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Behind the Burqa....The Human Rights Violations Against Women in Afghanistan
May 13, 2000

Imagine yourself...terrified, persecuted, and voiceless.

Imagine yourself...hidden from the world, covered from head to toe in a constricting garment, with only a small mesh opening through which to see and breathe.

Imagine yourself...confined to your home, restricted from contact with the outside world.

Imagine yourself...forced out of school, and given no alternative education.

Imagine yourself...unable to support yourself or your children because you have been banned from the workplace.

Imagine yourself...homeless, starving, forced to beg for the means to feed your children.

Imagine the target of a "living death sentence."

These images, so unthinkable, could only be woven from the dark fabric of a nightmare. It's the Year 2000, and the world continues to evolve into a democratic, modern, technologically advanced, global community. But the fruits of globalization, modernization and technology are not shared by all. Women in Afghanistan are living a bitter, backward reality far worse than the images we have tried to conjure in your minds.

In 1996, the Taliban, a religious fundamentalist group, gained control of much of Afghanistan. Seizing control of the capital city, Kabul, in September 1996, the Taliban shook the very foundations of Afghanistan and its people, beginning a severe attack on Afghan women's' "fundamental" human rights. They instituted, and continue to uphold, a regime of religious extremism, gender apartheid, corruption, and violence. With great precision, the Taliban marked their targets -- the women and girls of Afghanistan.

As a country, Afghanistan occupies a strategic cultural crossroads. Bordered by Pakistan to the south and southeast, Iran to the west and Russia to the north, it is a landlocked country within South Central Asia. Over the past several decades, political upheaval, civil war and general volatility have characterized Afghanistan.


conjure - to imagine or contrive
apartheid - a word coined by South Africa's white supremacist government, meaning segregation and discrimination against one part of the population
volatility - explosiveness
puppet government - a regime controlled by an outside force or influence
guerilla - person who engages in irregular warfare, especially as a member of an independent unit carrying out harrassment and sabotage
devastating - bringing ruin by violent action
fundamentalism - a movement or attitude stressing strict adherence to a set of beliefs (like the Koran).

The country's real problems began in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded. Over the next 10 years, Afghanistan lost millions of its people. Many Afghans fled the country, finding refuge in countries such as Pakistan, while others lost their lives in the turmoil that ensued after the Soviet takeover. Due to internal difficulties within the USSR and the collapse of Communism, the Soviets relinquished control of Afghanistan in 1989, opening the door to various forms of new leadership.

For several years after the Soviet withdrawal, a puppet government of the USSR maintained leadership. However, 1992 marked a shift in power altogether, with the rise of an alliance of Muslim guerilla fighters, known collectively as the Mujahideen (meaning holy warriors). The Mujahideen had initially united to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but once in control, the various factions of the Mujahideen erupted into civil war. Among these warring factions, one group rose to the forefront: the Taliban (also spelled Taleban).

Derived from the Persian word "Talib," meaning religious student, the Taliban are fundamentalist Islamic students raised in refugee camps in Pakistan. Most members of the Taliban attended religious schools, known as Madrassas, while in Pakistan, where they developed their strict interpretation of Islamic laws and practices. (They follow their own adaptation of Sunni Islamic law.) These students made it their mission "to set up the most pure Islamic state in their homeland."

So in 1994, a small group of Taliban students marched through Afghanistan, implementing strict Islamic laws in the territories they conquered. By 1996, the Taliban controlled over 90 percent of Afghanistan. The remaining 10 percent of the country is ruled by minority opposition groups. On an international level, the Taliban is not recognized as the official government of Afghanistan. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emigrates recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate ruling party. For income, the Taliban control 96 percent of Afghanistan's primary source of economy -- drugs. As the second largest opium producer in the world, Afghanistan is responsible for the production of one-third of the world's opium and heroin. Since the Taliban have taken control, drug production has increased by 25 percent.

Taliban restrictions and mistreatment of women include the:

  1. Complete ban on women's work outside the home, which also applies to female teachers, engineers and most professionals. Only a few female doctors and nurses are allowed to work in some hospitals in Kabul.
  2. Complete ban on women's activity outside the home unless accompanied by a mahram (close male relative such as a father, brother or husband).
  3. Ban on women dealing with male shopkeepers.
  4. Ban on women being treated by male doctors.
  5. Ban on women studying at schools, universities or any other educational institution. (Taliban have converted girls' schools into religious seminaries.)
  6. Requirement that women wear a long veil (burqa), which covers them from head to toe.
  7. Whipping, beating and verbal abuse of women not clothed in accordance with Taliban rules, or of women unaccompanied by a mahram.
  8. Whipping of women in public for having uncovered ankles.
  9. Public stoning of women accused of having sex outside marriage. (A number of lovers are stoned to death under this rule).
  10. Ban on the use of cosmetics. (Many women with painted nails have had fingers cut off.)
  11. Ban on women talking or shaking hands with non-mahram males.
  12. Ban on women laughing loudly. (No stranger should hear a woman's voice.)
  13. Ban on women wearing high heel shoes, which would produce sound while walking. (A man must not hear a woman's footsteps.)
  14. Ban on women riding in a taxi without a mahram.
  15. Ban on women's presence in radio, television or public gatherings of any kind.
  16. Ban on women playing sports or entering a sports center or club.
  17. Compulsory painting of all windows, so women cannot be seen from outside their homes.

Those are just a few of the Taliban's new rules.

Life under Taliban rule has been devastating for Afghan women. Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of the Koran, women have been stripped of their human rights, including, but not limited to, the following (from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan):

To enforce these laws, the Taliban employ a moral police force, known as the Agents for Preservation of Virtue and Elimination of Vice. These morality cops search for and punish violators, often in an extremely public manner. Defying Taliban law is punishable by beating, flogging, stoning, even death. Often the punishment in some way fits the crime - for instance, a woman caught wearing nail polish had her thumb cut off.

Prior to Taliban control, women played an active role in Afghan society. According to the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Feminist Majority Foundation, women made up:

50 percent of students at Kabul University
60 percent of teachers at Kabul University
50 percent of civilian government workers
70 percent of school teachers
40 percent of doctors

The Taliban changed all of that. Politically, socially, economically and culturally, women and girls are powerless and voiceless. The presence of women has been all but eliminated in Afghan society. Women are not seen -- as they must be covered by the burqa. Women are not heard -- as they are forbidden to speak loudly in public, if allowed to speak at all. Women have no representation in politics or the work force -- as they are banned from both.

Most devastating of all, perhaps, is the law barring women from going to school. Education and knowledge are at the center of advancement and change, and without these basic tools of education, women will sink into an even deeper abyss of submission and persecution. The Taliban rule over Afghanistan is so all-encompassing that in March 1997 residents of Kabul were ordered to cover windows in their homes to ensure that women could not be seen from the street. As a Taliban representative told a reporter, "The face of a woman is a source of corruption for men who are not related to them." (Courtesy of Amnesty International)

The Taliban cite the Sharia (the Islamic legal code) as their authority and the foundation of their beliefs. However, these laws against women and girls have no place within the framework of Islam. Islamic religions all over the world allow women to participate actively in society and grant them the basic human rights they deserve. But not in Afghanistan.

Due to laws restricting women's medical care, Afghan women are not receiving the proper treatments they require. Women have died of treatable ailments. The Taliban believe that the body of a woman should not be viewed by any male other than a husband or close male family member, so male doctors are not permitted to provide treatment to females. And as the great majority of female doctors are not permitted to work, those women in need of treatment must suffer . . . even die.

Your Turn!!!

Q: Do you think that religious beliefs are a justification for the treatment of a certain part of society?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

Women are also suffering from the use of the burqa. This garment, basically a human body bag, greatly hinders women's mobility and safety on the streets. With only a small mesh opening to see through (not to mention breathe!), many women have been seriously injured from tripping in the streets, being hit by cars, and other injuries caused by poor vision. Besides the physical restraints on women, Afghan women and girls are in great danger mentally. Essentially under house arrest, they are not permitted to leave their homes without the accompaniment of a close male relative.

Every aspect of a woman's life is controlled by the Taliban - her visibility, her voice and mobility, and her rights. Reportedly, many women have attempted suicide by swallowing household cleaning supplies rather than continuing to live under Taliban rule. Is it any wonder that 97 percent of Afghan women suffer from depression (according to a study by Physicians for Human Rights)?

To find out more about the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and ways you can make a difference, visit the following informative websites:

The Feminist Majority:

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan:

Amnesty International:

National Organization for Women:

One group of women that has been hit extremely hard is the widowed population. Without a male provider, without the ability to work themselves, many widowed women have been forced onto the streets to beg for food and money. According to many reports, the streets of Kabul are filled with burqa-clad women, begging for themselves and their families. What other alternative do they have?

These laws are nothing less than a violation of human rights. Many organizations are up in arms fighting for the plight of Afghan women and children -- organizations such as Amnesty International, the Feminist Majority Foundation, NOW (National Organization for Women), and others are struggling for international intervention and political and social awareness.

Awareness is the thread which weaves together the fabric of change. BE AWARE. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."



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