USA TODAY, 18 Feb 2002

Taliban's oppression of women unveiled

Bob Minzesheimer

When sociologist Cheryl Benard used to tell other Americans about her interest in the veiled women of Afghanistan, they'd tend to nod politely and say something about how ''exotic'' that sounded.

''It seemed to be of no relevance to them,'' she says. ''They couldn't imagine it.''

But Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan suddenly changed that.

''Now, they want to know more,'' she says, ''but I find there are still a lot of mistaken preconceptions and stereotypes.''

That is why she wrote Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance (Broadway, $23.95, out April 9).

It's one of at least four books from commercial publishers that are discovering and personalizing a topic previously left mostly to university presses.

''It took bin Laden and al-Qaeda to grab the attention of the American public to the virtual enslavement of Afghan women,'' says Jennifer Seymour Whitaker, director of the Council on Foreign Relations Project on Women's Human Rights.

The other titles:

* My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban (Talk Miramax, $21.95, out March 13) by Latifa. The author, who is 21 and escaped to Paris last year, uses a pseudonym because she fears for family and friends still in Afghanistan.

* Zoya's Story (William Morrow, $24.95, out April 2) by Zoya, with John Follain and Rita Cristofari. The author, a 23-year-old refugee, fears that the fundamentalist Muslims who killed her parents will come after her.

* Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan (HarperCollins, $29.95, out April 2) by Harriet Logan. The British journalist photographed and interviewed Afghan women in 1997, after the Taliban took control, and revisited them in 2001, after the Taliban lost power.

Benard's interest in Afghanistan grew out of a visit there in 1982 to assess international aid programs and from her marriage to Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan refugee who is now on the staff of the National Security Council. (They met in 1972 as students at the American University in Beirut.)

Her book describes how Afghan women resisted the Taliban, which banned them from school, required them to wear the full-length burqa and prohibited them from being seen in the streets without a male chaperon.

She chronicles the rise of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and, ''the Web site of the world's most oppressed women,'' which crashed from heavy use after it was mentioned by Oprah Winfrey.

Even with the considerable news coverage of the war and conditions in Afghanistan (where the literacy rate is 35% for men, 7% for women), Benard says that stereotypes persist.

People believe, she says, ''that the women of Afghanistan know nothing else and are passive victims, happy with their oppression. Or that the situation is too difficult to change, that their society won't allow it. . . . That's not what Afghans think.''

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