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Nation of women silenced by Taliban


BOSTON -- Zohra Rasekh spreads her snapshots before me as if she were a tourist and these were pictures she'd taken of the colorful natives. "This is a doctor," she tells me, "and this is a teacher."

I nod, although it is hard to tell one of these women from another. They are covered from head to toe under a heavy black burka, looking at the world out of a rectangle of thick netting.

It wasn't always like this. Forty percent of Afghan doctors were once women; more than half the teachers were women. But in 1996, the Taliban took over, and in one day with one stroke, they flipped the switch off.

Under the guise of Islamic law they declared a state of gender apartheid. Women can no longer hold jobs. They can no longer go out in public without a burka and a male relative. They cannot go to school. A bare ankle or wrist is cause for beating. The teacher in the photo became a beggar.

So, earlier this year, Ms. Rasekh, a young Afghan-born public health researcher for Physicians for Human Rights traveled to the refugee camps in Pakistan and then into Afghanistan to talk to women. She went with her questionnaire and her daring to document what it's like for half the population living under virtual house arrest. For two clandestine months, she took first-time, firsthand testimony to document the state of women's health when male doctors are not allowed to treat women, and women are not allowed to be doctors.

Human rights anniversary

On Dec. 10, we will celebrate -- if celebrate is the right word -- the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The cornerstone document of human rights was forged under Eleanor Roosevelt's guiding hand in 1948. Back then, the world was painfully aware of how quickly an entire population -- the Jews of Europe -- could be reduced from citizen to murder victim. It was aware of what happens when other nations just watch.

Today we also know how easy it is to roll back rights in places such as Yugoslavia where assimilation disintegrated into ethnic cleansing. But in no other place has the reel reversed itself so brutally for women. Forbidden to work or learn, with only one primitive hospital allotted for their sex, Kabul makes Margaret Atwood's darkest fantasy of "The Handmaid's Tale" look like a feminist utopia. It is this bleakness that has made groups such as PHR and the Feminist Majority take on the world's "compassion fatigue."

The statistics that Ms. Rasekh brought home about the consequences for women's health seem coolly academic: Of the 160 women that she surveyed, 71 percent experienced a decline in their physical health; 87 percent a decrease in access to a doctor; 97 percent exhibited major depression. A fifth considered suicide.

No safe haven

These figures and the stories behind them debunk the myth that women are content or, at least, safe under the Taliban. Safe? Tell that to the educated woman, an amputee, beaten and jailed because she stepped on the bus through the front door reserved for men, not the back door relegated to women. Content? Tell it to the woman whose daughter died because she couldn't afford a burka to leave home in search of medical care.

Tell it for that matter to Ms. Rasekh. One day on her rounds, a Taliban, carrying a stick with a metal end, pointed at her exposed wrist, called her a "shameless woman" and chased her until she jumped a wide ditch and escaped.

Men are also punished for breaking the rules of the Taliban, down to the smallest detail of the length of their beards.

Nevertheless, many foreign policy-makers have closed their eyes Afghanistan, writing it off as an international basket case or declaring that at least there is peace under the Taliban. Even in the United Nations, some have declared that the "cultural" matters of burka and gender inequality will take a long time to change.

But if we have learned anything in 50 years, it's the difference between "culture" and politics, between peace and the eerie quiet of hopelessness and oppression.

Today, Ms. Rasekh still has one memory that overwhelms the snapshots and statistics. "Day after day, for two months I didn't hear a woman happy," she says softly, "I didn't hear a woman talk about her hair or if she wanted to get married. Day after day, I didn't hear a woman laugh."

Fifty years after the world declared human rights for all, the silence of these women is almost as searing as the silence of the world.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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