The Taliban's War Against Women
The day was much like any other. For the young Afghan mother, the only difference was that her child was feverish and had been for some time and needed to see a doctor. But simple tasks in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan today are not that easy.
The mother was alone and the doctor was across town. She had no male relative to escort her. To ask another man to do so would be to risk severe punishment. To go on her own meant that she would risk flogging.
Because she loved her child, she had no choice. Donning the tent-like burqa as Taliban law required, she set out, cradling her child in her arms. She shouldn't have.
As they approached the market, she was spotted by a teenage Taliban guard who tried to stop her. Intent on saving her child, the mother ignored him, hoping that he would ignore her. He didn't. Instead he raised his weapon and shot her repeatedly. Both mother and child fell to the ground. They survived because bystanders in the market intervened to save them. The young Taliban guard was unrepentent -- fully supported by the regime. The woman should not have been out alone.
This mother was just another casualty in the Taliban war on Afghanistan's women, a war that began 5 years ago when the Taliban seized control of Kabul.
Abuses of an Oppressive Regime
Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s; and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. There was a mood of tolerance and openness as the country began moving toward democracy. Women were making important contributions to national development. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan's highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women. Afghan women had been active in humanitarian relief organizations until the Taliban imposed severe restrictions on their ability to work. These professional women provide a pool of talent and expertise that will be needed in the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Islam has a tradition of protecting the rights of women and children. In fact, Islam has specific provisions which define the rights of women in areas such as marriage, divorce, and property rights. The Taliban's version of Islam is not supported by the world's Muslims. Although the Taliban claimed that it was acting in the best interests of women, the truth is that the Taliban regime cruelly reduced women and girls to poverty, worsened their health, and deprived them of their right to an education, and many times the right to practice their religion. The Taliban is out of step with the Muslim world and with Islam.
Afghanistan under the Taliban had one of the worst human rights records in the world. The regime systematically repressed all sectors of the population and denied even the most basic individual rights. Yet the Taliban's war against women was particularly appalling.
Women are imprisoned in their homes, and are denied access to basic health care and education. Food sent to help starving people is stolen by their leaders. The religious monuments of other faiths are destroyed. Children are forbidden to fly kites, or sing songs... A girl of seven is beaten for wearing white shoes.
-- President George W. Bush, Remarks to the Warsaw Conference on Combating Terrorism, November 6, 2001
The Taliban first became prominent in 1994 and took over the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1996. The takeover followed over 20 years of civil war and political instability. Initially, some hoped that the Taliban would provide stability to the country. However, it soon imposed a strict and oppressive order based on its misinterpretation of Islamic law.
The assault on the status of women began immediately after the Taliban took power in Kabul. The Taliban closed the women's university and forced nearly all women to quit their jobs, closing down an important source of talent and expertise for the country. It restricted access to medical care for women, brutally enforced a restrictive dress code, and limited the ability of women to move about the city.
The Taliban perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage. Some families resorted to sending their daughters to Pakistan or Iran to protect them.
Afghan women living under the Taliban virtually had the world of work closed to them. Forced to quit their jobs as teachers, doctors, nurses, and clerical workers when the Taliban took over, women could work only in very limited circumstances. A tremendous asset was lost to a society that desperately needed trained professionals.
As many as 50,000 women, who had lost husbands and other male relatives during Afghanistan's long civil war, had no source of income. Many were reduced to selling all of their possessions and begging in the streets, or worse, to feed their families.
Denied Education and Health Care
Restricting women's access to work is an attack on women today. Eliminating women's access to education is an assault on women tomorrow.
The Taliban ended, for all practical purposes, education for girls. Since 1998, girls over the age of eight have been prohibited from attending school. Home schooling, while sometimes tolerated, was more often repressed. Last year, the Taliban jailed and then deported a female foreign aid worker who had promoted home-based work for women and home schools for girls. The Taliban prohibited women from studying at Kabul University.
"The Taliban has clamped down on knowledge and ignorance is ruling instead."
-- Sadriqa, a 22-year-old woman in Kabul
As a result of these measures, the Taliban was ensuring that women would continue to sink deeper into poverty and deprivation, thereby guaranteeing that tomorrow's women would have none of the skills needed to function in a modern society.
Under Taliban rule, women were given only the most rudimentary access to health care and medical care, thereby endangering the health of women, and in turn, their families. In most hospitals, male physicians could only examine a female patient if she were fully clothed, ruling out the possibility of meaningful diagnosis and treatment.
These Taliban regulations led to a lack of adequate medical care for women and contributed to increased suffering and higher mortality rates. Afghanistan has the world's second worst rate of maternal death during childbirth. About 16 out of every 100 women die giving birth.
Inadequate medical care for women also meant poor medical care and a high mortality rate for Afghan children. Afghanistan has one of the world's highest rates of infant and child mortality. According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), 165 of every 1000 babies die before their first birthday.
Further hampering health, the Taliban destroyed public education posters and other health information. This left many women, in a society already plagued by massive illiteracy, without basic health care information.
In May 2001, the Taliban raided and temporarily closed a foreign-funded hospital in Kabul because male and female staff allegedly mixed in the dining room and operating wards. It is significant to note that approximately 70% of health services had been provided by international relief organizations -- further highlighting the Taliban's general disregard for the welfare of the Afghan people.
"The life of Afghan women is so bad. We are locked at home and cannot see the sun."
-- Nageeba, a 35-year-old widow in Kabul
The Taliban also required that windows of houses be painted over to prevent outsiders from possibly seeing women inside homes, further isolating women who once led productive lives and contributing to a rise in mental health problems. Physicians for Human Rights reports high rates of depression and suicide among Afghan women. One European physician reported many cases of burns in the esophagus as the result of women swallowing battery acid or household cleaners--a cheap, if painful, method of suicide.
Fettered by Restrictions on Movement
In urban areas, the Taliban brutally enforced a dress code that required women to be covered under a burqa -- a voluminous, tent-like full-body outer garment that covers them from head to toe. One Anglo-Afghan journalist reported that the burqa's veil is so thick that the wearer finds it difficult to breathe; the small mesh panel permitted for seeing allows such limited vision that even crossing the street safely is difficult.
While the burqa existed prior to the Taliban, its use was not required. As elsewhere in the Muslim world and the United States, women chose to use the burqa as a matter of individual religious or personal preference. In Afghanistan, however, the Taliban enforced the wearing of the burqa with threats, fines, and on-the-spot beatings. Even the accidental showing of the feet or ankles was severely punished. No exceptions were allowed. One woman who became violently carsick was not permitted to take off the garment. When paying for food in the market, a woman's hand could not show when handing over money or receiving the purchase. Even girls as young as eight or nine years old were expected to wear the burqa.
The fate of women in Afghanistan is infamous and intolerable. The burqa that imprisons them is a cloth prison, but it is above all a moral prison. The torture imposed on little girls who dare to show their ankles or their polished nails is appalling. It is unacceptable and insupportable.
-- King Mohammed VI of Morocco
The burqa is not only a physical and psychological burden on some Afghan women, it is a significant economic burden as well. Many women cannot afford the cost of one. In some cases, whole neighborhoods share a single garment, and women must wait days for their turn to go out. For disabled women who need a prosthesis or other aid to walk, the required wearing of the burqa makes them virtually homebound if they cannot get the burqa over the prosthesis or other aid, or use the device effectively when wearing the burqa.
Restrictions on clothing are matched with other limitations on personal adornment. Makeup and nail polish were prohibited. White socks were also prohibited, as were shoes that make noise as it had been deemed that women should walk silently.
Even when dressed according to the Taliban rules, women were severely restricted in their movement. Women were permitted to go out only when accompanied by male relatives or risk Taliban beatings. Women could not use public taxis without accompanying male relatives, and taxi drivers risked losing their licenses or beatings if they took unescorted female passengers. Women could only use special buses set aside for their use, and these buses had their windows draped with thick curtains so that no one on the street could see the women passengers.
One woman who was caught with an unrelated man in the street was publicly flogged with 100 lashes, in a stadium full of people. She was lucky. If she had been married, and found with an unrelated male, the punishment would have been death by stoning. Such is the Taliban's perversion of justice, which also includes swift summary trials, public amputations and executions.
Violation of Basic Rights
The Taliban claimed it was trying to ensure a society in which women had a safe and dignified role. But the facts show the opposite. Women were stripped of their dignity under the Taliban. They were made unable to support their families. Girls were deprived of basic health care and of any semblance of schooling. They were even deprived of their childhood under a regime that took away their songs, their dolls, and their stuffed animals -- all banned by the Taliban.
The Amman Declaration (1996) of the World Health Organization cites strong authority within Islamic law and traditions that support the right to education for both girls and boys as well as the right to earn a living and participate in public life.
Indeed, the Taliban's discriminatory policies violate many of the basic principles of international human rights law. These rights include the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to work, the right to education, freedom of movement, and the right to health care. What is more, as Human Rights Watch has noted, "the discrimination [that Afghan women face] is cumulative and so overwhelming that it is literally life threatening for many Afghan women." This assault on the role of women has not been dictated by the history and social mores of Afghanistan as the Taliban claim.
Nor are the Taliban's restrictions on women in line with the reality in other Muslim countries. Women are serving as President of Indonesia and Prime Minister of Bangladesh. There are women government ministers in Arab countries and in other Muslim countries. Women have the right to vote in Muslim countries such as Qatar, Iran, and Bahrain. Throughout the Muslim world, women fill countless positions as doctors, teachers, journalists, judges, business people, diplomats, and other professionals.
A large and increasing number of women students ensures that in the years to come, women will continue to make an important contribution to the development of their societies. In Saudi Arabia, for example, more than half the university student body is female. Although Muslim societies differ among themselves on the status of women and the roles they should play, Islam is a religion that respects women and humanity. The Taliban respects neither.
The long years of war and instability in Afghanistan have resulted in massive numbers of displaced persons internally and in neighboring countries. There are approximately 1.1 million internally displaced persons. An estimated 3.5 million Afghans have fled to Pakistan, 1.5 million to Iran, and hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout the border regions. Moreover, Taliban looting of humanitarian relief organizations contributed to the increased numbers seeking refuge abroad. Afghan women and children make up the overwhelming majority of the refugee population dependent on international assistance.
Afghan civil society and community-based activists are working hard to begin reconstructing their society in refugee camps, in preparation for the day when they can reclaim and rebuild their own country. Women have played an important role in these efforts, both in refugee settlements and--clandestinely--in communities in Afghanistan. These women and men, says Sima Wali, an Afghan woman who directs the non-profit organization Refugee Women in Development, "have already demonstrated remarkable leadership and ability. They are our hope for Afghanistan."
In Afghanistan ... the disrespect of human rights has acquired extreme dimensions. Overall, women in Afghanistan are basically not treated as people.... To overcome this, one needs to develop specific gender-oriented programs that would include, primarily and first of all, questions related to proper education for women.
-- Russian President Vladimir Putin
The United States continues to provide humanitarian assistance to all Afghans, including women and girls. The U.S. is the largest individual national donor to Afghan humanitarian assistance efforts. The United States has provided over $178 million in humanitarian relief in 2001. In addition, President Bush announced $320 million more in response to this crisis. The U.S. Government is working closely with international humanitarian aid organizations to ensure that aid is distributed fairly and with consideration for the needs of women.
Public concern for Afghan women and girls is growing in the United States. Numerous nongovernmental organizations have studied the detrimental effects of Taliban policy on women, and have worked hard to raise public awareness. Writer Mavis Leno, a leading activist on behalf of Afghan women, recently said, "Everything that constitutes human rights, but life itself, has been swept away from [Afghan women] by the Taliban."
The U.S. Congress -- including members of both parties -- realizes that Afghan women and girls need the support of the international community. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison recently introduced the "Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001." This bill would authorize U.S. humanitarian aid expenditures on health care and education for women and children. All 13 female U.S. senators are cosponsors of this bill.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have spoken out as well against Taliban mistreatment of women. The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, said that Afghan women today are treated as "subhumans, fit only for household slavery." California Representative Ed Royce, a member of the International Relations Committee, said the Taliban has "institutionalized widespread and systematic gender apartheid."
The Afghan people want, and the U.S. Government supports, a broad-based representative government, which includes women, in post-Taliban Afghanistan. As Under Secretary for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky stated, "We believe any future Afghan government should be multi-ethnic, representative, and respect human rights, including those affecting women and girls." Only Afghans can determine the future government of their country. And Afghan women should have the right to choose their role in that future.
Today, with Kabul and other Afghan cities liberated from the Taliban, women are returning to their rightful place in Afghan society -- the place they and their families choose to have. Schools are preparing to reopen and women are praying again in mosques. The international community stands with Afghanistan and with Afghans in reclaiming their traditions and their rights.
"Afghan society is like a bird with two wings. If one wing is cut off, then society will not function."
-- An Afghan elder, interviewed by Sima Wali of Refugee Women in Development