If you go to the Feminist Majority Foundation's Web site, you can go shopping for a good cause. There, you can find pictures of beautiful handcrafted quilts, pocketbooks, linen and the like that have been woven by Afghan refugee women living in camps in Pakistan.
The foundation is selling these crafts as part of its campaign to stop the brutal war against women and girls in Afghanistan. Most of the proceeds will go back to the women who weave, with some used to buy books for girls in school. The crafts, which can be seen at www.feminist.org, are a point of beauty in a human rights campaign that has so far had little effect. Eleanor Smeal, president of the foundation, calls this "one of the most difficult, most frustrating situations I've ever dealt with. How can this be happening at the turn of the millennium?"
Civil war has been raging in Afghanistan for 20 years. It became a bloody, land-mined battleground in the Cold War. In 1996, the right-wing rebel group called the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the capital, and it has been tightening its grip on the country through the most barbaric forms of terrorism ever since.
Infractions of religious laws can result in beheadings, amputations, imprisonment and public beatings. Women and girls are confined to their homes unless escorted by a male relative. They are forced to wear a heavy garment that covers them from head to toe. They've been forbidden to attend school or universities. Female teachers were fired. Separation of sexes has been so strict that women and girls have been denied hospital care. If you wanted to develop a primer on cruelty masquerading as religion, Afghanistan would be a good place to start.
Zohra Rasekh, a senior public health consultant to Physicians for Human Rights, which drew international attention to the Taliban's war on women in August 1998, visited Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in early April and heard more allegations of atrocities. Relatives of a Kabul woman told Rasekh that the woman had refused Taliban orders to close her home school for women and girls. Taliban militia burst into her home and shot her to death in front of her 40 students, her husband and her 18-month-old daughter, Rasekh was told. Rasekh learned from newly arrived refugee women that religious police roam Kabul with young boys or old men at their sides who lie on the ground and peer under a woman's wide-legged pants to see whether any part of her skin is exposed. If it is, she is beaten or arrested. We're talking about some world-class sickies here.
The Taliban also has been involved in harassing and killing perceived political opponents in the refugee camps in Pakistan. At the end of April, Physicians for Human Rights released its latest findings on conditions in the area and called upon the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to enhance security in the camps as well as aid for the refugees. Both long-term refugees and newly arrived families have received only minimal aid, according to Physicians for Human Rights. The organization urged the international community to insist that any negotiations between parties to the Afghan conflict include a commitment to end discrimination against women and girls and to establish a framework for protecting human rights.
The world has yet to focus on Afghanistan, but pressure on the Taliban became more intense this week when President Clinton signed an executive order imposing sanctions against the regime for its support of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist accused of organizing the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The sanctions freeze property and prohibit trade or other transactions with the Taliban. They do not affect humanitarian aid, food or medical supplies. Unconfirmed news reports have put bin Laden in rural Afghanistan.
The plight of Afghan women has caught the attention of Jay and Mavis Leno, and they hosted a hugely successful fund-raiser in Hollywood on March 29. "We are now working on one in New York for October," Smeal says. "A lot more people are joining the campaign. The number of calls is increasing constantly. We're trying to figure out more things for people to do. The support is there, but just as our campaign was starting, Kosovo happened. We hope we can get this back into focus."
It is difficult to get accurate information out of the region. Around mid-March, she says, "the line" coming out of the Taliban was that they were going to ease restrictions gradually. But in mid-June, the Taliban closed the remaining formal high schools in Afghanistan that girls could attend, after taking control of Hazarajat province in central Afghanistan. Amnesty International confirmed reports of a brutal takeover, with the Taliban murdering, detaining and expelling the Hazaras, the dominant ethnic group in the region.
"We believe between 500,000 and 700,000 refugees have fled in the last two months," Smeal says. "It doesn't get any press." Smeal says many experts estimate about 3 million refugees have left Afghanistan, which would make that group the largest single refugee population in the world. "It was up to 5 million. Some have gone back: there was a period in 1994 when they thought it was over."
The feminist foundation and its allies have been trying to get the United States to admit more refugees. According to the U.S. Department of State, 113 refugees were admitted from fiscal 1994 to 1998.
The foundation is also trying to set up scholarships for girls to come here for higher education. "When their rights are restored they can go back and help the country develop," Smeal says.
It is appalling that these waves of ethnic and gender atrocities are still going on as the century draws to a close. It's heartbreaking to see how cruel people can be to one another. And to people like Smeal, it is frustrating that so little is being done for women and girls who need so very much help.