scramble and jostle for a place in front of the World Food Program bakeries that supply subsidized bread to some of Kabul's poorest.

Aid workers say years of relentless fighting between rival Islamic factions has left an estimated 30,000 widows in Afghanistan. Many have had to send their children out in the streets to beg for food.

``They have lost the male members of their family and they themselves cannot have a job. Begging is the only way,'' said Huma Saeed, a member of Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association, a small group with members mostly in neighboring Pakistan.

At the bakery, children, clutching their WFP slip -- proof that they are in need -- wrap the warm bread in their tattered scarves and trudge back home.

Six-year-old Laila rubs her inflamed eye, squinting into the sun, as she explains that the bread and rice is the only food her family is likely to eat that day.

``I come every day ... there are six of us in my family,'' she says.

h t t p : / / w w w . r a w a . o r g