An Anger Behind the Veil


When the Virtue and Vice police caught sight of 14-year-old Farkhanda, with her naive eyes and childish face, they gave chase with their sticks and beat her.

As she walked home from a family wedding in the capital, Kabul, three weeks ago, Farkhanda crossed the line dividing carefree girlhood from fearful womanhood, simply by showing her face.

With one glance, the police from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice--Afghanistan’s religious enforcers--decided that she should be wearing the burka, the head-to-toe shroud compulsory for women in much of this country.

“I was terrified. I was crying. I ran as fast as I could,” she said, describing the ordeal after fleeing to this village in the small slice of northern Afghanistan controlled by opposition forces battling the strict Islamic Taliban regime.


Girls younger than 14 don’t wear the burka, but women must. Farkhanda’s family didn’t think that she had to wear it yet, but the Virtue and Vice police deemed her too old to show her face.

Life under the Taliban is so repressive for Afghan women that many of them now see U.S. military action against the regime as their best hope for a freer life.

In Taliban-controlled areas--about 95% of the country--there are even rules on the way a woman can walk. She should not walk too energetically lest her feet slap too hard on the ground, making an unseemly noise, or lest she kick up a corner of her garment, showing a glimpse of ankle.

Kerima, a woman in her early 30s who’s related to Farkhanda, never seemed to get it right. She fled Kabul with Farkhanda and other family members just over a week ago. “I was beaten so many times,” she said, referring to the Virtue and Vice police. “Every time I went to the bazaar, I was beaten because my ankles were showing. They would hit me on my head, back or my arms. Everyone was afraid, all the women.”

When the Taliban came to power, women were banned from almost all jobs and Kerima lost her post as a teacher. After her husband was ousted from his job this year, the family had no income at all.

Kerima expresses the anger lurking under the burka--anger that now haunts the Taliban leadership, which is fearful of insurrection should the U.S. bomb Afghanistan and the opposition Northern Alliance forces use the opportunity to attack Kabul.

“It was so boring to sit in the house all day, but we didn’t have any way out of it,” Kerima said. “I was afraid of the Taliban, and we were kept isolated from education and knowledge. . . . I was busy with the household, and I cried when I was alone.”

So fierce is the anger among many Afghan women about conditions under the Taliban, some people suggest that women will rise up and join the military fight to depose the Taliban should the United States launch bomb strikes.

Some Ready to Fight to Oust the Taliban

It’s a notion that seems a little farfetched, given that women have been largely isolated from society since the Taliban came to power in 1996, and have no experience in weapons use.

But Zohal Zarra, 45, who runs the Assn. for Islamic Women in Gulbahar, 55 miles north of the capital, says she would fight to oust the Taliban, and she is convinced that other women will, even without guns.

“There are many women who will fight,” she said, “even if they take up stones or sticks or boiling water.”

The constraints women face in Afghanistan are stifling, perhaps the most restrictive in the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are severely curtailed, women may not drive and must cover their bodies, but they are allowed to work in universities, hospitals and schools--although they rarely do.

In Kabul, which had been more liberal than other parts of Afghanistan, women’s lives changed dramatically when the Taliban came to power. They were told they couldn’t leave their homes unless escorted by a male relative; they couldn’t drive; almost all jobs were ruled out except in areas such as gynecology--and then only because male doctors were prohibited from treating women; and education was banned for girls. High heels, sports, loud laughter and singing were all forbidden to women.

Before the Taliban took over, Kabul was a city where many women did not wear burkas. After 1996, all women had to wear them, showing neither hands, ankles nor faces. Violations of Taliban law are punishable by beating or stoning.

Although the Taliban insists that the rules ensure that women are treated with dignity, many Islamic scholars have attacked the regime’s repressive code.

Mohammed abu Laila, professor in the Department of Islamic Studies at Al Azhar University in Cairo, says that according to the Koran, women may work and drive. They may study, teach and be leaders, but not be heads of state.

He says there is no requirement in Islam that women’s faces and hands be covered. Countries that require women to cover all parts of their body owe less to Islam than to regional or tribal traditions, he says.

In fact, the Koran enshrined specific rights for women, which were liberating at the time they were conveyed about 1,400 years ago. The Koran banned infanticide and laid down women’s right to education, to choose their husband, divorce, inherit, engage in business and own property.

Even here in the north of Afghanistan, out of the Taliban’s reach, women are hemmed in--not by law, but by cultural pressure.

Like their counterparts under Taliban rule, they don’t venture out without the burka.

Except, that is, for Zarra, who drives a car and gets about in a black-and-green Puma track suit, with no face covering.

“I don’t care. I just go out,” said Zarra, who fled Kabul for the safety of northern Afghanistan when the Taliban took power.

“I like to drive,” she said. “It’s no problem.”

Zarra even drives her husband, Elyas, about. He is education minister in the essentially defunct Islamic State of Afghanistan government, which was ousted by the Taliban.

“I have a car with tinted windows,” she said, giggling. “And I have a good husband.”

Zarra runs Afghanistan’s only coeducational school. She also runs an embroidery and tailoring cooperative for widows, to provide them with an income.

Like many Afghan women, she despises the burka. Putting it on is like stepping into a balloon of hot air in a country where summer temperatures reach well over 100 degrees. An internal headband holds the shroud in place; your feet disappear beneath the billowing swath, and it’s difficult to walk or see. The small square of net before your eyes is your window on the world.

“It’s very hot. I don’t see anything,” Zarra said. “I can’t see where I’m going, and I feel like I might fall over.”

Bazaars Devoid of Women’s Faces

In Afghanistan’s bazaars, the narrow, crowded lanes are filled with the faces of men, boys and young girls. Once they reach a certain age, girls’ faces disappear. The women waft by like ghosts in their flowing burkas.

Groups of women are escorted by men, who will materialize from a distance, often with casually slung Kalashnikovs.

Inside the village house owned by Kerima’s male relatives, the women’s domain is the kitchen, a mud-walled room with a window onto a green yard with its ancient twisted vine. There’s a hole in the floor for the clay tandoor oven, with a higgledy-piggledy pile of pots nearby.

Male strangers are ushered to a room devoid of furnishings other than red rugs and cushions. The women are a mere hinted presence, sensed only in the meal of tea, red bean stew and rice with walnut and yogurt sauce.

Only a female guest is invited into a sunny room to meet the women of the household, two dozen smiling, curious faces from three generations, most of whom have never handled even simple Western objects, such as a photograph.

Shabha, 21, is another relative who left Kabul a little more than a week ago--fleeing both the expected U.S. attacks and Taliban persecution. She had to give up school and her dreams of being a doctor when the Taliban came to power. Now she is married and has a baby girl, Bahara.

Her own future, she feels, isn’t worth thinking about. All she wants is for her daughter to have the education she missed out on.

With girls’ education banned by the Taliban, Nasrine Gross, an Afghan American from Washington, runs two clandestine schools for girls in Kabul, part of a nationwide network of several thousand secret schools. In the late 1990s, the ban was slightly relaxed with the introduction of a few official schools.

Most of the schools are supported by international organizations. They’re cheap: It costs only $1,500 to run a school for 20 girls for a year.

“Remember, it’s clandestine. The kids have to learn to lie about where they’re going,” Gross said in an interview in the Panjshir Valley last week. “They have to pretend they’re going somewhere different every day and change their route.”

Gross graduated from Afghanistan’s first girls’ high school in 1964 and wrote a book in 1998 telling the stories of the students, now scattered all over the world.

The book contains a striking selection of photographs of Afghan women in the 1960s and 1970s--their faces uncovered, many without scarves, some wearing leg-revealing skirts.

It is not just women who hate the burka: Many men do too, but they argue that it’s a part of Afghan tradition and culture, not to be messed with.

“I just say to people, ‘In 1965 I wore short skirts,’ and they just kind of shut up,” Gross said.

She is part of a movement of Afghan women who have developed a declaration on the rights of Afghan women. By gathering signatures worldwide, they hope to pressure the Bush administration to support the document and have it enshrined in a post-Taliban constitution for Afghanistan.

Restrictive Garment Not Necessarily Traditional

Gross disputes the view that wearing the burka is an ancient Afghan tradition, arguing that women have worked the fields here without the attire for hundreds of years.

“It is a garment that came to Afghanistan only 150 years ago. It is not Islamic. It came from India and was worn in the cities to show the gentrification of the husband,” Gross said. “It was worn by people entering the middle class.”

She has met many women from cities and villages who say they would burn the garments if they weren’t forced to wear them.

Elyas Zarra, the education minister, says the garment is both a physical and psychological barrier.

“The [burka] stops women from doing something better with their lives. They all feel angry. They feel unhappy,” he said. “If they take off the [burka], they feel free. They can see. They can do something better.”

But he says that, in the northern part of Afghanistan, it is a choice made by individual families--at least by the men--most of whom still support the burka.

As for rising up against the Taliban, Gross said: “You have to understand--they are destitute women. I’m not sure how much they can organize themselves. But mobilizing them and empowering them, it doesn’t take much.”

Afghanistan lost many of its men in 22 years of war. If peace ever comes, Gross says, she is sure women will play a big role in rebuilding the country.

“With military men, it’s difficult to bring them to the way of peace,” she said. “Reconstruction is a peaceful activity. I think the women will be a major force for peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”