ARLINGTON, Va. -- Maryam Shams is an unlikely emblem for victims of Afghanistan's Taliban, the Islamic militants who have brutally enforced a code of behavior that banishes women from the work force and schools, forbids them to leave home without a male relative and subjects them to beating and abduction.
This 21-year-old, who just months ago had to wear a head-to-toe shroud, now wears Nikes and black jeans and strikes back at her former oppressors.
The story leading up to her arrival in Washington last month, a four-year odyssey of horror beginning when the Taliban seized her native city of Herat in 1995, offers a glimpse at the lives of 10 million women living under the Taliban.
When women do leave their homes, they must wear a burqa, a shroud with only a mesh screen for vision -- which makes them look like ghosts.
"I felt like I'd fallen into a trap they use to catch a bird," Shams said in an interview in the offices of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which helped her escape to the United States as a refugee.
Shams, who wants to be a journalist, had to end her education in 10th grade when the Taliban closed most schools to girls. She says her brother was beaten and jailed for nine months because he spoke a different language than did the occupying Taliban militiamen. Her neighbor's wife and teen-age daughters were abducted and never returned.
Shams' mother, dying of pancreatic cancer, was so desperate to get her daughter out of Afghanistan that she arranged a marriage by proxy to a middle-aged Afghan-born psychiatrist living in Germany, whom Shams had never met. This is an increasingly common practice among Afghan families hoping to protect their daughters. Her new husband turned out to be a deranged man who abused and starved her.
Early last month, the tall, striking young woman with a long black braid made it to Washington, rescued by her aunt, Zieba Shorish-Shamley, who runs the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan.
Now, as she prepares to study English and complete her interrupted high school education, Shams is working with advocacy groups to raise awareness of Taliban abuses.
From the beginning
With the self-possession of someone beyond her years and a whimsical spirit that prompted her to joke about her former oppressors (When asked what they look like, she answered: "filthy") Shams described her ordeal as her aunt translated:
"I was angry, upset," she said. "I was crying, but at the same time I kept thinking I was having a horrifying nightmare and would wake up."
Life was productive and happy for Shams' family until 1995. (Shams is her married name, which she uses to protect family members still in Afghanistan.) Her mother was a tailor; her father was retired. One brother attended college; the other worked in a hospital. Female cousins attended university. For fun, she went to picnics and gathered at the homes of friends, listened to Persian-style pop music and danced.
The fun ended in September 1995. One evening, the family heard gunfire. The next morning, soon after leaving for work and school, the men returned home with reports of 25 dead bodies lying in the street near their house. Radio broadcasts ordered everyone to stay home, an edict that was lifted a month later for men but remained in place for women.
It was the beginning of the reign of intimidation by this extremist group, one of several factions that began battling one another after the Soviet Union pulled out its troops in 1989 and the United States withdrew support of the opposition, leaving a war-ravaged country with a power vacuum.
Today, the Taliban rules roughly 85 percent of Afghanistan, including Kabul, the capital and largest city, but it is recognized only by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Power through terror
The Taliban, whose members drive around in Japanese-made pickup trucks armed with guns and rockets, wields power through massacres, kidnappings for ransom, torture, rape, arbitrary detention and looting, according to the 1998 U.S. State Department report on human rights.
The religious police, known as the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtues and Suppression of Vice, conducts public executions for murder and amputations of one hand and one foot for theft. Adulterers have been stoned to death.
No 'provocative' white socks
For women the edicts are particularly oppressive. Only those in health care may work outside the home, and then only with women and girls. No white socks or sandals without socks, which are deemed sexually provocative. In some areas, windows have to be covered or painted over if women live inside. Those who disobey are often flogged.
Women are routinely denied medical care, as male doctors are not allowed to see or touch their bodies. Public bathhouses, the only access to hot water, have been closed to them. Prostitution and begging are escalating among widows desperate to support themselves.
Plotting for survival
Shams and her friends plotted ways to defy the Taliban. They hired an English teacher to give them lessons. They took taxis. Once, they went to a bathhouse that had been closed. The Taliban raided it and beat them with whips. Shams saw pregnant women bleed from the beatings and subsequently suffer miscarriages.
Shams' ill mother worried that the Taliban would harm her daughter or force her to marry one of the militiamen. In 1997, she arranged with a family she knew to have Shams marry by proxy the Afghan-born psychiatrist living in Germany, whose family bribed the Taliban to get Shams a passport.
Last February, Shams went to live with the man in Rudesheim, a town of 7,000 on the Rhine that is surrounded by wine vineyards. He immediately began abusing her -- giving her almost nothing to eat, refusing to buy her a toothbrush or clothes and denying her medical care when she developed a urinary tract infection. He threatened to kill her or commit her to a mental institution if she complained to anyone.
Shorish-Shamley, her aunt, went to Germany to tell Shams her mother had died and found her malnourished and with a "haunted look in her eyes." While the husband was out one day, Shorish-Shamley took her niece into hiding in a hotel and contacted the Feminist Majority, which helped secure her refugee status in the United States.
Shams came to Washington Sept. 2, and has since been to a Feminist Majority event in New York, attended by actress Meryl Streep, Mavis Leno and other celebrities, part of a campaign to draw attention to the plight of Afghan women and push for the U.S. government to accept more female Afghan refugees.
The Taliban defended
Noorullah Zadran, a spokesman for the Taliban in New York, said the accusations about the Taliban are lies propagated by the Feminist Majority and Communist supporters of the former Soviet Union, who are upset over the loss of privileges that allowed them to drink vodka, drive fast cars and make themselves available to men.
The Taliban, he said, "have brought dignity back to the women of Afghanistan. Nowadays a woman has integrity and she truly knows her job in Afghan society."
He acknowledged that many women no longer work outside the home, but said that before the Taliban took over, ministries were filled with uneducated women, who served no purpose.
"You had 200 girls sitting in a ministry who could not read and write with a lot of lipstick and eyelashes and they were illiterate," he said. "Is that what you call working? Those women who have professional work, we welcome to the work force; those who do not may go back to their homes and stay there."
State Department officials said the United States is accepting more Afghan refugees in response to heightened awareness of the dangers there, and expects to admit roughly 500 women and their families this year. But the officials stressed that accepting more refugees is not a long-term solution.
"You've got 10 million Afghan women, and they need help," one State Department official said. "We are doing everything we can to try to improve their situation by bringing about an end to the war and a settlement resulting in a broad-based representative government in Afghanistan that can protect the rights of women in the country."
Shams grew serious and a bit teary when asked how her psyche has been affected by this procession of traumas.
"I do have nightmares," she said. "I would never believe that something like this would happen to me.
"But I want to choose a path where I'm able to fight against cruelty and injustice. This is the way of our family in Afghanistan. We help people, struggle for people. So we do it here, too."