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Afghanistan's Invisible People
Women Barred from Work, Education Under Taliban

listenListen to John Burnett's report for All Things Considered.

Prohibited to work by the Taliban and without a male breadwinner, this mother is forced to beg on the streets. Photo: Courtesy of RAWA/Islamic Revolution

Living Under the Taliban photo gallery Photo gallery: living under the Taliban

video Travel a war-torn street in Kabul

Oct. 31, 2001 -- The most desperate victims of the Taliban's five-year rule in Afghanistan are women. Imposing the strictest interpretation of Islamic law in the Muslim world, the Taliban have ordered women to become virtually invisible. NPR's John Burnett reports from Peshawar, Pakistan, for All Things Considered.

Women are forbidden to work, or attend school, creating a literacy rate among females that UNICEF estimates at 3 to 4 percent.

Burnett's interview, conducted with two male interpreters and 15 girls and young women, all showing their faces, would be cause for harsh reprisal in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The men could be hanged, the women beaten, and the former Kabul schoolteacher, Gulalai Habib, who brought them all together, would likely be killed.

"When you capture a bird and put her into a cage, the bird will not have education or freedom. But even the owner of a bird gives it food and water to keep it alive. The Taliban doesn't even treat us like a caged bird. They don't care whether we die in our houses, or if we live," says Habib, who holds free literacy classes in her small Peshawar home for Afghan refugee girls.

Inside the Taliban's Afghanistan

Under Taliban rule, women are:

• forbidden to work outside the home

• banned from education, creating literacy rates among females estimated at 3 to 4 percent

• forbidden to talk to men who aren't their relatives

• required to be escorted outside the home by a close male relative

• required to wear in public a rough, used, sack-like garment called a burka, which covers them from head-to-toe; the garment is meant to completely obscure the woman wearing it

Violations result in beatings, torture and even public executions, according to the U.S. State Department.

The classroom is located in a 12-by-12-foot room, off a courtyard at the end of a maze of mud-walled alleyways. The classes are sponsored by a shadowy women's rights group called the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. For 14 years, this secretive organization has documented the oppression of Afghan women and operated a network of underground schools for women inside Afghanistan and refugees in neighboring Pakistan.

A year ago, 14-year-old Besira was with her mother trading with a male shopkeeper in a market in Kabul, when they were discovered by a Taliban officer with the infamous Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

"They asked us what dealings we had with this man, what was going on. They came in the shop and started beating my mother and me for talking to a man who was not our relative. They beat us with a leather whip," Besira tells Burnett.

"We said there was not a man living in our household to accompany us. They wanted to take us to the base and beat us some more, but we begged forgiveness and said we wouldn't do it again. They said if we see you again it will be terrible for you."

Like all young women in Kabul, when Besira ventures away from her home, she must wear a burka, a heavy, sack-like garment with a mesh face-piece. The garment is meant to completely obscure a woman and prevent her from distracting men from Islam.

Afghan Women, Pre-Taliban

According to the National Organization for Women, before 1996 in Kabul, women represented:

• 70 percent of school teachers

• 40 percent of doctors

• 50 percent of civilian government workers

• 50 percent of college students

The women talking with Burnett tell him the garment is anything but comfortable. They sweat under it; it inhibits their breathing; sometimes, they trip over it and fall. They say they envy the women they see women on TV, walking freely and wearing the clothes they want, going to school. Free women who can go to a park alone if they want, and eat ice cream without having to bring it under the burka.

When the Taliban swept to power in 1996, they were initially credited with protecting women from the abuses of the rapacious warlords who ruled Afghanistan. However, journalist Ahmed Rashid, in his respected book Taliban, says almost immediately "the oppression of women became a benchmark for the Taliban's brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

The Taliban has banished femininity, says Burnett. Colorful or shiny head scarves are forbidden. Even new or ironed burkas are not allowed; women must only wear rough, used burkas.

Joy itself is suspect. The Taliban has outlawed all non-religious art and music, and prohibited children's activities such as kite-flying, building snowmen, and playing with dolls, all of which are deemed to detract or distract from pure Islam.

Fifteen-year-old Huma and her relatives were returning from a cousin's wedding party this past summer in Kabul, when the religious police heard the merriment on their bus. Though the group included male relatives, Huma says the police pulled the entire party from the bus. The men spent the night in jail and had their heads shaved. The women were sent home. Their crime: Playing a tambourine and singing.

"When I went to bed, I prayed for God to destroy the Taliban, I prayed to God to let them burn in hell."

Zaina, a 22-year-old refugee

"We women were alive, but our soul was captured. It was taken from us," says Zaina, a 22-year-old member of the Hazara tribe. She fled her home in the western city of Bamiyan five years ago. "We could not laugh merrily. We could not do what we did before, go to a wedding, go to one another's house. We sat in our houses and weaved carpets just to earn money for food, nothing else.

"When I went to bed, I prayed for God to destroy the Taliban, I prayed to God to let them burn in hell."

No one in the class interviewed by Burnett is quite sure whether God is answering their prayers. During the first week of the U.S. airstrikes on the Taliban, Afghan women in exile rejoiced, says the schoolteacher Gulaila Habib. But now they are growing alarmed at the mounting civilian casualties.

"This war has continued for a month, and we thought the American superpower would be able to easily destroy those two terrorists living in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar and Osama," she says. "But I would like to say to people in the Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia and all the other Muslim countries who hold rallies for the Taliban: We have lived under Taliban cruelties for five years. Just bring the Taliban into your country for five months and see what happens."

In Depth

• Browse for other NPR stories about the Taliban.

• Read about the plight of Afghan refugees and about a portrait of a young refugee girl made famous in National Geographic.

Other Resources

• Visit the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan's Web site, a Pakistan-based women's rights group documenting the oppression of Afghan women. (Please note: This site contains graphic images of violence.)

• Read about the United Nations Refugee Agency's aid efforts in Afghanistan.

• Read about Beneath the Veil, a British-produced, documentary of a woman's journey into Afghanistan to witness life under the Taliban.

• Read about the International Committee of the Red Cross' aid efforts in Afghanistan.

• Read UNICEF's report on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

• Read the U.S. State Department's fact sheet on women and girls in Afghanistan.