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The Afghan Tragedy


In Afghanistan in 1996 the Taliban inherited a profoundly damaged country; and five years later, the tasks of reconstruction and healing were more urgent, even before the US bombing began. The Taliban government’s budget for the last year of their regime amounted to $82 million—and the meagerness of this sum for a country geographically bigger than France only tells part of the story. More than half of the income was expected to come from the semi-extortionate toll taxes imposed by their Mujahideen predecessors and continued by the Taliban; and more than half of those revenues were swallowed by the contingency fund to support the wars against the Tajiks in northern Afghanistan, formerly headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, and against the Shiite Hazaras in the central highlands. The outlay for development was only $343,000, while the ministry that looked after the madrasas, religious schools, received $14 million, which in turn was five times more than the allocation for the Ministry of Health.1

In a country seething with endemic disease, and with the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, these priorities look nothing but skewed. The outlay for the powerful Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—which punished those whose beards were not the prescribed eight centimeters long, and those who did not observe prayers and fasts, and worked hard to ensure that male minds remained free of the sinful thoughts incited by the presence of unveiled women—was three times as much as that for development. For Mullah Omar and his advisers from the rural clergy, it was enough to be pious and virtuous, and a healthy Islamic society would be created by itself. And the punishment for those who strayed from virtue was draconian: adulterers were stoned to death, women were known to have the tips of their thumbs cut off for wearing nail polish. Not surprisingly, such cloud-cuckoo-land ideas—partly the result of their limited madrasa educations—and their brutal consequences made the Taliban increasingly unpopular among even the Pashtuns in the countryside who, oppressed by the Mujahideen, had initially welcomed them as liberators.

In the derelict Pashtun village I visited east of Kabul last spring, five months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in an area heavily bombed and mined by the Soviet military, people talked, as they did elsewhere, of the irrelevance—indeed the nonexistence—of the Taliban government and the good deeds of the white men from the foreign NGOs and the UN, who were active all through the last two decades of war, supplying seeds, food, and health care, and who—like the aid workers arrested for allegedly preaching Christianity—worked in constant danger of being kidnapped and beaten up by the Taliban.

There were three Afghans sitting on the floor of the bare, low-roofed room, all of them in their late forties, variously disabled during the anti-Communist jihad, and prematurely aged, even the dim light from the lantern seeming harsh on their sunburned wrinkled faces and wiry gray beards. The village now had only some disabled and elderly-seeming men like these. The soldiers in black turbans I had seen hurtling around the dirt roads in the back of Toyota pickups came regularly to look for fit young men. Those young men who had escaped the draft had fled to Pakistan, where many of their relatives already lived in the much worse conditions of the refugee camps.

The conversation inside the room was of the quality of seeds, the lack of fodder and drinking water for the livestock, and the refugees from the war in the north, who, turned away at the border with Pakistan, were now draining away the already meager supply of food and water in the province. The three-year-long drought had created, along with the continuing civil war, more than half a million internal refugees. It wasn’t as severe here as in central and northern parts of Afghanistan; but most of the land was still uncultivated. The harvest from last year’s seeds had been poor; it had been just enough to feed a few families. The news had come of white men—most probably volunteers of the World Food Program—distributing new seeds in a nearby town. The news was good; but there remained the complicated negotiation about how to divide the harvest from the seeds; there remained the long journey to the town, on foot and on trucks, past many checkpoints where the bribes—corruption, despite the draconian Islamic punishments, flourishing as usual—could be very steep.

Outside, in the courtyard, where tufts of grass grew wild in the cracks of the mud walls, an emaciated cow slumped on the ground; and somewhere inside the rooms around it I could sense the presence of women, could hear occasionally the rustle of thick cloth and the clink of pots and pans. Later one of them hurried across the courtyard to throw some leftovers of the dry bread served to us to the cow: a brisk, silent figure in the dusk, whose shapeless heavy chadori, with the narrow mesh across her eyes, seemed in that brief moment like the habit of a viciously persecuted medieval sisterhood.

But it was the outsider’s vision: according to Nancy Hatch Dupree, a distinguished writer on Afghan issues, the chadori has usually been worn by village women as a status symbol—a sign of their husband’s education or employment—and was more common in the towns and cities. Under the Taliban you could still glimpse women without it in the villages, where everyday life has been traditionally autonomous of what goes on in the cities. As Dupree saw it, women in rural Afghanistan, where 90 percent of the country’s approximately 20 million people still live, were less vulnerable to the Taliban’s arbitrary brutality. Dupree mentions instances of women being beaten and killed outside Kabul, but on the whole they weren’t as much affected by the restrictions and controversies arising out of the Taliban’s harsh gender and other policies as women in the cities. Of the minuscule 3 percent of school-age Afghan females who went to school during Communist rule, the majority came from the urban areas. It is the women in the cities, encouraged into education and employment by Zahir Shah, the Communists, and, most recently, the UN agencies, who suffered most.2

The rural–urban divide has always complicated the process of change in Afghanistan, as it has in many underdeveloped countries. So have the heavy-handed ways in which change has often been imposed upon the countryside from above, by the country’s tiny, Westernized, and mostly non-Pashtun, Persian-speaking urban elite in Kabul. The rural elite of religious and tribal leaders has tended to respond to their efforts at modernization by going back even further into time. In 1929, conservative mullahs bullied women back into thicker chadoris and sacked museums and libraries after overthrowing the liberal-minded King Amanullah, who had abolished the veil, opened coed schools, and ordered Afghans in Kabul to wear Western clothes. Not until 1959 did women appear without the chadori on the streets of Kabul, and this continued for over thirty-five years, until they faced the cruelest restrictions yet on their freedom of movement and dress.

The Afghan Communists had encouraged women in Kabul to wear skirts and employed them in the government. This was part of their plan to modernize Afghanistan. New textbooks sent out to the villages carried an image of three men in European suits leading a traditionally dressed crowd to a glorious future. Volunteer teachers in the literacy campaign forced old men and girls to attend classes while at the same time, and often in the same villages, the Communists were arresting and massacring tens of thousands of young Muslim men.

Much of the chaos and violence suffered in Afghan villages during the Communist era was engineered by a Westernized elite at the head of an active government in Kabul—a city which, with its Persian-speaking population and apparently liberated women, was already alien to most Pashtuns. This may partly explain why the sons of Pashtun peasants and nomads who made up the Taliban imposed their harshest laws upon the women of Kabul soon after driving out the moderate Islamist Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud from this most Westernized of Afghan cities in 1996 and forcing him to the north. (Some 35 to 45 percent of the population is Pashtun. The majority is made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others.) Suddenly, in yet another Afghan regression, women found themselves sentenced to the chadori and confined to their homes. They could neither educate themselves nor work—Dupree estimates that the prohibitions directly affected anywhere between 40,000 to 150,000 working women and about 100,000 girls at school. Women had to be accompanied by male relatives outside their homes, where the possibility of public humiliation—usually beatings with sticks but also harsher punishments—by the religious police was ever-present.3

The Taliban claimed they were shielding women from the sexual predation they had suffered in the days of the Mujahideen warlords. A Taliban official, who had studied at a madrasa in Pakistan, told me that he couldn’t trust his men with unveiled women; and in any case Mullah Omar, whose original mission had allegedly been to protect women from rapists and bandits, had to preserve at all costs the Taliban’s reputation as uncorrupted men who had brought peace and security and “true Islam” to Kabul.

The Taliban official wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion of what “true Islam” was or could be. But then what he really seemed to be articulating was the deep and longstanding fear and resentment of Western lifestyles, particularly the independence of women, among Pashtun men in the countryside—the modern ways that the Communists had brutally imposed upon Afghanistan, and that Kabul, with the presence of foreign aid workers there, represented. Mullah Omar expressed his contempt by staying away altogether from what remained the official capital of Afghanistan and living in Kandahar. For the rural men who dominated the Taliban, the women in Kabul and other Afghan cities, the relatively modern Shiite and Persian-speaking minorities, the Communists of the past, and the foreign aid workers of today were part of the same large, undifferentiated threat to the Pashtun dictatorship that they, with some help from the sharia, or Islamic law, wished to maintain.4

These complex social and economic resentments help to explain why the Taliban, while ruthless with the Shiites and NGO workers, did not curtail the religious practices of the five thousand or so mostly poor Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, even though the latter were briefly required—to avoid harassment from the religious police, the Taliban claim—to carry yellow identification badges at all times. They also help to explain the many incidents such as the one in which the religious police, who were answerable only to Mullah Omar in Kandahar, closed down an Italian-funded hospital in mid-May after they caught women workers dining with the male staff. In June, the UN closed down a food program for 300,000 people in Kabul because the Taliban refused to let Afghan women work for it.

  1. 1

    All statistics are taken from the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, June 4, 2001. They do not include revenues from the opium trade.

  2. 2

    See Nancy Hatch Dupree, “Afghan Women Under the Taliban,” in Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, edited by William Maley (NYU Press, 1998). For a detailed historical and anthropological account, see Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton University Press, 1980).

  3. 3

    In 1996, the Taliban’s radio announced that 225 women in Kabul had been beaten in a single day for violating the dress code. Soon afterward, Mullah Omar warned that Taliban officials responsible for such public punishments of women would be treated as “great sinners.” But these kinds of punishments continued to occur in Kabul. Dupree attributes them to both corruption and an excess of Islamic zeal among the Taliban’s rank and file.

  4. 4

    The politicization of the poor, unrepresented masses in such Muslim countries as Algeria, Turkey, and Iran has also led to a cultural regression especially with respect to women, and, in some cases, to the irony of secular ruling elites trying to maintain with brute military force the rights of women.

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