Plight of Afghan Women Changes Overnight

For years, Hassina Sherjan had little to rejoice about. The Afghanistan native's schools were closed, her compatriots were beaten and imprisoned in their homes, and the less fortunate were sold to Taliban soldiers as sex slaves.

But in the last week, as Taliban control over Afghanistan crumbled, her spirits, along with the fortunes of the country's 13.5 million women, improved -- dramatically, and almost immediately.

"That very first day that the Northern Alliance came into Kabul, the Northern Alliance said girls could go to school and women could go to work," said Sherjan, an Afghan exile and founder of Children's Aid, which founded many of the girls schools closed by the Taliban when they took control of Kabul in 1996.

The concern surfacing now is that the Northern Alliance, which is rapidly gaining control of large sections of Afghanistan, will treat women no better than their predecessors.

During the United Front's brief control of Kabul in the early 1990s, fighting among the new government's factions led to 55,000 deaths and the brutal rape of women. Members of the current Northern Alliance were part of that government, and some blame the group for some of those atrocities. And they don't trust what they have to say now.

"All of them have a Kalashnikov in one hand and the Quran in the other to kill, intimidate, detain and mutilate our people arbitrarily," declared the Pakistan-based Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

But Sherjan and other Afghan women in exile scoff at such a notion. Sherjan insisted it was not the members of the current Northern Alliance who were responsible for the many atrocities at that time, but the Pakistani-supported fundamentalists who wanted power for themselves.

Furthermore, the Taliban and their foreign fundamentalist supporters from places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Chechnya were many times worse than anything they can remember in Afghanistan, she said.

Dr. Zieba Shirish-Shamley, who was born in Afghanistan but left when her parents sent her to college in the U.S. 30 years ago, said the Taliban razed entire villages, killing men and taking their wives. Girls were married off to Taliban soldiers as young as nine years old, she said, and the widows left behind led hopeless lives.

"Not only could not they work, they could find no way to feed themselves and their children and this led to many illnesses, including malnutrition," she said. "It also led to psychological disorders and though it was against the Islamic faith, women began committing suicide. They did not want to see their children starve to death before their eyes."

The difference was remarkable from only a few years earlier, when women represented 50 percent or more of all the teachers, university students and health care workers in the country, Shirish-Shamley said.

Now, Shirish-Shamley and Sherjan said they would use their own U.S. advocacy groups to make sure that women regain that stature and play a role in the reconstruction of Afghan society. Observers said western nations seeking to aid in Afghanistan’s recovery can help that effort, but only if they take into account Afghan traditions and do not attempt to impose their own standards of women's liberation on a society not ready for it.

David Isby, a consultant for Jane's Information Systems and author of three books on Afghanistan, said the treatment of Afghan women by the Taliban has more to do with control and subjugation than it does with Islam. Therefore, the greater Muslim world shouldn't look askance at allowing women to work and go to school in Afghanistan.

"Certainly, Islamic feminism is not an oxymoron. Blow for blow and line for line there is less sexism in the Quran than the great books of other religions," he said. "The Taliban wanted to economically marginalize women. They tried to regulate behavior."

But westerners need to be patient, he said, and not try to force its ideals on Afghanistan, which at its core is still traditionally patriarchal. The international community must allow this new government to re-establish the culture and heal from two decades of foreign control.

"We cannot go in there and force them to take off their burqas if they don't want to - that will only antagonize the Afghans," said Middle East expert Jim Phillips of the Heritage Foundation.

Indeed, some argue that Western observers are obsessed with the burqa and the symbol of oppression it has become -- mostly because women in Afghanistan were forced to wear them or risk severe punishment. Even Afghan women said not to expect them to disappear.

"This burqa is not a sign of repression for us," said Khatoom, a 45-year-old graduate of Kabul University who uses one name and was attending a meeting of women in Herat, Afghanistan, Tuesday. "The burqa is our tradition. There were other signs of repression by the Taliban. Please don't call the burqa a sign of repression."

Shirish-Shamley, who runs the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, holds out much more hope than she did even two weeks ago.

But reaching her goals won't be immediate. She pointed to the fact that no women have been invited to attend this weekend's meeting of Afghan factions in Berlin.

"If a future government is not broad-based, and women are not represented proportionately - and there are more women than men - then we will mobilize against it just like we did the Taliban," said Shirish-Shamley.