The veil of tears

'We believe in Islam. But nowhere in the Koran does it say you must hide your face'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"At first we were happy that after so many years the fighting was finally over. But when my father told me about the hanging of Najibullah, we all thought the Taliban would kill a lots of people." From the window of her family's two-room flat in Microrayon, a drab, Soviet-style government housing block pock-marked by shelling, Farida had watched in the early dawn light as jeeps and tanks loaded with turbanned Islamic warriors roared down the street waving the white flag of Taliban.

Farida (not her real name) is 19, an attractive young woman with lively brown eyes and an aquiline nose. Hidden under her shawl, her black hair has been cut fashionably by her mother, in a style copied out of one of the few western women's magazines to reach Kabul. The beauty shops closed weeks before; hairdressing was not a profession that would go down well with the austere Taliban warriors.

Since the Taliban militia came to Kabul more than a week ago Farida has been afraid to leave her flat. Harsh clergymen and seminary students, the Taliban are forcing women to wear the full-length burqaa, which is like a large sack covering the entire body. The woman sees through a woven grillwork, permanent bars in front of her vision. Three days before, two women, neighbours of Farida, had gone shopping. They were both wearing their burqaas but a gang of Taliban militia beat them up anyway; the women's ankles were showing.

Farida also heard that in the market by the Blue mosque a mother who was struggling with two children and groceries had let her veil slip a fraction. She was whipped by the Taliban with a car antenna. "The people who were watching this were crying. They wanted to stop these Taliban but they didn't dare. The woman's husband had gone on ahead, trying to pretend that he didn't even know his own wife. The coward!" Farida said angrily.

Farida's mother, Belquis, a forceful woman in her mid-forties, said: "We believe in Islam. The true Islam of equality. But this covering your face is an Arab tradition. Nowhere in the Koran does it say that a woman must hide her face."

Kabul women are Europeanised and well-educated, and during the last Islamic regime, many of the office workers and teachers wore smart silk scarves to cover their hair. "The mullahs [clerics] say they are making us dress in burqaas for our own safety, so that we don't drive these Taliban soldiers from the countryside wild with our looks," said Farida with a rueful smile. "But they don't understand our Kabul culture. I don't think they like women. Even though they have guns, maybe they're afraid of us. They think we're sent by Satan to tempt them, but this is crazy. Men and women should be equal under Islam."

The women don't mention this, but Kabul men have a different explanation for the Taliban's cruel treatment of women. Most Taliban come from Kandahar, a southern city, where homosexuality is accepted practice. Among the platoons of Kandahari warriors it is common to see at least one young boy with a flower or two tucked behind his ear. "They honestly don't like women. For them, women are just for bearing children," said one Kabul doctor disdainfully.

The Taliban have closed down girls' schools and forbidden women from working, even though 70 per cent of all government employees are female. Now Farida cannot go to her job with a western relief agency, and her mother, a primary teacher for 25 years, cannot work either. "I don't just think about the salaries - but about what's going to happen to the next generation of Afghan children if they are unlettered," Belquis says.

One friend of Farida's, a woman surgeon, recounted how she had been preparing two women for surgery, tending them for several weeks. Surgery was set for a Saturday, the day after the Taliban's victory. Her husband, also a doctor, warned her not to go to the hospital, but she insisted on operating on her patients. They were both in great pain. Well-veiled, she was driven to hospital by her husband. A few minutes later, she came running out, scared and crying. "I couldn't go in. The Taliban were there beating up nurses who had come to help their patients," she explained. In another hospital, the Taliban kicked out 80 female patients. The militiamen feared that the patients' modesty wasn't being observed in the overcrowded hospital wards. "I can't stand it any more. I want to leave this country. How do I explain to my three-year-old daughter that she can't go to nursery school any longer just because she's a girl?" lamented the woman surgeon.

Just two weeks ago, Farida and her family drove out of Kabul and had a picnic under a mulberry tree. They sang songs, laughed and Farida played ball with her little brother, rolling in the grass. None of that is possible any longer. Music and television - "Satan's box", as the Taliban call it - are forbidden. Every night, the family huddles around the radio listening to the latest surreal laws of the Taliban. Kite flying is deemed to be un-Islamic, as are playing marbles, football and owning songbirds.

The cinema halls were closed long ago. Even the big noisy weddings that Afghans love are now forbidden. "It's a pity," sighed Farida. "Weddings were the only place where boys and girls could meet."She smiles and adds: "You know, we still listen to music. But it has to be very quietly, so that even our neighbours cannot hear." Even this secret pleasure may soon be denied.

Already, the Taliban's religious police, who go by the absurd name of the Department of Good and Abstaining from Bad, are searching houses. "They're seizing guns that families might've had for their own protection, but the Taliban are also looking to confiscate televisions and music cassettes," Farida says. A knock on the door interrupts her. She fears it might be Taliban who have heard that a foreigner, and a man at that, is visiting her flat. She smiles in relief. It is only her little brother's friend.

"Some of the Taliban are stupid, but some are good," Farida says. "They've scared away all the thieves and they've lowered the food prices." This prompts the latest Kabul rumour - that a butcher who was caught overcharging for mutton had his finger chopped off with his own meat cleaver by a Taliban. "No, no," interjects Farida's aunt. "It wasn't his finger. They cut off his ear."

Disciplined and orderly, the Taliban are also unlike the past regime of Islamic fighters in Kabul in that they have refrained from looting. "They respect property, perhaps more than they respect human life," one aid worker remarked.

But surely the Taliban have mothers and sisters? Farida shook her head. "These mullahs and Taliban come from villages where they never let the women leave the house unless they're wearing burqaas and are escorted by men. That's the way it's been for centuries out in the countryside. The Taliban only believe in the Koran." One western aid worker agreed: "The Taliban don't understand why there's such an international outcry over the way Afghan women are being persecuted. The Taliban have always treated their women this way."

Farida and her family, in a way, are lucky. At least her father is collecting wages. At the agency where Farida worked, a friend of hers, a widow, must now find the money to feed four children. One of them, her son, had his legs blown off by the same rocket that killed her husband. Kabul has more than 25,000 war widows who have now been denied any means of support by the Taliban. Belquis says bitterly: "I prefer the rockets. At least it'll be a quick death. Sitting home like this, unable to do anything, it's a kind of slow way of killing us."

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