Women of Kabul hide behind veil of fear as Taliban banish them from the streets

Sarah Horner reports from Afghanistan's capital, newly conquered by fundamentalists

Women in the Afghan capital, Kabul, woke up last Friday morning to find the whole culture of their city had changed following the Taliban take-over.As the fundamentalist militia had swept towards the city, the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani was forced to retreat north.

At dawn on Saturday, Islamic clerics broadcast a new code of behaviour from the loudspeakers of mosques. Women should stay at home, the edict said. If they ventured out, they should be covered from head to toe. And they should not work.

By yesterday, hardly any women dared venture outside and there were reports of women being beaten by the roadside in the south of the city for being "inappropriately" dressed. Women's organisations have closed and it seems that many of their members have left Kabul. Girls' schools have been closed as female teachers are not able to go to work.

Hospitals are also suffering. All are staffed by a large number of female doctors and nurses. The situation is so bad that the Taliban have broadcast on local radio appealing for all male doctors to come into work.

Those women who could not or did not want to leave Kabul are trying to adjust to a life which is totally alien to everything they know.

None of the women I spoke to would let me use their names or identify them in any way. Some said Kabul had become a huge prison. Others felt as if they were dead; and one said she wished she was dead.

"I have to go out to work," she said. "I can't stay at home. If I go out, I will be killed. But it's better for me if I am killed."

In a city where 18 years of war have left an estimated 25,000 widows, many are the sole supporters of large families.

"What should we eat?" said one young woman who is supporting five other people. "If I can't work, what will they do?"

All the women expressed anger that the Taliban are using Islam to deny them human rights. They said that nowhere in the Koran does it say that women have to stay at home. "If Islam is like this," said one woman, who supports six people, "then I am not a Muslim."

The Koran, they say, guarantees equal rights to men and women.

The president of the Islamic Women's Movement of Afghanistan, Amena Safi Afsali, said last month that the Taliban have no knowledge of Islam. The Koran, she said, allows women to work, learn and participate fully in society.

"The things that the Taliban are doing," she said, "are not only against the principle of Islam but are also against the principle of human rights."

The United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan, Norbert Holl, said yesterday he saw hopeful signs in talks with the Taliban on issues such as women's rights. The UN employs many women and has already suspended educational activities in areas previously captured by the Taliban.

Mr Holl said he had discussed the role of women along with human rights in a two-hour meeting with the Taliban's interim shura, or council. "I hope this does not remain a dialogue with both sides sitting on principles," he said. "I hope we can find some practical solutions. I had indications for some hope." Mr Holl refused to elaborate.

The restrictions have also hit the press: a woman journalist working for Associated Press was barred from attending a news conference by Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, the leader of Kabul's newly formed governing council. But women in Kabul have little hope; they are fearful for their human rights and for their lives. Much of the capital's female population are educated and articulate and have grown up in a progressive society, which after the 1979 coup was run by a Soviet-backed Communist regime.

"People should have opinions," said one woman passionately, "but I'm sure if I asked them to discuss the issue with me they would say I was against Islam and they would kill me."

Some women hoped that the Taliban would become less restrictive and realise that many of Kabul's women must either work or starve.

If the Taliban do not ease up, then the consequences could be disastrous as an already near-starving population heads into the bitterly cold winter.

"If women can't do official work," said one woman, "they will do unofficial work on the streets. You know what I mean? And they will be killed."

One of the Taliban's first acts was to execute the former president, Dr Najibullah, and his brother, Shaipur Ahmadzai, and hang their mutilated bodies on public display. "If they can do this to someone who was the president," said one woman, "what will they do to us?"

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