IN MARGARET Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, set in the 21st century, America has become a totalitarian state in which women are no longer allowed to work or have bank accounts. Her heroine, Offred, is a sex slave, assigned to an official of the regime to conceive the child his infertile wife is unable to produce. In one of the novel's most affecting passages, Offred remembers the time before the coup, when she worked in a library. "All those women having jobs: hard to imagine, now, but thousands of them had jobs, millions. It was considered the normal thing."
When the book was published 12 years ago, female readers passed it around, appalled by Atwood's vision of a state in which women had been stripped of every human right. I don't think many of us believed that such a thing could happen outside the pages of a novel. But it did, two years ago, in circumstances very like those Atwood imagined. In October 1996, when the Taliban militia captured Kabul, capital city of Afghanistan, women were driven from their jobs, beaten on the streets if they refused to wear full-length veils, and thrown out of hospitals and colleges.
Afghanistan is a Muslim country. But that does not mean that its women, before the coup, led secluded lives. In an economy ravaged by war for two decades, their labour was vital - so much so that 70 per cent of government employees were female. What has happened to women in Kabul, at the hands of a fundamentalist Islamic sect, is as shocking as it would be if it took place in Paris or London, And yet, as the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and three rebel towns fell to the Taliban last week, the plight of women in Afghanistan has barely been mentioned. Ninety per cent of the country is now controlled by a group of fanatical misogynists who have created a vast prison for women - and who are demanding international recognition.
So far, the regime has been acknowledged only by a handful of Islamic countries who share its repulsive attitudes, notably Saudi Arabia. But now the Taliban leadership is asking to take over Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations, currently held by the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani which it ousted two years ago. It is also pressing for construction to start on a pounds 1-2 billion pipeline which would run from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan, into Pakistan. The chief players in the consortium behind the project, CentGas, are the American oil firm Unocal and Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia, who are hoping to get a pounds 600 million loan from the World Bank.
A condition of the loan is likely to be UN or United States recognition of the regime, which raises some important questions. Is the international community sufficiently concerned about human rights to maintain the Taliban's pariah status? Will it make clear that loans and other assistance will be forthcoming only when the Taliban ends its war on half the population? In two months' time, when the UN is scheduled to hold its next meeting on accreditation, we may discover how much the world really cares about women.
ONE OF the Taliban's innovations since seizing power has been the setting up of a Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. In Britain we have something similar, a non-governmental organisation known familiarly as the Daily Mail. It campaigns tirelessly against pornography, denouncing the "filth" which threatens to engulf our country in terms which would delight fundamentalists worldwide. "Looser curbs lead to looser morals," it declared last week, reacting to a sensible suggestion from James Ferman, outgoing director of the British Board of Film Classification, that non-violent pornography should be available in licensed sex shops.
Readers of the Mail might be forgiven for thinking, after studying the paper's furious two-page spread, that Mr Ferman was proposing to visit their homes and perform sex acts with their pets and children. In fact, he was simply pointing out that Home Office research has been unable to establish a link between non-violent sex videos and aggressive behaviour. This being the case, he suggested that the law should be changed to allow consenting adults to watch them. I am happy to go along with this, but what will we get to see if the law is relaxed?
Eighteen months ago, I sat through several hours of explicit videos for an article I was writing about the subscription-only porn channels on cable TV. It was a dispiriting experience, not because it demeaned women but because it was so obviously directed at blue-collar men. It made me realise that the people who produce porn have something in common with its opponents - they both marginalise women. They're so keen to use us as vehicles for male fantasy, or protect us from its supposed effects, that they seldom think about us as consumers of erotic material. Perhaps this explains why I always end of returning to my battered copy of Anais Nin.
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