If the United States retaliates against last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks by bombing Afghan cities, among the main victims of a U.S. strike will be the innocent women who live in terror under the Taliban government.

In the areas of the country controlled by the Taliban — Afghanistan's radically fundamentalist Islamic leadership —  women are treated as sub-human. (More moderate Islamic governments, such as that of Iran, oppose the Taliban's treatment of women and its interpretation of Islam.) The human rights organization Amnesty International has diligently issued pleas to the international community to take action against the oppression of Afghan women.

In Afghanistan, women are confined to their homes except for government-approved excursions or when accompanied by a mahram — a prescribed male member of their immediate family. The consequences of disobedience are dire. In Price of Honor, a book that explores the lives of women under Muslim extremism, author Jan Goodwin relates an incident of a woman who is shot by a Taliban guard when she leaves her home to take her acutely ill child to a doctor.

The woman survived the shooting, but when her family complained, the authorities declared that she had no business being in the street. Even if the complaint had been taken seriously, she would have had little hope for justice. A woman cannot petition the court except by going through a mahram and her testimony is valued at half that of a man's.

Goodwin, who has spent considerable time in Afghanistan, wrote of the Taliban guards: "[T]o insure their dictates are followed, religious police...roam the streets. Often teenage boys armed with automatic weapons, they also carry broken-off car aerials or electrical cabling to whip women they decide are not properly observing the regulations."

Before the Taliban came into power, it is estimated that 70 percent of teachers in the Afghan capital of Kabul were women. Now females are not permitted to attend school or to work outside of the home, with the rare exception of some female medical personnel.

Women are often denied basic medical care because it is illegal for them to visit or speak with a man who is not a close relative. In the city of Herat, guards broke into the dental office of Dr. Nader Sina's and whipped several women who were there for treatment. The dentist was imprisoned and told the clinic would be closed permanently if he cared for women again. The city is reportedly without a female dentist.

Unable to earn a living, Afghani women (especially widows) are turning to prostitution in record numbers. And the punishment for prostitution is death. The punishment for adultery can be death as well. A woman named Sohaila was found guilty of adultery for walking with a man who was not a relative. Her sentence — 100 lashes administered publicly — was light because she was single. Had she been married, she would have been publicly stoned to death.

Strict dress codes require women to wear burqas —  large, all-encompassing baglike garb. To dress in any other manner or to show an ankle is to risk a public beating. Women caught wearing nail varnish have had parts of their fingers hacked off.

The deep suffering of Afghan women is becoming a matter of international protest, partly through the efforts of the Pakistani-based Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA gives the silenced women a voice. One woman wrote, "The Taliban imprisoned my brother because he shaved his face;...they flogged my mother because she did not cover herself head to toe according to the faith....These news [sic] rip my soul off."

Photos of murdered women are posted at RAWA. But currently, the most prominent feature of their web site is a banner reading, "Our mourning hearts go out to the US people."

In any city controlled by the Taliban, the bombs will fall primarily upon Afghan women who huddle in their homes, clinging to their children. The Taliban leaders have already retreated to safer environs. Osama bin Laden is in the Afghan mountains or one of his other havens.

Killing terrorists, like bin Laden, is a measure of pure self-defense, to be applauded. Killing Afghan women is a brutal act, to be abhorred.

Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American writer, has issued this wrenching appeal:

"When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think Bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think 'the people of Afghanistan' think 'the Jews in the concentration camps.' It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims..."

As to why Afghans do not rise up in rebellion against the well-armed and disciplined Taliban, Ansary offers several reasons among many. "A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan [of a population estimated at 20 million] -- a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows....The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets [during war]."

The founder of RAWA, Meena, wrote a poem about her journey as an Afghan woman. Entitled "I'll Never Return," it begins:

I'm the woman who has awoken/
I've arisen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burnt children/
My ruined and burnt village fill me with hatred against the enemy.
 

Do not let that enemy become the United States.

McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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