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Veil of Tears

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Weeda Mansoor is one of thousands of Afghan women who have felt the sharp sting of the Taliban. She recalls one day a few years ago when she went out on an errand in the capital of Kabul dressed in the stifling head-to-toe garment known as a burqa that the Taliban rulers have mandated for any female in her teens or older. “There were no Taliban in the street where I was walking so I lifted up the burqa just to take a breath of fresh air,” says Weeda, which is a name she has recently assumed to hide her identity from the Taliban and its sympathizers. “I didn’t completely bare my face, just my nose and mouth. Suddenly I heard running behind me. It was the Taliban, and they started beating me with their leather lashes.” As Weeda bitterly puts it, “It is not the way any Muslim should treat women.”

Ever since they wrested power away from other Afghan warlords in 1996, that is exactly the sort of harsh treatment the Taliban have meted out. Proclaiming themselves the guardians of a pure Islam, they have carried out regular summary executions for offenses such as adultery. The Taliban strictly enforced the Muslim prayer ritual. There was even a ban on photographing the human figure because it was considered idolatry. Stamping out whatever few pockets of cosmopolitanism remained in big cities like Kabul, they replaced them with the fundamentalist values that had prevailed in rural areas, especially those dominated by the ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban.

From the start, no group has been singled out for greater abuse than women, whose status in the past had largely been left up to the patriarchs of each family. In formal proclamations, based on their interpretation of the Koran, the Taliban essentially revoked all women’s rights. No female could leave her home unescorted by a male relative for any reason, even to get food or medicine, on the principle that a woman alone offers too much temptation for men. No girl is allowed to go to formal schools or colleges, and women are prohibited from holding almost any job outside the home (one later exception was made for needy widows). Cosmetics of any sort are forbidden. And all women are ordered to wear the burqa, a traditional garment of South Asia that previously was mostly worn in the religiously conservative countryside.

Although all this was done in the name of Islam, many Islamic experts dispute the notion that there is anything in their religion sanctioning such repression. “It doesn’t come from the Koran,” says Ahmed Rashid, the author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. “The Koran’s injunctions are very clear: They talk about modesty for women, that they should not flaunt their sexuality or beauty.” As Rashid points out, “The Koran also speaks of equal rights. The Prophet’s first wife was a businesswoman—a highly educated businesswoman.” So where did the intense contempt for women come from? Rashid suggests it may have something to do with the fact that many future Taliban members were orphaned in the war against the Soviets from 1979-89. Consequently they were raised in refugee camps and were later indoctrinated in all-male religious schools. “Thousands of these children grew up without women, without mothers or sisters,” he says, “or knowing affection in the way that you or I might understand.”

Still, thanks to the brutality of the Taliban, whose religious police are responsible for instances of stoning deaths of some women accused of sexual misconduct, about the only active resistance to the regime’s dogma comes from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. An organization of roughly 2,500 core members, including Weeda, who serves on the 11-member leadership council, the group runs clandestine schools that teach secular subjects such as math and reading in Afghanistan and in Afghan refugee camps across the border in Pakistan that have continued to fill up since the U.S. began bombing in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even as the Taliban is being pressured, however, many Afghan women take little comfort in the possibility that the opposition Northern Alliance might someday assume power. Its members also have a poor record when it comes to the treatment of women, including rape, say human rights observers. “The Northern Alliance is nothing more than just the Taliban without beards,” says Weeda. “They are dogs of the same field.”

In the United States, the activities of RAWA have gotten a good deal of attention lately, thanks in no small part to the efforts of prominent Americans such as Mavis Leno, 55, wife of Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who spearheaded a campaign that has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help Afghan women. To operate on a day-to-day basis, however, RAWA relies on the determination of people like Shameem (many Afghans go by only one name). Prior to the Taliban takeover, Shameem, 36, taught first and second grade at a school in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. A relatively sophisticated area, Mazar was the home of Balkh University, the only college in Afghanistan then admitting women (roughly 1,800), many of whom routinely wore heels and skirts. Shameem, like many other women she knew, favored more demure clothes and considered herself a respectful Muslim.

Then, in August 1998, she and other residents of Mazar got a taste of extremist fundamentalism when heavily armed Taliban troops, who were still consolidating their power, swept into the city. The conquerors massacred thousands of residents, shut down all girls’ schools and even set fire to Shameem’s school, burning books and files. (Schools for boys were allowed to remain open, though the students had to start wearing turbans to class, where they were indoctrinated with heavy doses of fundamentalism.) The Taliban also began brutally enforcing the rule on the wearing of the burqa. “It felt terrible the first time I had to wear it,” says Shameem. “The burqa was like a prison, both physically and mentally. It was like a cage and very hot.”

If there was little that could be done to resist that indignity, Shameem at least wanted to make sure that her three daughters—Azada, now 17, Morsal, 14, and Khalida, 8—continued to get an education. So she started teaching the two younger girls at home while sending Azada to an underground school run by RAWA activists. Shameem realized that being caught would result in a severe lashing for Azada yet decided to risk it. “I always worried about it,” she says, “but education is so important.” Last April, says Shameem, her husband, Abdullah, 45, who worked as an electrical engineer, was arrested by the Taliban, who demanded a ransom for his release. Selling the family home and some possessions, she managed to raise enough to free him. Fearing that Abdullah would be thrown in jail again, a friend spirited him away to Iran before Shameem could see him again.

With the help of RAWA, Shameem and her five children, including sons Fardeen, 13, and Faisal, 6, traveled about 335 miles to the Khiwa refugee camp in Pakistan, which was a RAWA safe haven. Each morning she teaches 30 first-grade girls at a school run by RAWA while wearing her customary scarf and gown. Instead of getting paid for her teaching duties, she receives food provided by the organization, which makes money by selling handcrafts. Looking back, she can scarcely believe the ferocity with which the Taliban are carrying out their campaign against women. “I felt really sad and always cried about it,” she says, “because it meant our country’s daughters would be left uneducated. Then I realized I wasn’t facing humans but animals.”

To be sure, the Taliban’s rule did not extend into every remote part of the country. Gulkhnm, 30, an impoverished tent dweller and mother of four who now lives in a makeshift camp outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar, says that her remote village, which was never under the firm control of the Taliban, did not have to toe the line. “Burqas are expensive,” says Gulkhnm, “and we were lucky they didn’t force us to wear them.” As it happens, in response to the international outcry over their treatment of women, the Taliban have actually moderated their policies slightly in the past year or so, if only to gain diplomatic recognition and foreign investment. They now tacitly allow private homeschooling for girls in Afghanistan.

That is little consolation for Dr. Zeba Raouf-Kohistani, 34, an obstetrician-gynecologist who used to practice in Kabul but fled three years ago. She now has a small clinic in Hayatabad, near Peshawar, where she lives with her husband, Abdul, 40, an engineer, and their three children, Maryam, 9, Masoud, 7, and Imran, 5. She believes that the Taliban have done immeasurable and lasting harm to the women of her country. “They would always cry when they came to me and told their stories of suffering—how they had been hurt by the Taliban,” says Dr. Raouf-Kohistani. “Before long I was crying with them. My heart was full of hurt.” By the same token, the numerous beatings she endured for such things as wearing blue jeans under her burqa left a deep rage in her husband. “What kind of Islam is this,” Abdul asks, “when a woman walks to work and is beaten with a baton because they don’t like what she is wearing?”

The fact of the matter is that even before the Taliban arrived, Afghanistan was no haven for women. The female literacy rate in 1995, for instance, was only about 14 percent, compared with 44 percent for men, which is why Weeda joined the RAWA organization in 1978 when she was just 13. She eventually married an architect, Mohammed, 47, with whom she had two children–daughter Sapaida, 13, and son Daniel, 12. After finishing three years toward her degree in Persian literature at Kabul University, she devoted much of her time to RAWA, spending her free time reading as well as enjoying the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart.

The rise of the Taliban brought new perils to RAWA activists. Ironically, though, Weeda and others discovered that there were also some unexpected advantages to operating under the fundamentalist strictures. For instance, the burqa provided her with a perfect disguise, not to mention a convenient spot for concealing books and other banned items, as she made her rounds in Kabul. “I used to wear two different burqas, one light blue, the other navy,” says Weeda. “I would go to one house with books and change there. That way I wouldn’t arouse suspicions about visiting so many places.”

In early October, convinced that she could best serve RAWA from the outside, Weeda headed to a safe house kept by the organization in Peshawar, leaving her husband and children behind in Kabul. It saddens and frightens her to think of her family in the line of fire. But she does not doubt for a moment the importance of her work on behalf of women. “Many Afghans,” she says, “are in much more pain than I am.”

Pete Norman in Peshawar and Eileen Finan in London