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The Independent Online
Afghan conundrum

The seizure of Kabul by fierce Islamists who have forced women into the veil and kept them away from their medical and teaching jobs has disgusted the West, especially the female half. There is outrage among Europeans and North Americans who never before gave much of a thought to Afghan politics.

It is not hard to see why. Western women find it easier to picture being banned from their workplace than being maimed by a landmine or driven from their home by fighting. The US rapidly withdrew from a meeting with the victorious Taliban when the potential impact on female voters in the presidential election became apparent, and is now threatening to withhold aid, as is the UN's World Food Programme. Germany has also warned Kabul to expect no help while it treats women and girls so badly.

But is it that simple? The Taliban's zealots beat women they consider immodestly clad, but the undisciplined fighters of the previous, more mildly Islamic, regime were prone to rape if they thought they could get away with it. While the women of Kabul's tiny elite were able to go to work in simple headscarves, life was arguably more dangerous for the majority, and could become so again if the former government's counter-attack succeeds. And while refusing aid might make the rest of the world feel better, it could simply help the Taliban keep most of Afghanistan in the Middle Ages.

Women have always had a rough deal in Afghanistan, especially among the rural Pashtun from whom most of the Taliban are recruited. But getting people to stop practices you consider abhorrent, such as female circumcision, takes patience and cultural sensitivity. The Taliban emphatically lacks these qualities, but so do many Westerners, among them those women who insist on wearing skimpy clothing in conservative Third World countries and then complain that they are pestered everywhere they go.

North-South divide

"Belgium, the Italy of the North" proclaimed the headline on yet another analysis of the nation's troubles. Instead of being drawn into contemplation of the breakdown of Belgian society, however, another question came to me: Why is Italy not the Belgium of the South? Or, for that matter, Athens the Edinburgh, or Venice the Stockholm, of the South?

An appeal among my acquaintance for South to North comparisons produced no more than the odd feeble suggestion, such as Sydney arguably being the Athens of the South "because there are so many Greeks living there". "Isn't Bath compared to Edinburgh?" asked another. I don't know. Is it? Others, misunderstanding the request, nominated Reykjavik as the Solihull, and Tromso as the Paris, of the North, while someone else reminded me that Korea is the Ireland of the East.

Obviously these parallels are dreamt up by north-west Europeans still misty-eyed from the Grand Tour. But faraway places always seem to remind them of Venice or Paris; there appears to be no London of the south, east or any other point of the compass.