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Archive for Friday, November 16, 2001

Afghan women welcome freedom, cautiously

November 16, 2001

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— Waiting for food Thursday in this poor capital of one million people, dozens of burqa-clad women shouted "yes, yes" when asked whether they wanted to shed the all-encompassing garment required by the Taliban.

But from within the crowd a man's voice suddenly shouted: "No. They need food, they don't need to take off their burqas."

The women fell silent.

The Taliban's sudden departure from Kabul on Tuesday seemed to offer new hope and opportunity for oppressed Afghan women. But even though some young women have said they'd like to throw the cumbersome head-to-toe covering into the fire, there have been no burqa burnings in the streets.

Many say fear and tradition will delay progress on women's rights in Afghanistan. Others warn that more conservative factions within the northern alliance could crack down on women just as the Taliban did.

The burqa has become the best-known symbol of the Taliban's harsh restrictions on women. When the militia was in power, women were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were accompanied by a close male relative. They were banned from working except in the health care field and schools for girls over the age of 8 were closed.

Those who defied the rules were beaten, sometimes savagely, by the Taliban's police.

At one point, the Taliban closed all hospitals to women who were sick, except for a poorly equipped, 300-bed women's clinic. An outcry from the International Committee of the Red Cross forced them to reconsider. Still, women were allocated fewer beds than male patients, and were allowed only limited access to specialists.

But those rules were abandoned after the northern alliance swept into Kabul on Tuesday. Music played, men shaved and women were told the burqa was no longer required. Some alliance officials said schools for girls would be reopened.

But Afghanistan remains a conservative society. With or without a government decree, social pressure is expected to keep many women veiled.

"We are planning to take it off, but not now," said a woman named Shazia, who spoke from within the billowing folds of her burqa, her eyes all but concealed. "We are a little afraid."

Her fears, and those of many women, are based on deep suspicions about the northern alliance, which now appears firmly in control of the capital. Despite the statements about respect for women's rights, the alliance includes some factions whose views don't differ much from the Taliban's.

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