IMAGINE A PLACE where women are forbidden to work, and where many who were once doctors and lawyers now beg in order to support their children. A place where girls are no longer allowed to attend school, and female teachers furtively hold classes for them in private homes. In this place, the windows of houses where women live are painted over, and women must wear shoes that make no sound.
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, horrific and absurd. But such is life for the women and girls of Afghanistan under extreme Islamic fundamentalist rule. Over the past 20 years, this mountainous country has undergone one ordeal after another: a 1979 Soviet invasion, a devastating civil war that claimed millions of lives and sent masses fleeing across the border to Pakistan, and ongoing fighting between rival factions. For the women of Afghanistan, the nightmare intensified when the militia group known as the Taliban seized control in 1996. The Taliban - whose name means "students of religion" in Arabic - quickly imposed their brand of stark fundamentalism, including a series of severe restrictions on women's activities.
In the 90 percent of the country now under Taliban hold, girls are not permitted to attend schools or universities. Women are nearly universally barred from employment, and are not allowed to venture out publicly unless accompanied by a close male relative, or mahram. They must cover themselves in the enshrouding burqa, a bulky robe with a face-covering hood, or risk the ire of the special police force known as the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. These "officers" roam the streets, searching out and swiftly punishing infractions. The penalty for "immodest dress" is usually a public lashing.
Under contorted Taliban codes, a woman who has been raped may be publicly punished for adultery. Women suspected of "illicit" - pre- or extra-marital - relations can be stoned to death. At the same time, the Taliban and other militia groups have used forced marriages, abduction and sexual assault as tools of intimidation and domination.
The health status of Afghan women has plummeted. Taliban rules on separation of the sexes dictate that a woman must be treated by a female doctor in a sex-segregated medical facility. However, only a handful of women have been given special dispensation to practice medicine, usually under dismal conditions. (This in a country where formerly 40 percent of all doctors were women.) Further, if the woman seeking care is not accompanied by a male guardian or is deemed to be improperly dressed, she will be turned away. Human Rights Watch reports that women have been denied health services even in emergency situations, dying afterwards from obstetric complications and other causes.
In addition to being victimized by gender-specific persecution, the women of Afghanistan are contending with the general legacies of war. Millions of unexploded land mines dot the country, killing an estimated 10 to 12 people each day. Many Afghan households are headed by women who lost husbands, brothers and sons to the years of conflict - Kabul alone is home to an estimated 50,000 widows. The fact that women are the chief caretakers for countless families has done nothing to shake Taliban strictures against women's employment.
As a result, the number of female beggars has grown rapidly. Many of them are former teachers and government employees, dismissed by the regime. Other women try to eke out a living for their families by washing clothes, taking up artisanal work or weaving. Some resort to prostitution.
It is little wonder that Afghanistan's women are experiencing mass trauma. In a 1998 study, the Boston-based organization Physicians for Human Rights found that 97 percent of Afghan women surveyed suffer from major depression, 42 percent show the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and nearly a quarter often consider committing suicide.
The Taliban's extremism has been criticized by many Muslim leaders and nations as a distortion rather than a legitimate interpretation of Islam. And although the United Nations Human Rights Commission and numerous governments, as well as the U.S. State Department, have officially condemned the regime's abuses, the Taliban remain impervious.
On an overcast day in April, two silent, shrouded figures stood in the public park before the White House. Clad in blue burqas, their faces invisible through thick meshed cloth, they held a banner studded with images of ravaged Afghanistan. The occasion was a rally on the anniversary of the day in 1992 on which fundamentalist forces - the pre-Taliban Jihadis - first took control of Kabul.
The event featured two representatives of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. Founded in 1977, RAWA is a pro-democracy, anti-fundamentalist group that has since its inception promoted women's rights and participation in civic and political life. (The RAWA spokeswomen are quick to emphasize that in Pushtu, the term "revolutionary" does not carry the same connotations of armed opposition or communist ideology as in English.) Now operating from a base in Pakistan, RAWA supports schools and services for Afghan refugees, of whom there are an estimated 2.6 million. In Afghanistan itself, RAWA runs clandestine home-based classes in defiance of the Taliban's stricture against girls' education, supports mobile health teams serving women and children in remote areas, and organizes income-generating activities for thousands of house-bound women.
On this first visit to the United States, the RAWA representatives hope to spread awareness of what is being done to women in their country and generate support for their group's activities. Both use aliases to protect their identities-an understandable precaution, as RAWA members regularly receive threats and the organization's founder was assassinated at the age of 30. They do not hesitate, however, to speak out boldly.
At the Washington rally, the spokeswomen offered a timely reminder that the U.S. provided financial and military support for the anti-Soviet fighters, known as mujahedeen, from among whom the Taliban emerged. They read a series of specific requests to the U.S. government. Chief among them is that the U.S. refuse to recognize the Taliban under any condition-including possible cooperation regarding Osama bin Ladin, the anti-U.S. terrorist suspect purportedly based in Afghanistan.
The RAWA representatives also stress that U.S. economic sanctions against the Taliban are counterproductive, harming average citizens and effectively strengthening the opposing fundamentalist faction. Instead, they urge the United States to sanction the countries that recognize the regime and support it with arms and money: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to supportive statements from Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat from New York, the rally featured strong words from Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Condemning the Taliban "reign of terror," Smeal emphasized U.S. responsibility for the group's rise to power. "We have an obligation," says Smeal, "to the young women whose lives have been ruined."
Her organization is working to fulfill this obligation in several ways: facilitating the entry of Afghan refugees to the U.S., coordinating a letter-writing campaign, funding scholarships that enable refugee women to attend college, and lobbying for a bipartisan legislative act condemning the Taliban regime. But this is not enough, Smeal insists; the issue must become a higher priority both in the U.S. and among world leaders. She points to peacekeeping actions in Kosovo and East Timor, where smaller populations were concerned; because those being victimized in Afghanistan are women, Smeal contends, "we can't get it high enough on the agenda."
To remedy this, the RAWA representatives are participating in the United Nations special session known as "Women 2000," a follow-up event to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. They are also working with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, to circulate a letter in the House of Representatives advocating more direct U.S. measures in support of Afghan pro-democracy efforts. "They [the Taliban] don't have anything but money and weapons," says RAWA spokeswoman Sajeda Hayat. "They don't have the support of the people." After gathering House signatures, the letter will be sent to President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
Women in Afghanistan, says Hayat, "have lost everything in their lives: husbands, sons, fathers, jobs. They live in constant fear ... They don't even know what will happen tomorrow." As they prepare for a June 14th congressional briefing and tour the United States giving talks and interviews, the RAWA representatives hope their visit will prompt not merely sympathetic words but practical action on behalf of Afghan women, held hostage in their own homes, in their own land.
Lauren Goodsmith is a Baltimore-based health communication consul tant and trainer working chiefly in North and West Africa.