Afghanistan (Wars)

Fate of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, which came to power as a result of the armed struggle with the Soviet Union and its Afghan allies and continued to fight the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance until the U.S. invasion of 2001. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, it not only reversed all of the gains that women had made in defining their personal rights and in expanding their professional opportunities, it also engaged in a brutal persecution of women that reflected a deep-seated misogyny. This misogyny likely had its roots in the fact that a large percentage of the generation of Afghani men born during the insurgency against Soviet intervention had been raised in refugee camps in Pakistan, where they had been segregated from women and schooled in especially militant forms of Islamic fundamentalism. Apologists for the Taliban have pointed to the requirements it placed on Afghani men as well, as if there were some sort of underlying equivalency in the conditions under which men and women were expected to live. The most salient demand made on men was the requirement that they grow beards, hardly the equivalent of the wholesale restrictions placed on women.

In an article for The Australian, Michael Phillips detailed the abuse of women under the Taliban regime, emphasizing that what might have seemed to be egregious incidents had actually become commonplace occurrences. A group of Taliban dragged one woman from her vehicle and beat her to death for having allowed her bare arm to show while she was driving. Actually, this woman could have been killed simply for being behind the wheel because women were proscribed from driving any sort of vehicle.

Another woman was sentenced to death by stoning for attempting to travel overseas with a man who was neither her husband nor a blood relation. Any hint of extramarital or of premarital contact between men and women provoked a severe response. In one of the more infamous tableaus associated with the Taliban regime, public executions were regularly conducted on the field of the Kabul soccer stadium, and a staple of these events was the execution by gunshot to the back of the head of women accused of adultery.

Indeed, under the Taliban, any man had the right to enforce restrictions on women. That is, any man could, on the spot, beat or even kill a woman for a perceived violation of law or custom. There are stories of women having been whipped by men passing them on the streets because the wind had raised their dresses and had provided a glimpse of their ankles, even though they were wearing heavy, dark stockings.

Beyond the outrageous injustices committed in the name of righteousness, the Taliban simply but brutally reduced the women of Afghanistan to a very circumscribed existence. Before the Taliban had come to power, a large percentage of the professionals in Afghanistan had been women, including some 40 percent of the physicians (Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 2001, 10). Although Soviet troops were guilty of atrocities against Afghani women, the Soviet-backed regime did follow the Soviet model in encouraging a progressive attitude toward women’s involvement in public life. Women’s entry into the professions and other arenas of public life thus became associated, in the eyes of the Islamic insurgents, with the influence of a hated regime. Under the Taliban, women were forbidden to practice any profession. The grimly logical extension of this prohibition was the further proscription of women from any sort of public education.

Moreover, women were forbidden to appear in public unless accompanied by a male relative unless they had covered themselves completely—had covered even their eyes—by wearing the burqa. Even while virtually imprisoned in their homes, women were reminded of their subservient status. To prevent women from being seen without their burqas, the windows of homes were painted. Women were also required to wear soft-soled shoes so that they could not assert their personalities even through their footsteps and so that their footsteps would not provide a reminder to men of their presence.

Women were forbidden to wear any cosmetics, even under the burqa or in the privacy of their own homes. Women could not be photographed, and pictures of women could not be shown in newspapers or periodicals or even displayed within the home. Women were not only banned from making musical recordings, films, and television programs, they were not permitted to listen to music or watch any sort of visual media. This last restriction also applied to men, although the penalties imposed on men who violated it were not as severe or as rigidly imposed as the penalties on female violators.

In this oppressive environment, seeking psychological treatment for depression would have been viewed as an act of defiance rather than a gesture of desperation. In any case, the ban on female physicians and the severe restrictions on the ability of male physicians to provide meaningful diagnoses and care to female patients combined to make even basic medical care unavailable to most Afghani women. For the sizable number of women whose husbands and male relatives had been killed in the countries’ prolonged period of conflict, there were no options other than to beg for handouts from the very men who despised them.

To bring this oppression to the attention of the world, expatriate Afghani women formed the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. This group created a documentary record of specific cases of abuse and supported underground efforts to provide Afghani women with at least rudimentary medical care and education. In large part because of their efforts, worldwide opinion was turned against the Taliban, and funding to improve the condition of Afghani women after the defeat of the Taliban came from many quarters.

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