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Taliban Makes Concessions to Afghan Women

By Pamela Constable, Washington Post,
Monday 10 May 1999; Page A13

It is just after dawn, and a chorus of high-pitched murmurs rises as 200 girls huddle on the floor of a mosque, memorizing verses from the Koran. Stern-faced, bearded religious teachers carrying long sticks tower over the rows of bobbing head scarves.

On a small blackboard, a teacher chalks the numerals 1 through 10 in Persi then points to each. When he gets to 5, he stops and asks the girls to name the five pillars of Islam. Again, the chorus of voices rises in unison: Kalima, zakat, haj . . .

The class is only two hours and half the size of the study group for boys next door. Once this madrassa, or religious academy, ends its lesson, the boys will troop off to elementary school, but most girls will go home to an idle day unless their parents can afford a private tutor.

Still, last week's lesson - and the eagerness of officials to have a Western reporter observe it - are signs that the Taliban, the conservative Muslim militia that rules most of Afghanistan, is starting to address an issue that has brought wide condemnation abroad and quiet grumblings at home: the shutting off of educational opportunities for girls and women.

Other countries think Afghanistan has no teaching for our daughters, but we are doing our best, said Mahammad Anwar Hairja, a madrassa teacher. When peace and calm come to the country, we hope these opportunities will continue further.

Since beginning its gradual takeover of Afghanistan in 1994, the Taliban has drawn a flood of Western criticism for the harsh Islamic rule it has imposed - especially for its effects on women. Taliban authorities have not only curtailed education for women and girls but have also imposed severe restrictions on dress and personal freedoms and limited their access to health care. A three-month study last year by Physicians for Human Rights found Taliban rule had had debilitating consequences for Afghan women's health.

But the Taliban appears to be responding to the global outcry, partly because the ostracism has made it hard to obtain the foreign aid and investment that Afghanistan needs to recover from two decades of military conflict. Here in the capital, there are indications that the Taliban is subtly easing some rigid restrictions that it has imposed on women since the group captured the city in 1996.

Harsh punishments are still applied for sexual offenses; last month, two women reportedly were given 100 lashes for having sex outside marriage. But in matters of public dress, authorities seem to be quietly ignoring behavior that once would have prompted harassment by the Islamic police.

Last year, Afghan women who had fled to neighboring Pakistan described being beaten by the police for letting their ankles show beneath required head-to-toe veils. But last week, dozens of women strode the streets of Kabul wearing veils that fell only to their waists in front, revealing tailored dresses, black stockings and high heels.

And in the health care field, officials are eager to demonstrate - contrary to reports in the West - that Afghan women have access to medical treatment, female doctors and nurses are allowed to work in hospitals and male doctors are allowed to operate on female patients.

Whatever is being said in the West is based on false reports, said Abbas Stanikzai, the vice minister of health. We have many clinics and hospitals with wards for women, and according to Islamic rules, a woman who suffers from a disease has full authority to contact a male doctor.

During a tour of one major hospital, however, it was difficult to ascertain how women felt. A male administrator, accompanied by a turbaned man with a notebook, insisted on standing next to a Post reporter during all interviews, and both men frequently answered questions put to female doctors, nurses and patients.

At the Malalai Hospital for Women, however, the reporter was allowed to speak freely to women in every ward. The doctors seemed dedicated – despite abysmal salaries of $2 per month – and the patients expressed trust in the largely female staff.

But the visit also revealed the glaring inadequacy of the country's penniless health system, except in the handful of urban hospitals subsidized by foreign agencies. Volunteer doctors from abroad said women in Kabul hospitals receive about the same level of care as men, but that fewer are admitted, and that malnutrition, cultural barriers and travel difficulties have made childbearing much riskier today.

There were no sheets or gowns at Malalai, and the only food was donated rice and potatoes. Patients had to purchase their own medicine on the street, and staff members lacked everything from suture thread to stethoscopes. Many new mothers, delivering their sixth or seventh child, were gaunt and anemic.

The people here are very nice, but I don't want to have any more children, said Kamar, 30, a mother of seven who had just delivered twins. She said the staff had been teaching her about contraception, and that she was eager for her daughters to learn. I don't want my girls to be illiterate, she said.

Among more affluent families, having daughters barred from a proper education seemed to be an especially sore point. Even some government employees acknowledged they had sent their daughters to Pakistan for school, while other parents said they had hired tutors.

Taliban officials, in addition to including young girls in madrassa classes, said they had signed contracts with the United Nations to build four women's colleges. But they also insisted that until their armed opponents are quashed, conditions will not be secure enough for most older girls to attend school.

We want girls to have an education, but in a way that does not conflict with Islamic society, said Maulwi Ahmad Jan, the minister of mines, who arranged for a reporter to visit the madrassas. What we are doing may not be up to world standards, but in the past only 2 percent of our women were in school at all.

In this war-weary capital, several middle-class women said they were grateful to the Taliban for restoring peace after years of violence and anarchy. Staying home and wearing a veil in public, they said, were small prices to pay.

Not long ago we had thousands of rockets a day hitting our neighborhood, and no girl was safe, said Nadrah, 35, who once ran a beauty parlor but spends her days watching movies at home. As long as we have peace, other things like wearing the veil are not so important.

But her sister, a former teacher, disagreed strongly. She said covering a woman's face was not part of Islam, and she was indignant that two Taliban policemen had tried to hit her last year for not wearing socks. Over tea, she proudly prodded her two nieces to recite from the daily English lessons they receive at home.

Dear Mike, thank you for calling, read the 14-year-old from a tattered workbook. I'd like to call Bogota, please. Her aunt was embarrassed at the teenager's thick accent. She can read well, but she hasn't had much chance to speak, the teacher explained. Here in the house, it's the best we can do.