About Face

18 minute read

In the streets of Kabul, you can see something these days that has not been glimpsed there for almost five yearswomen’s faces. Now that the Taliban has fled the city, a few brave women have shed the burkathe head-to-toe garment, to Western eyes a kind of body bag for the living, made mandatory by the defeated religious leadership. Men sometimes look in astonishment at these faces, as if they were comets or solar eclipses. So do other women. From the moment in 1996 that the Taliban took power, it sought to make women not just obedient but nonexistent. Not just submissive but invisible. For five years, it almost succeeded.

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) The Taliban’s ongoing collapse guarantees at least some improvement in the lives of Afghan women. They are emerging from the houses that they once could not leave except in the company of a male relative. Some are returning to the jobs they had to give up when the Taliban barred them from all employment except for a small number of health-care jobs dedicated to women. Even more remarkable, Kabul’s sole television station now features a woman announcer. In a country where people were required to paint their windows black so that passersby could not see the face of any woman who might be at home, the announcer appears onscreen without a veil.

But just as the meltdown of Taliban military power has not brought real peace to Afghanistan, neither has the disappearance of its hated religious police brought women freedom overnight. Afghan society is tribal and conservative. Except for a small minority of educated professionals in Kabul, women have long been relegated to a subservient role. In rural areas of northern Afghanistan that are under the control of the Northern Alliance, the burka is still universal, though no law requires it. Even in Kabul, where Western-style skirts were not uncommon before the Taliban, many women say the burka is the least of their concerns. Dr. Rahima Zafar Staniczai, head of the Rabia Balkhi hospital for women, remembers how Taliban religious police would beat her in the street any time they caught her rushing to work uncovered: “They would hit us and spit on us, and then we would have to come in to the hospital to do our work.” All the same, she says, what women wear is a secondary issue. She lists the real priorities. “First we need peace. Then we need a central government. Then we need education. After all that, we will be in a position to make a decision on the burka.”

And even when something like peace and order returns to Afghanistan, just how sympathetic to the rights of women the next ruling order will be, no one can yet say. Women have not suffered the systematic oppression under the Northern Alliance that was the signature of Taliban rule. But the years the Alliance ruled all Afghanistan, 1992 to ’96, are remembered by many Afghans for the brutality of the warlords. Some Alliance leaders are as hostile to notions of women’s equality as any Taliban mullahs.

If the future is uncertain, the recent past is an all-too-well-substantiated fact. The Taliban made Afghanistan a laboratory for the systematic oppression of women. What it did will haunt that nation and the world for years to come.

To westerners, the most visible symbol of the Taliban’s oppressive regime was the order that placed all women under the burka. Its long-standing place in Afghan culture is complicated. Many rural women, especially, claim to wear it willingly, at least when they speak in the presence of their husbands. There is even high fashion in burka wear. In Kabul, women allow a bit of lace trimming to show at the edge. The best burkas, from the Afghan city of Herat, have exquisite pleating that imparts a shimmering, watery feel but takes hours to iron.

But nearly any educated woman you speak to loathes the burka. So do many less educated onesif you can question them where men cannot hear. The heavy cloth covering can induce panic, claustrophobia and headaches. It’s a psychological hobbling of women that is akin to Chinese foot binding. It’s also life threatening. Try negotiating a busy Kabul streetaround donkey carts, careening buses and the Taliban roaring by in Datsun pickupswhen your hearing is muffled and your vision is reduced to a narrow mesh grid. What are Afghan women really like beneath the burka? Talk to three from Dasht-i-Qaleh, a tiny, impoverished village long held by the Northern Alliance. Though the Taliban’s restrictions against women have no force here, nearly all the women wear the burka. Long-standing cultural tradition exercises its own police power. And though these women have agreed to speak to TIME correspondent Hannah Beech, they will do so only through a female interpreter. They worry that their husbands might object if they learned that a man was present at the interview. During the conversation, a man does briefly enter the room. The women all hasten to cover their faces and turn toward the wall until he leaves.

On the streets, you would never know that these silent, shapeless forms, encased in these shrouds, have any views at all. But outside the earshot of men, the women are fierce, alive and opinionated. And when they shed their burkas, they turn out to be wearing brightly colored dresses. All three say they would prefer not to wear a burka or even a head scarf but fear they would be harassed. Zora, 28, says she has heard that when women go to Mecca on the hajj, the pilgrimage that all Muslims are enjoined to attempt at least once, they do so with faces uncovered. “If women can show their faces in Islam’s most holy place, then why must we cover ourselves in Afghanistan?” she asks.

Like the others, Saida, 27, received no formal education, although her three daughters are enrolled in elementary school. Saida says her eldest daughter Nahid, 12, is getting ready for her betrothal to a 26-year-old farmer and does not have much time to spare for morning instruction. Besides, says Saida, Nahid tells her she learns at school that the Koran teaches her how to be a good wife and mother, instruction that exasperates Saida. “How can the Koran teach you how to live your life, how to take care of your children and your husband?” she asks. So Saida teaches her girls the really important thingshow to cook, sew and soothe a husband’s ego. “Teaching my daughters how to make their husbands comfortable is the most important thing,” she says, “because if a husband is not comfortable, then the woman’s life is hell.”

“My husband says the Koran tells him he can control his wife however he wants,” says Banaz, 32, a mother of seven. (“Five boys,” she says, jubilantly. “Only two daughters.”) “But I have read the Koran, and nowhere does it say this. He is lying to me.” Still, Banaz can do nothing. If she disobeys her husband, he will beat her, as he has done many times before. Once, she claims, he hit her chest so hard that she could not breast-feed her daughter for a week.

The conversation turns to the routine brutalization of women in Afghanistan. Banaz says that four years ago her sister was raped by a soldier of the Northern Alliance, but only the women in the family know about it. Women in Dasht-i-Qaleh call rape “lying down” because it is so common that lying down quietly is the best way for a woman to cope. In a society that permits men several wives, the second or third wives, who tend to be younger and prettier, are vulnerable to rape by other males in the family. Banaz says this happened to her sister, who was 14 when she was married off as the third wife of a local landowner. “It was a good marriage for the family,” says Banaz. “But it was not a good marriage for her.” She was raped by her husband’s brother, a local mullah, whose prominence means that Banaz’s sister has no hopes of retribution; it is her word against a holy man’s. “In Afghanistan, the men go off to war,” says Banaz, “but it is the women who fight their whole lives.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, Afghanistan was a typical developing country, poor and struggling, with a slowly expanding role for women. By 1964 they had been granted the vote. The cities had begun to produce a small Elite of educated women, who entered the professions, wore Western skirts and mixed comfortably with men. The Soviet invasion in 1979 was a disaster for Afghanistan generally. But under the Russians, women’s rights were protectedeven advanced to a degree that alienated some in Afghanistan’s tradition-bound society. More women were introduced into government, given an authority that many men found unnerving. Shaima Yunsi was a senior aide to the Interior Minister, Afghanistan’s internal spymaster. “I was responsible for collecting information on the jihad warriors” who fought the Russians, she says. She likes to show a photo of herself from those days; in it she wears a green army uniform with a pistol tucked under her belt.

As bad as the Russians’ occupation was, the chaos that followed their withdrawal in 1989 was worse, especially for women. Afghan warlords brought terror to the urban neighborhoods and villages they laid claim to. Young, undisciplined fighters treated women as plunder; rape became commonplace. Civil war broke out among factions of the victorious anti-Soviet resistance. With the triumph of the Taliban in 1996, conditions were in place for a final degradation of Afghan women.

The Taliban restored order to Afghan cities, but it was order of a sinister kind. Most of the leadership and the fighters were Pashtun tribesmen from rural areas of the south around Kandahar. In some respects, the harshness of their treatment of women was their attempt to extend across all Afghanistan the primitive social order of their villages at home. And it allowed the leadership to claim that Taliban rule had conferred on its male warriors a new degree of authority. The nation was a shambles, but at least the women were firmly under control.

The rules were enforced capriciously, sometimes ferociously, by religious police from the Orwellian-named Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Ministry thugs wielding lengths of steel cable would beat women in the street for infractions like wearing white socks. “If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes,” an early decree from the ministry warned, they “should never expect to go to heaven.”It is hard to find a woman in Kabul now who does not remember a beating at the hands of the Taliban. As it consolidated power, its orders became increasingly bizarre and sadistic, based on its extreme interpretations of Koranic instructions. One of these demanded punishment for women who allowed their shoes to make noise when they walked down the street. But this surreal pettiness masked real misery. The ban on work for most women had a disastrous effect on schooling for both sexes, since as many as 70% of all Afghan teachers were women. Excluding them from the classroom meant that boys had few teachers to instruct them.

The work ban extended to widows, who were left no recourse but to beg. In a nation with as many as a million widowsout of a population of just 20 millionthat decree alone produced a silent disaster. Sabza Gul, 32, now begs at the Kabul bus station and makes about 50 on a good day. Some years ago, when she was still living in a village north of the city, her husband went blind. The family became dependent on whatever money their son Humayoun, 17, could earn as a field worker. The fields were close to the occasional fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces. Eight months ago he was killed by a stray rocket. “There is no work for women,” Sabza says. “We had nobody to look after the family, so I came to Kabul.” Now that the Taliban is gone, she will try to find work cleaning offices or homes.

All schooling was forbidden to girls over the age of eight. A recent U.N. report estimated that at most 7% of Afghan girls were enrolled in school, compared with roughly half the boys. In Peshawar, the Pakistani city near the border to which many Afghan refugees have escaped, Masooda is a shy second-grade girlbut she is 16. She left school five years ago, on the day the Taliban entered her central Afghan town of Kota Sangi and beat her with a cane for not wearing a burka. When her family fled to Pakistan two weeks ago to escape U.S. bombing, she finally resumed lessons. “I once knew how to read, but I’ve forgotten everything,” she says. “I’m ashamed to be so much older than everyone else.”

For those who stayed home, determined mothers have found ways to get schooling for their daughters. Rawshan and Nasima, both 30, are married to the same man, Abdul Qadir, 55, a porter in a Kabul market who makes about $1 a day. Rawshan has one son and three daughters by Abdul. Nasima has one son and two daughters. Desperately poor, they live in a house peppered with bullet holes. For the past two years, Rawshan’s eldest daughter Wahida, 10, has been going to a secret school in an abandoned building. She has only one hour of lessons a day, given by local women who volunteer their services, but she is slowly picking up the rudiments of math and learning how to read. “I would like my daughter to work outside the home,” says Rawshan. “I stayed in the home, and I have had a terrible life.”

Next to education, women’s health suffered the worst consequences of religious rule. The life expectancy of Afghan women now is just 44 years. There are 17 maternal deaths per 1,000 live births, the second worst rate in the world, just behind war-ravaged Sierra Leone. The statistics only hint at what medical care for women is like in a nation where a male doctor is not allowed to give a thorough physical examination to a female patient. Women had to be examined wearing the full burka. Male doctors sometimes had to stand in a hallway shouting instructions to a female assistant. A doctor could be imprisoned for talking to a female patient who was not fully covered.

Dr. Sima Samar left Afghanistan in 1984 but runs two hospitals in Afghanistan as well as 10 clinics from her base in Quetta, Pakistan. “There was a lot of harassment from the Taliban,” she says. “They would enter the hospital at 1 in the morning saying they had received a report that our female staff was not dressed properly or was talking with the male staff.”

Even with the final defeat of the Taliban, when and if that occurs, Afghan women will remain in a vexed position. The forces vying to take the Taliban’s place are not always friendly to women. Within the Northern Alliance, there is a fundamental split between Western-minded technocrats and conservative religious figures. Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance’s media-savvy Foreign Minister, is a technocrat. In his speeches he makes sure to point out that in Alliance-held areas women go to school. He goes so far as to support women’s joining the government.

Not so Alliance President Burhanuddin Rabbani, once a foremost proponent of expanding the burka’s reach across Afghanistan. More recently, Rabbani allowed to an interviewer that “wearing a head scarf is enough in the cities.” But in the Northern Alliance stronghold of Faizabad, his acolytes make sure that all women are completely covered. “Rabbani is better than the Taliban,” says Farahnaz Nazir, a women’s rights activist in the Northern Alliance town of Khoja Bahauddin. “But he is still very conservative. He does not believe that women are equal.”

That attitude extends into the rank and file. Zulmai is a Northern Alliance soldier lounging on a tank in the town of Farkhar. Ask him how many brothers he has, and he proudly tells you four, all soldiers. Ask how many sisters, and he says none. Press him repeatedly, and he finally admits to three. Why did he deny them? “Because girls are not important.” He shrugs. “They do not count.”This helps explain why the signals being sent to women by Alliance forces in Kabul are so mixed. Though they re-opened a movie theater there last week for the first time since the Taliban took power, women were not admitted. A brief street demonstration last week by women who wanted to march to the U.N. headquarters in Kabul to demand equal rights was blocked by the police, who claimed they could not guarantee the security of the protesters.

In recent weeks the Bush Administration, in cooperation with the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, has opened a public relations assault to point up the oppression of women under Taliban rule. Two weeks ago, Laura Bush delivered what is ordinarily the President’s Saturday radio address to speak about the problem. “What this initiative has done is send a signal,” says Jim Wilkinson, director of the Coalition Information Center, the White House office that coordinates the Administration’s worldwide anti-Taliban message. “By talking about the problem, we’re hopefully able to affect the solution as they set up the new Afghan government,” he notes.

In Washington two weeks ago, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the President’s Special Counselor, Karen Hughes, met with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, and Mavis Leno, who has long worked to bring attention to the problems of Afghan women. “We asked the Administration to make returning women to equal status under the law a nonnegotiable issue in forming any new government,” says Leno, wife of Tonight Show host Jay Leno. “That’s pretty much the language Colin Powell used when he spoke at the State Department (last week), so it appears the government is going to do exactly that.”

Or try to do. Afghanistan is famously resistant to outside interference. Ask the Russians. “When the Soviets came, they wanted to change the country overnight, abandoning tribal codes that existed for centuries,” says Nelofer Pazira, an exiled Afghan journalist and dedicated foe of the Taliban who stars in the film Kandahar (see box). “People were appalled. They went completely in the opposite direction. Even more liberal families became very conservative.”

No matter what other nations may think, in the end it will be up to the Afghans to find a new balance of genders in their society. Progress is likely to be slow, particularly outside the educated Elites of Kabul. Even there it will be subject to the complex forces of coercion, family pressure and tradition. Mohammad Halim, who runs one of Kabul’s best-known burka shops, says he has no plans to offer a wider variety of clothing. “It will only be in Kabul where women will take off their burkas. Elsewhere women will continue wearing them. This is a very old custom in Afghanistan.” That very day, says Halim, more than a week after the Taliban fled the city, he sold 20.

Maybe Halim has not counted on the number of girls who think like Mashal. At 18, she wants to be a doctor. “I want to be freed from Allah,” she says. “I don’t want to wear a veil at all. I want to wear miniskirts.” And he may not be counting on the determination of women like Fakhria, 35, a mother of four in Kabul. After the Taliban forced her from her job at a teacher-training college, she opened a secret beauty salon in her house in Kabul. A high wall shields her customers from prying eyes. Inside are pictures of female models torn from Pakistani magazines. On shelves beside a large mirror, she has a selection of lipsticks, eyeliners and hair sprays. In the West they would be commonplace. In a society that forbids them, they seem weirdly precious.

With the Taliban gone, Fakhria hopes to open a storefront salon. No blackened windows anymore to hide the forbidden faces. She also wants to go back to her teaching job. “I can make more money in a salon,” she says. “But I want to pass on knowledge.”

There is one kind of knowledge that all Afghan women can pass on nowwhat it was like to be trapped in a society that, however briefly, perfected their imprisonment.

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