'A woman is most precious, but weak'

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The Independent Online

Sheikh Rahat Gul lays four Pakistani currency notes on the table in front of me. There is a 1000-rupee note, a 10, a brown five and a diminutive one. We are talking about women, and he asks me to pick the most valuable, the most precious of the notes. I know this could be a trap and the young, bearded students of the sheikh's madrassah religious school know this, too, as they watch their teacher's little game. Perhaps, I venture, the notes should all be valued equally.

"No!" exclaims the 79-year old prelate whose madrassah produces the Taliban of the future, the strictest and most conservative mullahs ever to run a country. "The 1000-rupee note is by far the more precious. And come with me." So I follow the little sheikh as he shuffles into a back room, followed by a trail of Islamist students. He opens a big iron cupboard door, puts the note on a shelf, locks the iron door and then lays down on a camp bed beside the cupboard. "You see?" he asks. "The woman is the most precious and must therefore be most greatly protected. Islam says the woman is very, very precious."

By the bed is a fax machine - I muse upon its symbolism - but force myself to hear the sheikh's continued treatise on womankind. Equal but weak, of equal worth before God but, alas, she suffers monthly periods. "A woman in natural creation is weak and she carries a baby for eight or nine months. The man has a more concentrated, less emotional state of mind. Her education should be basic and she should enjoy her friends and family."

This man - with his 200 Islamic students (eight years for scholars, three for Koranic learning) - is the authentic voice of the Taliban. Not woman-hating. Not misogynist - certainly not in his mind - but protective, all-loving, all-understanding towards what we once called the "weaker sex". And when I ask him if he would apply his description to the brave Afghan girl fighter Malalei - who fell under British rifle fire at the Battle of Maiwind - he pauses for a long time. This is my trap. Malalei is a heroine of Afghanistan. Woe betide the prelate who challenges her name.

"There are exceptions," Sheikh Rahat Gul murmurs. "But exceptions cannot be general. Exceptions are exceptions." Several of the students behind the sheikh smile - and one of them nods vigorously at me to continue my questioning. Where in the Koran, I ask, does it specifically say that women cannot do the same tasks as a man?

The old man coughs with indignation and his hand shoots up in fury and he says: "How stupid this man is to ask me such a question. But don't tell him that I said that." A tall Pakistani student, a former officer in the Pakistani army who sounds like a cricket commentator, mutters some Islamic explanations but does not translate the sheikh's outburst. Mercifully, it is time for morning prayers and the students walk across the small square to their mosque. Sheikh Rahat Gul sits in front of them, talking of the Taliban, the purity of their message, the purity of their rule in Afghanistan. Throughout the holy jihad against Russia, he travelled the country, watching the victory of Islam over the infidel Soviet Union. When I mention that I have met Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident sought by the Americans, the students smile to a man.

But the sheikh is still musing on women. Back in his school, he turns to me. "Why are you Westerners worried about our women?" he asks suddenly. "They belong to us." And he bursts into laughter. There is an echo of his mirth from the students. But not all of them. For among the Afghan and Pakistani scholars, there is some dissent. Two will tell me later that they want to meet privately, that they do not all agree with what the sheikh is saying - about politics and about women. There are - I remember this as they mutter to me - divisions within the Taliban in Kabul.

Officially, the Taliban are the conquering, shining heroes. As Sheikh Rahat Gul describes them, they are the "shining path" of Islam, the men who dragged Afghanistan back to law after a decade of jihad, the Geneva agreement - "an American-Russian conspiracy" - and years of internecine mujahedin warfare. "The Afghan people suffered very much, he says. "But when the Taliban came with my students of religion, the people welcomed them. All of the Taliban leaders are my friends. In all the world, Afghanistan is the one country that gives peace and security to its people."

One by one, the sheikh's students tell me their stories - of participation in the Russian war, of dispossession, flight, of hope. "The battle gave me a resurgence of Islamic feelings," Shabbir Ahmed Gul says. "At times, I felt siqina, the peace of holiness. I felt God's help was with my people."

Others came as children, Gulbar Skhan as a six-year-old after his father died in the war, Ayatallah at the age of nine, "because there were no schools and my father brought me here because this was a famous madrassah". And the funding? From all over the world, the sheikh tells me. From individuals, of course. Never from countries or organisations. "But the money does not matter. If a school like this was not available to us to teach Islam, we would sit on the ground to teach, under a tree."