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Veil of Tears:
The Two Faces of the Taliban

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 4, 1998; Page D01

  Style Showcase

    protest Women protesting the Taliban Regime in 1998. (AP Photo)
PESHAWAR—Afghan woman's face was framed by a soft green veil. Around her neck hung an amulet inscribed with the name Allah. But just one week before, the 31-year-old Muslim radio producer had fled an increasingly unbearable life in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, under the harsh Islamic movement known as the Taliban. Her green eyes flashed angrily as she described what she and other Afghan women are forced to endure.

"With this chador they make us put on, we can't even see well enough to walk," she said, referring to the head-to-toe covering all women must wear outdoors. "They make us report to work but only to sign in, so they can tell the world that women are working. Then we are sent home again to do nothing. All my education, all my training, for nothing. It makes our mothers very sad for us."

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees have fled to this vast, dusty border city since the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country, making it more Afghan than Pakistani. The refugee camps have long since become towns teeming with open-air meat markets, wedding tinsel, barbecue restaurants, donkey carts and motorbike-driven "rickshaws." The lingua franca is not Pakistan's Urdu but Afghanistan's Pashtun.

And everybody has an opinion about the Taliban.

The group, which seized Kabul in September 1996 and now controls almost all of Afghanistan, has long been criticized by human rights groups and foreign governments for the strictures it has imposed on Afghans as part of its interpretation of Islam.

Afghan woman Afghan woman who fled Kabul. (Photo by Shabbir Hussain Iman/Reuters)
At the same time, and with far less public attention, the Taliban has been consolidating its grip on power, beating back armed opposition groups in the north in a series of bloody battles.

Ever since beginning its armed campaign to wrest control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has been promising that after it had the once-chaotic and lawless country in its grip, it would ease its severe restrictions, many of them focused on women. So the radio producer and her friends hung on, hoping the mullahs who head the movement would keep their word. Instead, said the woman, who asked that her name not be published, the crackdown has intensified.

"The mullahs announced the other day that women can only leave home to shop on two days a week. They announced that no babies can be given foreign names," she said. "But the worst is the Amar-bil-Maroof [the moral police]. They used to ride around in trucks, but now they have their own ministry. They board buses and inspect the women, and if one doesn't have the proper dress, they beat her and all the others, too, with sticks or whips."

Had this ever happened to her? The woman looked sad, then embarrassed. Her hand crept down to her ankle, and she pulled up her flowing pajamas to reveal several scars.

"I came out on my doorstep one morning, and there they were. I didn't even have time to step into the street," she said, her eyes angry again. "They yelled that my trousers weren't long enough, and they started beating my feet and legs. There was nothing I could do." Letting the pajamas fall around her ankles again, she adjusted the veil tighter around her face.

In a shady stone courtyard less than a mile away, a 31-year-old Pakistani man was preparing for evening prayers. His view of the Taliban was starkly different for a simple reason. He is one of them. Soft-spoken, with a tightly wrapped white turban on his head, he offered an American reporter tea and cookies. Then he asked a group of boys to recite some verses from the Koran. Within three years, he said proudly, the students in this madrasa, or religious school, will have learned all 6,666 sacred verses by heart.

Qazi Shabbir Ahmad Azhari is a teacher of talibs, or seekers. Some of his early graduates have become officials of the Taliban. Thirty more left just last week, to help Taliban fighters quash pockets of resistance in the north. Those who remain behind, mostly adolescents, long to join them.

"It is my daily prayer that one day I will be in Afghanistan so I can become one of those killed in the way of Allah," said a slender boy summoned from the courtyard steps, where he had been hopefully inspecting his hairless chin in a small mirror. The teacher nodded his approval.

Over more tea, Azhari explained his mission: to unify the region's conservative Muslim groups, bring Pakistan under Islamic law like Afghanistan and ultimately "Islamize" the world. The Taliban has made a good start, he said, adding that it is "necessary for them to use force against those unwilling to obey Islam, because Afghanistan was losing its Islamic and moral values."

Why must men wear beards? "Because that is the way of the prophet," he said. Why must women be veiled? "So men will not be attracted to them, which is destructive of society." Why must music be banned? "Because all music talks about is love. It is better to pray."

America and the West, he said, are the "true terrorists," backing Israel against Palestinians, Bosnia against Muslims, India against Kashmiris. The recent U.S. attack against Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate fugitive and Islamic crusader blamed for the bombings of two American embassies in Africa, was "an attack against humanity" and against a hero who gave up the comforts of wealth to join a holy cause.

"We are only responding to this terrorism, but we will use weapons of war, and we are willing to sacrifice it all," the teacher asserted. "Allah teaches that if you really believe, nothing can harm you, not even the United States."

Half-kidding, he offered to trade bin Laden for Salman Rushdie. Then, passing the sugar, he said there was one final point he wished to make.

"Some Christians have been coming here to convert people from Islam. You call them missionaries. Tell the United States that if it doesn't stop, we will start a campaign against Americans, and whenever we find one, we will shoot him."

The muezzin began chanting the call to prayer, and Azhari excused himself.

In the mosques of Peshawar and in the muddy bazaar alleys of Hayatabad, a sprawling suburb that is the heart of the Afghan community, there are many others who view the Taliban as a force for liberation and pacification. Moreover, it is clear that the American missile attacks, while aimed at bin Laden's operations, have aroused both nationalistic and Muslim fervor among Afghans living here – even those who have not been back to their homeland in two decades.

"I hear the law-and-order situation is getting better every day. If the Taliban really took control, I would definitely go back," said Rehaman Uddin, 40, who was once a prosperous farmer in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, but now sells pears from a tiny market stall, earning about 40 rupees (under $1) a day. A knot of men around him in the sweltering market nodded and murmured in agreement. "We all miss the soul of our land," he said. "If there were water and electricity and roads again, you couldn't pay me $2,000 to stay in Pakistan."

Two stories up a rickety wooden stair, a dozen Afghans were taking their leisurely noon meal in a traditional "hotel," scooping up rice and raisins and spices with their fingers while fans whirred overhead and shoeshine boys darted among them. Two of the men were veterans of the war against the Soviets, and one's face had been disfigured by bullet wounds.

Abdulmateen, a 30-year-old laborer, said that despite having spent his youth in combat, he still tried to save up enough money each month to go back to Afghanistan for a while and "join the jihad," or holy Islamic war. "I love the Taliban, and I love Osama. He is my hero and my brother," he said.

The mood in Peshawar's downtown mosque that afternoon was more militant. Religious leaders from the Jamaat al-Islami movement turned the Friday noonday prayer meeting into a strident anti-American harangue, and several thousand worshipers followed them through the streets for an hour afterward, chanting, "Taliban is great! Taliban is great!" When they reached the Qissa Khawani bazaar, several elderly mullahs climbed onto a balcony and began shouting hoarsely.

There were no women in the crowd, and no women in the street. Every few minutes, one of the demonstrators looked up and glared at a veiled reporter watching from a balcony.

For the radio producer, such experiences are part of everyday life. The Taliban's severe curtailment of women's activities, she said, is a "tragedy" not only for Afghan women, but for the entire society. She pointed out that after two decades of conflict and death, 60 percent of Kabul's populace is female, and so are a majority of those with education and skills that are badly needed in a country whose infrastructure was bombed to bits and whose professional class fled in droves after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

"I wanted to help my country, and I had a lot to offer. But now they say they don't need women," she said bitterly. "There is no future for us at all."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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