The Age, July 15, 2002

Women in a wilderness

By Pamela Bone

By Cheryl Benard, Random House, $24.95;
UNVEILED: VOICES OF WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN, By Harriet Logan, Harper-Collins, $49.95

The treatment of women under the Taliban regime of Afghanistan is often described as "mediaeval", but I'm not sure if the adjective is apposite. Even in mediaeval times women in most cultures, though perhaps depending on their class, had some power: Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off, discourteously, as the spurned swain of the Lady Greensleeves mourned.

Any Afghan woman daring to cast off a man under the Taliban, courteously or otherwise, would most likely be jailed or executed. And, according to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), things are not much better even after the Taliban's defeat. Jails are still full of women, many of them girls, whose only crime has been to run away from husbands who beat them.

There is a good case for saying that the Taliban's treatment of women was so extreme as to be unique in human history, notes Cheryl Benard in her story of the Afghan women's resistance movement, Veiled Courage. As one of the women interviewed by Benard says: "To women in another country who might read your book, I want to say this: whatever you have heard about Afghanistan is only a fraction of what we go through. Under the fundamentalists, a woman is less than a bird in a cage. A bird in a cage is at least allowed to sing, but according to them, it is a sin for anyone to even hear our voice.''

Or to see her face, or a vague outline of her body, or a flash of her white socks under the burka. Ban white socks, orders the Ministry for the Discouragement of Vice and the Encouragement of Virtue!

VEILED COURAGE, click here to order it
Veiled Courage:
Inside the Afghan
Women's Resistance

By Cheryl Benard with
Edit Schlaffer

How extraordinary then, is the bravery of these women who resisted, who under pain of death if caught, photographed and sent out via the Internet the images of beatings and executions that would eventually stir the conscience of the outside world: though not one damned thing was done for Afghan women by the world powers until the September 11 attack on the great power made Afghanistan a cause celebre. Then, not only presidents and prime ministers, but the wives of presidents and prime ministers, made bold speeches in their support.

RAWA, Benard argues in this passionate, well-researched and well-written book, may be the world's first postmodern resistance movement. "RAWA, sending out a call for help into the anonymity of the World Wide Web in clumsy English from a remote location, then receiving an outpouring of support and forging deep bonds with distant affluent people who had never heard of Quetta (a refugee camp) before and really had no logical reason whatsoever to concern themselves with this matter - that is postmodern politics in its pure and quintessential form."

And indeed, what else but "postmodern" can be said of a political organisation that answers advice that it take the word "revolutionary" out of its name with: "A thousand sisterly thanks for the suggestion", and then ignores it? Or which signs off e-mails to Western strangers with "love and hugs"?

What Cheryl Benard tells in words, Harriet Logan tells in pictures. Or rather, in heartbreakingly beautiful photographs of Afghan women and girls, accompanied by a brief telling of their stories. Logan, one of Britain's best-known photographers, went to Afghanistan in 1997. Last year, following the defeat of the Taliban, she went back and interviewed again many of the women she had talked to before.

Her photographs of women under the Taliban are contrasted with photographs of Afghan women from the 1970s, when, according to the book's inside cover, "they were free to dress as they wished, speak up for their rights and pursue their educations alongside men". Well, women in the capital Kabul may have been able to, to some extent, though even there the mullahs were likely to throw acid on bare legs. But in the rural areas the Taliban was enforcing a culture that in large part was already there. Even today, 93 per cent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate.

Logan is a photographer more than she is a writer. But the women's and girls' stories, told in their own voices, are eloquent. Fahrida, interviewed in 1997 when she was 14, hated the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet occupation more than she hated the Taliban, because she lost two friends, and a leg, in that fighting: "Of course the Taliban will be better for us than those terrible men were. I don't think there is anyone who could do such a bad thing to me again, and I never want the mujahideen to return." And Sovita, aged 10 in 2001: "The Taliban children didn't go to school, so the Taliban parents didn't want us to be smarter than their kids . . . If I had power and I was a commander and a Talib came to me, I would execute him."

Pamela Bone is an associate editor of The Age.


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