Buried Alive: Afghan Women Under the Taliban

by Jan Goodwin

February 27, 1998 Thirty thousand men and boys poured into the
dilapidated Olympic sports stadium in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan.
Street hawkers peddled nuts, biscuits and tea to the waiting crowd. The
scheduled entertainment? They were there to see a young woman,
Sohaila, receive 100 lashes, and to watch two thieves have their right
hands amputated. Sohaila had been arrested walking with a man who was
not a relative, a sufficient crime for her to be found guilty of adultery.
Since she was single, it was punishable by flogging; had she been married,
she would have been publicly stoned to death.

As Sohaila, completely covered in the shroud like burqa veil, was forced
to kneel and then flogged, Taliban "cheerleaders" had the stadium ringing
with the chants of onlookers. Among those present there were just three
women: the young Afghan, and two female relatives who had
accompanied her. The crowd fell silent only when the luckless thieves
were driven into the arena and pushed to the ground. Physicians using
surgical scalpels promptly carried out the amputations. Holding the
severed hands aloft by the index fingers, a grinning Taliban fighter warned
the huge crowd, "These are the chopped off hands of thieves, the
punishment for any of you caught stealing." Then, to restore the party
atmosphere, the thieves were driven in a jeep once around the stadium, a
flourish that brought the crowd to their feet, as was intended.

These Friday circuses, at which Rome's Caligula would doubtless have
felt at home, are to become weekly fixtures for the entertainmentÄstarved
male residents of Kabul. Now that "weak officials" have been purged
from key ministries, says the city's governor, Manan Niazi, who like many
of the regime's officials is also a mullah, the way has been cleared for such
displays. "We have a lot of such unpunished cases, but the previous civil
servants didn't have the courage to do what we are doing. These people
have now been replaced, and these events will continue." In fact, the next
scheduled program, as announced, would be one stoning to death and
three amputations.

Earlier that same week, three men accused of "buggery" had been
sentenced to death by being partially buried in the ground and then having
a wall pushed over on them by a bulldozer, a bizarre and laborÄintensive
form of execution dreamed up by the supreme leader of the Taliban, the
36ÄyearÄold Mullah Mohammad Omar. After another man, a saboteur,
was hanged, his corpse was driven around the city, swinging from a
crane. Clearly, there is nothing covert about the regime's punitive
measures. In fact, the Taliban insure they are as widely publicized as
possible. Last March, for example, the regime's radio station, the only one
permitted to operate, broadcast to the nation that a young woman caught
trying to flee Afghanistan with a man who was not her relative had been
stoned to death. On another occasion, it was announced over the
airwaves that 225 women had been rounded up and sentenced to a
lashing for violating the dress code. One woman had the top of her thumb
amputated for the crime of wearing nail polish. And when the Taliban
castrated and then hanged the former communist president and his brother
in 1996, they left their bloodied bodies dangling from lampposts in busy
downtown Kabul for three days. Photographs of the corpses appeared in
news magazines and newspapers around the world.

The Taliban now control between 65 and 85 percent of Afghanistan, a
country where statistics are anyone's guess. (Even the population size of
Afghanistan is uncertain: possibly 15, maybe 22 million. The U.S.
Department of State's figure on war fatalitiesÄ1.5 millionÄ has not changed
since 1985, although the armed conflict there is now in its 19th year.) For
the last two years, the Taliban have been trying to win both a seat at the
United Nations and international recognition. Thus far, only three
countries have recognized the regime: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates,
and Saudi Arabia. And even Pakistan is becoming embarrassed by its
neighbor.

Until the Taliban came to power, Saudi Arabia was the most oppressive
country on earth for women, and many of the Taliban's restrictions are
rooted in that hardline Gulf state's gender apartheid. Saudi Arabia has
also been financially supportive of the Taliban and the religious schools in
which they are indoctrinated. "We have long regarded the Saudi kingdom
as our right hand," says the head of the Taliban governing council.

The Taliban regime claim they are restoring Afghanistan to the "purity of
Islam," and the Western press invariably parrots them. But authorities in a
number of Muslim countries insist that few of the regime's dictates have a
basis in Islam. And just as the U.N. has denied the Taliban a seat in the
General Assembly, so too, the Organization of Islamic Conference, a
55Äcountry body, has withheld both a seat and recognition from the
regime. "The Taliban is not the image the Islamic world wants to project,"
says one Muslim diplomat. And with good reason.

Now in its fourth year of existence, the pariah regime has expunged all
leisure activities. Their list of what is illegal grows daily: music, movies and
television, picnics, wedding parties, New Year celebrations, any kind of
mixedÄsex gathering. They've also banned children's toys, including dolls
and kites; card and board games; cameras; photographs and paintings of
people and animals; pet parakeets; cigarettes and alcohol; magazines and
newspapers, and most books. They've even forbidden applause ÄÄ a
moot point, since there's nothing left to applaud.

Below (left): Afghan women begging to survive. Below (right): Banned from
college, women students continue their education in an underground school.

"Whatever we are doing in our country, it is not in order for the world to
be happy with us," Sher Abbas Stanakzai, who until recently was the
Taliban's 36ÄyearÄold deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, told me during
my visit. Explaining why his regime has banned virtually all forms of
entertainment, he says, "Time should be spent serving the country and
praying to God. Nothing else. Everything else is a waste of time, and
people are not allowed to waste their time."

For women, the restrictions are even harsher. Female education, from
kindergarten through graduate school, banned. Employment for women,
banned. It's now illegal to wear makeup, nail polish, jewelry, pluck your
eyebrows, cut your hair short, wear colorful or stylish clothes, sheer
stockings, white socks and shoes, highÄheel shoes, walk loudly, talk
loudly or laugh in public. In fact, the government doesn't believe women
should go out at all: "Women, you should not step outside your residence"
reads one of the Taliban dictates.

If women do venture out, it must be for an essential,
government sanctioned purpose, and they must wear the all enveloping
burqa. Even then they risk their lives. Not so long ago, a young mother,
Torpeka, was shot repeatedly by the Taliban while rushing her seriously ill
toddler to a doctor. Veiled as the law requires, she was spotted by a
teenage Taliban guard, who tried to stop her because she shouldn't have
left her home. Afraid her child might die if she were delayed, Torpeka
kept going. The guard aimed his Kalashnikov machineÄgun and fired
several rounds directly at her. She was hit, but didn't die on the spot, as
she could have. Instead, Afghans watching the incident in the crowded
marketplace intervened, and Torpeka and her child received prompt
medical attention. When her family later complained to the Taliban
authorities, they were informed that it was the injured woman's fault. She
had no right being out in public in the first place.
The burqa is a garment that covers women from head to toe, the heavy
gauze patch across the eyes makes it hard to see, and completely blocks
peripheral vision. Since enforced veiling, a growing number of women
have been hit by vehicles because the burqa leaves them unable to walk
fast, or see where they are going. Recently in Kabul, a Taliban tank rolled
right over a veiled woman. Fortunately, she fell between the tracks.
Instead of being crushed to death, she was not seriously hurt, but was
severely traumatized.

To insure women are effaced as effectively as if they never existed, the
government ordered all exterior windows of homes to be painted black.
The only public transport permitted women are special buses, which are
rarely available, and have all windows, except the driver's, covered with
thick blankets.

It is now illegal for women to talk to any men except close relatives,
which precludes them from visiting male physicians, no matter how sick.
At the time of my recent visit, the evening curfew began at 7:30 p.m., after
which no one, except government troops, was allowed out, even for
medical emergencies. Even women in labor and needing hospital care
must remain at home until morning.

It would probably be quicker to list what the Taliban haven't banned. The
regime has even outlawed paper bags. Like many of their edicts, this
would be laughable if the penalties for infractions weren't so severe.
Break the Taliban's law and you risk imprisonment, flogging, or worse.
And to insure their dictates are followed, religious police, part of the
"Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice,"
constantly roam the streets. Often teenage boys armed with automatic
weapons, they also carry brokenÄoff car aerials or electrical cabling to
whip women they decide are not properly observing the regulations.

Despite its disastrous and very public record on human rights, when the
Taliban was petitioning the United Nations for a seat in the General
Assembly last May, its then New York representative, Abdul Hakeem
Mujahid, claimed his government was "protecting human rights and
liberties in Afghanistan." He also stated that, having put a stop to the
"miserable living conditions under which our women were living," they had
"restored women's safety, dignity and freedom." He then went on to
justify the Taliban's ban on women's education: Afghanistan lacks the
resources to educate them, he said, adding that the Taliban also do not
trust the values that became part of the education system under previous
governments. Those reservations, however, only apply to women, since
the regime continues to educate boys.

Mujahid omitted to mention a personal detailÄhow he circumvents the ban
for his own daughter by sending her to an EnglishÄlanguage school in
Pakistan. But this kind of hypocrisy is common in Afghanistan today.
Under the regime, cigarette smoking is severely punished, yet in every
Taliban office I entered in Kabul, even that of the head of the department
of Virtue and Vice, Mullah QalamÄadÄDin, from whom most of the
restrictions originate, used ashtrays were always in evidence. A senior
official in the foreign ministry chainÄsmoked throughout our hourÄlong
conversation. "Isn't that illegal?" I asked. "I can't help it, I'm addicted," he
replied with a smile.

While touting to the U.N. the Taliban's "improved" living conditions for
women, Mujahid didn't mention the regime's banning of women's
employment, or any of their myriad other restrictions, which have so
constrained women's lives that half the population of the country is now
effectively confined to house arrest.

Amnesty International calls Afghanistan under the Taliban "a human rights
catastrophe." Afghan women, struggling to survive in what has become a
police state claiming to be a theocracy, describe themselves as the "living
dead."

It is hardly surprising, then, that the U.N. has not seated the Taliban
delegation; or, indeed, that the credentials committee has refused even to
meet with the regime's representative in New York, and most officials
prefer to duck his phone calls. But the U.N. has seated the
representatives of some pretty brutal regimes in the past, and the
ostracism is unlikely to last foreverÄespecially with lobbyists for American
oil concerns entering the picture.

Unocal, a CaliforniaÄbased global energy company, heads up one of two
consortiums engaged in fierce competition to build gas and oil pipelines
from landlocked Turkmenistan to Pakistan through warÄtorn Afghanistan.
In testimony to the U.S. Congress this February, John Maresca,
viceÄpresident in charge of Unocal's international relations, referred to the
$4.5 billion, some 790Ämile project as the "new Silk Road...a commercial
corridor that can link Central Asia supply with the demand, once again
making Central Asia the crossroads between Europe and Asia."

Iran offers an alternative pipeline route, but because of U.S. sanctions
legislation, American companies would not be able to participate in its
constructionÄor, as a result, gain any benefit from what are considered the
largest untapped oil and gas reserves outside the Middle East. And while
Unocal says it cannot sign any deal with the Taliban until they are formally
recognized, this hasn't stopped them from wining and dining Taliban
officials, and arranging shopping trips for them to purchase luxury items on
their visits to the oil company in the U.S. Unocal already has a $900,000
training program underway, in collaboration with the University of
Nebraska at Omaha, for pipeline construction personnel, a program
limited to Afghan males. Additionally, the duo has established two
technician training centers in Afghanistan, also benefitting men only.

Unocal's main partner in the consortium is Delta Oil Co., a SaudiÄowned
company, in whose behalf former White House legislative assistant Paul
Behrends and Delta's American viceÄpresident Charles Santos, a recent
U.N. peace negotiator in Afghanistan, are busy lobbying in Washington.

The pipeline would bring the Taliban some $100 million annually in transit
fees, in addition to providing thousands of jobs and improving
infrastructureÄbuilding roads, supplying electricity, telephones, etc.Äin the
warÄdevastated country. The Clinton administration reportedly supports
the Afghan pipeline, which would free the new nations of Central Asia
from dependence on Russia, avoid the Iranian route, and bring needed
energy to the Indian subcontinent.

Competing with Unocal to build the pipeline is Bridas International of
Argentina, whose managing director, Mario Lopez Olacireegui, has gone
on record saying he is not concerned about the Taliban's human rights
violations. "We are just an oil and gas company," he says. "We are not
bothered by human rights or politics." The Taliban, for their part, say they
will award the pipeline contract to the consortium that is first able to start
construction. Unocal's deadline to begin is this coming December.

A number of American women's organizations, headed by the Feminist
Majority and the National Organization for Women, have mobilized to
prevent the Clinton administration from recognizing the Taliban
government unless it radically changes its treatment of women. They are
also campaigning for Unocal to include women in their training programs.
As we went to press, sources within Unocal admitted this campaign is
beginning to have an effect. A split has occurred within the oil
companyÄthose who want to press ahead, and those who do not want a
politically embarrassing "rogue operation." As the U.S. women's
campaign gains momentum, Unocal is also finding foreign investors
suddenly unenthusiastic about being affiliated with a regime with such a
disastrous public relations record. None of which has affected the
Taliban, however, who have since clamped down harder on women, this
time ordering that all foreign Muslim women working with the U.N. or
NGOs be accompanied by male chaperones, which in effect will halt their
employment in Afghanistan.

While it may be some time before Taliban coffers are swollen by
petrodollars, one of the mainstays of the regime's economy is heroin
production, which they use in part to supply their war machine.
Afghanistan now produces more of the narcotic than any other
countryÄand much of it ends up on the streets of the U.S. Despite
promises by the Taliban to eradicate the industry, according to a report
released last February by the U.N. InterÄ national Narcotics Control
Board, the harvest of opium poppy, from which heroin is derived,
increased by 25 percent in Afghanistan during 1997. The Taliban control
96 percent of Afghanistan's total opium output, this country's only real
remaining cash crop.

Though it was always impoverished, before the Soviet invasion
Afghanistan was able to feed its people. Today, after almost 20 years of
war, this is no longer true. Afghan women, in the rural areas, have always
worked alongside men in the fields. In the capital, until the Taliban took
over, they often wore Western dress, served in parliament, and worked in
a variety of professions, including medicine, engineering, architecture, the
media and law. During the long years of fighting, as men were killed, went
missing, or became disabled, the survival of many families came to
depend on women's income.

Before the Taliban ban on female employment, 70 percent of the teachers
in Kabul were women, as were 50 percent of the civil servants and
university students, and 40 percent of the doctors.

Why does the regime insist that women be confined at home? Reducing
women to mere objects, the minister of education says, "It's like having a
flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at
it and smell it. It [a woman] is not supposed to be taken out of the house
to be smelled." Another Taliban leader is less poetic: "There are only two
places for Afghan womenÄin her husband's house, and in the graveyard."

I have been visiting and reporting on Afghanistan since 1984, and have
traveled extensively throughout the country, but it was only during my visit
last fall that I saw for the first time legions of women and children reduced
to beggary, the result of the Taliban's ban on women's employment. Many
families, having sold all their household items, even blankets, are surviving
on bread and sugarless tea. Supplementary feeding centers, funded by
foreign agencies, are dotted across the capital. Here, malnourished
childrenÄfourÄyearÄolds weighing 16 pounds, 18ÄmonthÄold toddlers
weighing 9 poundsÄare fed. Their mothers are not, even though they, too,
are malnourished. Women often eat once every two or three days,
preferring instead to give whatever food they have to their children.
According to new U.N. figures, some 40 percent of the Kabul population
now exists on food handouts, either from humanitarian agencies or from
begging.

The legally mandated burqa has also become a severe financial hardship.
The veil now costs the equivalent of five months salaryÄif any women
were still receiving one. Most cannot afford to buy the garment, and
whole neighborhoods must share one. It can take several days for a
woman's turn to come round; even if she has money to shop for food, she
can't go out until then.

In Kabul, the number of street children has risen from an estimated
28,000 to 60,000 in the last year. This city, once a symbol of modernity
for Afghanistan, is now in ruinsÄthe most bombÄdamaged capital in the
world. It is also the most landÄmined. Mines maim and/or kill an average
of 25 people a day in Afghanistan. TwoÄthirds of them are children. It is
predominantly children who herd animals, or search for fuel or for scrap
metal to sell to help support their families. Scrap metal merchants will only
purchase unexploded bombs or shells if the children disarm them first.
Kids doing this highly risky work earn on average enough to buy just two
or three pieces of bread per day.

Despite the terrible toll mines are taking, the Taliban have interfered with
programs to teach women and children how to locate and stay clear of
mines. Board games used by foreign humanitarian agencies to instruct a
mostly illiterate population in mineÄawareness have been disallowed
because they use nowÄbanned pictures of humans or animals coming too
close to a mine; an alternative, flash cards, has also been outlawedÄas
gambling.

Conditions are so deplorable for women under the Taliban that many are
now severely depressed. Without the resources to leave the country, an
increasing number are now choosing suicide, once rare there, as a means
of escape. A European physician working in the city told me, "Doctors
are seeing a lot of esophageal burns. Women are swallowing battery acid,
or poisonous household cleansers, because they are easy to find. But it's a
very painful way to die."

Spoghmai, a 24ÄyearÄold former teacher, refers to herself as being
"buried alive." The young woman lost her right arm up to the shoulder,
and her right leg to the thigh, in a shelling attack three years ago. After her
injury, when she spent weeks in a poorly equipped hospital, Spoghmai
was, not surprisingly, so depressed she wanted to die. A lifesaver,
literally, was a job she found with a Western relief agency that enabled
her to work with the disabled. But four months later, when the Taliban
took Kabul in September 1996, she was forced to stop working.
Today, she wears a badly fitted, and painful, prosthesisÄbadly fitted
because, in Afghanistan now, false limbs come in only three sizes.
Disabled as she is, walking is difficult, and is impossible if she is wearing a
burqa veil. Since she cannot go out without one, she hasn't left the house
in two years. "There are so many days when I am too depressed to get
out of bed. Why should I? There is nothing for me to do. So many times I
ask, Why didn't I die when I was injured?"

I offered to take Spoghmai out for a short excursion in my jeep. She
refused. "I am afraid. It is too dangerous, for you and me. Afghans are not
allowed to be with foreigners, or talk with journalists. If we are caught,
the Taliban will beat us, maybe worse. And anyway, to go out briefly
would be too painful. It will remind me of what I have lost. One day of
freedom will make this prison so much worse."

International Complicity

A major concern today is how most of the international community
operating in Afghanistan is going along with the Taliban's restrictions on
women out of fear of having their agencies forced to close. Complicating
this issue is the fact that a number of U.N. officials posted there in senior
positions are from developing countries where women are traditionally
second class. Consequently, they consider the Taliban's restrictions on
women unimportant, or choose to look the other way. One such head of
a U.N. agency in Kabul has often told colleagues, "the gender issue is too
dangerous, I don't plan to risk my career over it."

The director of a major American humanitarian agency in Kabul, who
asked that his name not be used for security reasons, admitted he found it
"personally abhorrent," but felt he had no choice when he had to tell his
female employees first to wear the burqa, and then to stay home. "I felt
awful that I was forcing them to veil. When you only see women in
burqas, you realize the power of covering a woman like that. You don't
treat them like people anymore, just bits of cloth moving down the street.
But on a pragmatic level, that's what had to happen to keep everybody
safe, and to keep our program moving.

"When the Taliban started threatening and then beating our guards and
drivers, we had no choice. When I realized that no one, no authority, was
going to stop the Taliban from beating women if they worked, it became
an issue of protecting the staff. I know that is a rationalization, but they
have demonstrated what the consequences are of not complying with their
edicts. And so you compromise."

He admits that there is an "incredible drift in the international community
here with regard to the gender issue. Women are told: 'Stay home, suffer
your fate, it's easier for everyone.' It's a slippery slope we're on."

One agency in Kabul, Oxfam, which is headed by a retired American
professor, Nancy Smith, chose to make a stand against the regime, and
closed down her multimillionÄdollar program until such time as the Taliban
remove the restrictions on women. With her agency charged with
restoring 40 percent of the water supply system to Kabul, a project that
would also benefit the Taliban, Smith, a wiry 65ÄyearÄold, told the regime
her agency's mandate was to relieve poverty, distress and suffering, and
that included women's. "We concluded that our core principles are not
negotiable," she says. "Oxfam will work with women in Kabul, or not at
all."

Afghan women also defy the Taliban. I visited several underground
schools that women were running for girls out of their homes. Operating
oneÄroom school houses accommodating students aged six to 24, these
dedicated women were breaking the Taliban law on a number of counts,
including the one forbidding gatherings of unrelated people. In a city
where paper and pencils are now hard to acquire, the teaching aids were
handmade from scraps of whatever they could find, including stones and
twigs.

While these women risk their safety to keep teaching, much of the regime
that threatens them are either illiterate or nearly so. Even the Taliban's
Ministers of Education and Higher Education have little schooling. Most
Talibs (the name means religious student) are young zealots, graduates of
the regime's madrassas, soÄcalled religious schools that are based, for the
most part, in Pakistan, and funded in part by the Saudis. In these
cloisterÄlike environments, boys grow up totally segregated from any
women, including those in their own families. The highest honor they can
earn there is that of qari, a Muslim honorific given to those who memorize
and can recite the entire Koran, and a number do. Sadly, however, they
learn to do so in Arabic, a language they do not understand, and is not
taught to them. Consequently, they have no idea of the rights given to
women in Islam.

"Islam dictates that education is mandatory for both males and females,"
says Zieba ShorishÄShamley, Ph.D., chair of the Women's Alliance for
Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, based in Washington, D.C.
Hassan Hathout, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the outreach program at the
Islamic Center of Southern California, agrees: "At the time of the Prophet,
Muslim women attained such scholarship they became teachers to
prominent men." They also worked. In fact, the Prophet met his first wife
because she was his employer. "The medical corps of the Prophet's army
was an allÄwoman corps, and in some battles, women took up swords
and joined active combat. Women participated in public affairs, were
involved in negotiating treaties, were even judges. Islam declared gender
equality through the Prophet's words, 'Women are the siblings of men.'"

Islamic scriptures are very clear on the veil: Only the prophet's wives
were required to cover their faces. In fact, when women undertake the
Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, they are required to do so with
their faces uncovered. They also mingle with men not related to them.

"Obviously, the Taliban's military prowess far exceeds their knowledge of
Islam," says Dr. Hathout. Perhaps the regime's most important oversight is
the Prophet Mohammad's teaching: "There is no compulsion in Islam."

When I raised these issues with the chief mullah of the Department of
Virtue and Vice, and asked him why, if such things were good enough for
the Prophet, they weren't good enough for the Taliban, he grinned and
changed the subject. The regime's Sher Abbas Stanakzai was more
honest when he admitted, "Our current restrictions are necessary in order
to bring the Afghan people under control. We need these restrictions until
people learn to obey the government."

 

Jan Goodwin, editor of On The Issues, is an
awardÄwinning journalist and human rights activist. She
is the author of Caught in the Crossfire (E.P. Dutton),
a book on the conflict in Afghanistan, and Price of
Honor (PlumeÄPenguin Books), which examines how Islamic
extremism is affecting the lives of Muslim women.