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Tongue-Lashing the Taliban
Grandmotherly U.N. Official Berates Afghans on Their Treatment of Women

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 20, 2000; Page A22

HERAT, Afghanistan, Sept. 19—It was a few minutes before midnight Sunday at the governor's mansion in this wind-blown desert city near the Iranian border.

In an ornate room, across a table decorated with paper roses, a petite, 73-year-old Japanese grandmother was politely browbeating the powerful, turbaned officials of Afghanistan's strict Islamic Taliban movement on behalf of its most powerless subjects--women.

As Sadako Ogata, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and her aides recounted the three-hour meeting, she repeatedly told the officials that their suppression of women's rights is a serious concern to the international community and a hindrance to the return of female refugees driven from the country by years of civil war.

The officials insisted that they wish to provide more opportunities for women but that conservative Afghan tradition has made it a slow, difficult process. They said they had banned some tribal customs that entrap women, and as proof of their efforts they invited Ogata to visit new classes for girls.

Ogata, the most senior U.N. official to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban seized control of almost all of Afghanistan in 1996, was on an official two-day visit to support the return of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan. But within hours of her arrival Sunday, it became clear that her highest priority was pressing the Taliban to change their policies toward women. The ruling party bars most girls from school and women from work and requires them to be completely veiled in public.

"Our talks were extremely frank," Ogata said. "I said the issue of women's rights is very high on the international agenda. . . . They talked about Afghan traditions. I said, 'Okay, you have tradition, but this is the 21st century. Come up with concrete results.' "

Ogata, a soft-spoken former political science professor and diplomat, appeared to have made a serious impression on her Islamic interlocutors.

The Taliban's treatment of women has made it an international pariah, hampered U.N. efforts to raise money for relief work in Afghanistan and made some female refugees reluctant to return home.

Anxious to assuage their guest's concerns, Taliban officials said their efforts to educate women had been held back by Afghan customs, according to which villagers often refuse to let their children attend school. But they said they had succeeded in banning traditional practices that require widows to marry male relatives and allow the sale of young girls to settle tribal disputes.

"Before, women were used in revenge for tribal killings; now that is totally forbidden," Khairullah Khairkhwa, the governor of Herat province, said as he sat next to Ogata. "Before, widows had no right to choose a new partner; now they are fully free." He invited Ogata to visit a girls' school and asserted that women are now employed in health and education services and with the police.

On Monday, Ogata briefly toured a women's nursing college of 120 students, which was reopened in 1998 after having been closed by the Taliban when they seized power. The students said they were grateful to be there and that many of their friends wished they, too, could study. They said their dream was to become doctors but that it was "not possible at this time."

"Our greatest desire is to have a medical faculty, only there is none for women," said one nervous student. "The problem is," she continued, but then fell silent when the Taliban college director, who had been listening closely, rapped his knuckles on the wall behind her.

The next stop was a private home in which a young woman was conducting an English class for about 20 young girls and boys. The Taliban allow home schooling but ban public school education for girls. The teacher said she was not hindered by the government but that she received no public financial support and that very few families could afford the nominal tuition of less than $1 a month.

"It means that most poor students cannot come," said the teacher, Nafisa Nashmendi, 27. Most female students in her class, who had been informed that Ogata was to visit, wore pretty dresses and makeup.

Ogata's chief concern, however, was the impact of the Taliban's policies toward women on the repatriation of refugees, especially those who have been living in Iran, where women have far greater rights and are not required to wear a full face veil. Last year, Iran began forcibly deporting thousands of Afghan refugees.

U.N. aides here said that while they have helped more than 100,000 refugees return from Iran this year, a greater number had applied for permission to stay in Iran--in some cases because they want their daughters to be educated. A total of 1.2 million Afghan refugees live there.

Ogata toured the main border checkpoint 100 miles northwest of Herat, where hundreds of returning refugee families were loading their belongings onto trucks after crossing from Iran. Many of the arriving women wore black chador veils, in the Shiite Muslim style, that did not cover their faces.

"I want to go home to my country, but I am worried," said Fatima Sharifa, 37, a mother who was wearing a chador and squatting next to sacks of family belongings with her two daughters. "Only boys are allowed in school. My daughters were in fifth class in Iran, but now they will have to stop. We will not have as much freedom now, but we hope we will be safe."

Taliban officials who work with returning refugees said the families are given written passes so that police will not harass them because of their appearance. Just as many women crossing from Iran this week were not veiled, and many men wore jeans and had no beards. The Taliban require men to wear long beards and traditional Afghan baggy trousers and shirts.

Moreover, most refugees from Iran are returning to the Herat area, where many people are Shiite Muslims and the Taliban do not enforce Islamic dress code as strictly as in other regions. Gov. Khairkhwa is also regarded as a progressive member of the Taliban leadership who values modern education and who may have relatively liberal views about women.

According to U.N. aides who attended the meetings with Ogata, she devoted 90 percent of her agenda to the issue of women's rights and that the governor replied repeatedly that he was committed to providing more opportunities for girls to attend school and women to work. At one point, the aides said, Khairkhwa used an analogy to make his point, noting that many Afghans generally abhor dogs but treat them well if they are trained to obey commands. The aides said Ogata responded with silence.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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