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Afghanistan: Women Welcome Recent Changes, But Are Still Wary

In the recently liberated Afghan capital of Kabul, more and more women are casting aside their burqas and showing their faces in public. Afghan women are hoping that with the departure of the Taliban, they can begin to reclaim many of the social and cultural freedoms that have been denied them for years.

Prague, 16 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Kabul this week, citizens awoke to an extraordinary sound: the voices of women on the airwaves.

Three newly appointed female journalists could be heard on Radio Kabul, reading the news, presenting music, and talking on the same waveband the ruling Taliban had reserved for its fundamentalist, music-free Radio Shariat.

After six years of living under the Taliban religious police, the most oppressed, invisible women in the world are taking their first timid steps toward reclaiming their personal freedoms.

Before the Taliban came to power in 1996, women held some 40 percent of the civic positions in Afghan society. They were teachers and doctors. A few even had government roles.

When Taliban troops took control of Kabul, women became one of the prime targets of their strict interpretation of Islamic codes. The Taliban prevented women from working or from going to school. They were confined to their houses, unless a male relative accompanied them on the street. In public, women were forced -- under threat of being beaten -- to wear burqas, head-to-toe coverings with only a small mesh window near the eyes to allow the wearer to breathe and to see.

Northern Alliance leaders, who moved into Kabul on the heels of retreating Taliban troops, say women will be given full rights in Afghan society. But many Afghan women activists say that, despite these positive developments, they are still worried about the future.

Maliam Rawai is a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, or RAWA. Rawai and her colleagues have campaigned for women's rights for years. Their work has included documenting Taliban abuses against women in Afghanistan and running secret schools for girls.

Rawai says that, despite the Taliban withdrawal and positive words from the international community, Afghan women still don't feel secure: "From one hand, we see that women and people in general, for example, listen to music, or women will not wear the burqa, or men are shaving their beards. But on the other hand, people are very much concerned about the future. Especially women, they still don't feel secure or really free."

Rawai explains that the opposition Northern Alliance, too, has a history of abusing women in Afghanistan. She says that when Alliance warlords competed for control of Kabul in the early 1990s, they often raped and beat women. She says that in Northern Alliance-controlled territory, many women also were made to wear the burqa and were not allowed to work or attend school: "[Women] have seen these groups, this Northern Alliance, in the past. And now it's like a nightmare for [women] if they again rule the country. Because now it's new, and they are not so powerful, and also they are under the pressure of many other countries. So people are so afraid [once they consolidate their power that] they will repeat their same crimes."

Zieba Shorish-Shamley is the founder and director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan. Shorish-Shamley fled Afghanistan in the late 1970s. She says the only to way to ensure such abuses never occur again is to give Afghan women an equal place in any new Afghan government: "We are very serious that Afghan women should be involved from the first step in the peace negotiations, as well as in every aspect of their society. We are watching. We are emphasizing that otherwise, if women -- who make up more than half of the population, about 55 to 60 percent of Afghan society is women -- if they are not involved, then we will resist whomever the government is."

Political groups involved in negotiating the future of Afghanistan's government have indicated that women will have a role in determining the future of the country. The international community has also voiced support for the plight of Afghan women.

Yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- at their summit in Texas -- both expressed abhorrence at the treatment of women under Taliban rule.

Shorish-Shamley says she is hoping the international community will stand behind these statements and force Afghan political groups to include women in the negotiating process: "Still that doesn't mean anything until we really get to the action of forming the government -- before that, even to sit at the table for peace negotiations. That is when it comes. That is where we will see whether it is rhetoric or action. Action says more than words. We have heard words for seven years from the U.S. government, as well as the United Nations. But nobody acted upon trying to free the Afghan women and the Afghan people from the grip of these brutal murderers such as the Taliban and [Osama] bin Laden. [Not] until, unfortunately, the 11 September tragedy happened [did it really] get the attention of the world."

RAWA's Rawai says that including women in a future Afghan government is only the first step. She says the economic and political situation in Afghanistan must be stabilized if fundamentalist attitudes toward women are to be dispelled: "We must not be deceived that, OK, now we will listen to music. How can I listen to music and how can I enjoy that music when I am afraid in the next moment of what will happen to me?"

Rawai says Afghan women have been through too much to believe their lives will dramatically change just by removing their burqas or listening to music. She says most women in Afghanistan will remain fearful and wary of their futures for a long time to come.