The New York Times, April 28, 2002

Personal and Political in Afghanistan


Like many women who have reported on the Taliban, I have tried on a burka. It was in the Afghan market in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, a city of refugees and of long-simmering conflicts that reflect the larger battles in Afghanistan itself. There were no religious police in Peshawar to enforce the wearing of the burka as they were doing in Afghanistan, but still it was a common sight. The one I tried was the most everyday type -- a cheap, light-blue polyester affair with a vast pleated skirt that descended from a tight-fitting cap, a small mesh panel in front of the eyes providing the only light and air.

I had wondered how women recognized each other; how a lost child ever found its mother; how friends and relatives could tell if they passed one another on the street. For those few moments under the burka, I glimpsed a life in which both air and vision were so restricted that I was overwhelmed by claustrophobia. It was suffocating, emotionally as well as physically. I took it off after half a minute.

That instant when Afghan women lifted their burkas produced some of the most potent images of the liberation of Kabul last year. It seemed unambiguous. The Taliban, with their extreme and cruel misogyny, were defeated. Afghan women were free. But scarcely had the camera shutters clicked before ambiguities came crowding back. Today some Afghan women feel freer than before, others do not. Some feel that their lives and their futures have been restored to them, others struggle to survive in a country that has slipped back into chaos. And in Peshawar there are more refugees today than before the war against terrorism began. Among them are thousands of women, survivors of dead fathers, husbands and sons, still struggling for existence against impossible odds.

The stories told in the three books under review -- Zoya's Story,'' ''My Forbidden Face'' and ''West of Kabul, East of New York'' -- illustrate many of the questions that the West needs to answer if Afghanistan is to emerge from this latest round of warfare in a better state than before. A little reflection on the long battle over the bodies and souls of Afghan women raises one question in particular: Was this a battle between secularism and Islam or between tradition and modernity?

Two of these books are written by young women who lived under the Taliban -- both using pseudonyms here -- the third by an Afghan-American man who became famous overnight for an e-mail message he sent to 20 friends in the wake of Sept. 11 that was rapidly copied and sent on until it reached, he estimates, hundreds of thousands of people. These feel like familiar stories -- examples of a well-established genre, even: the personal account that illustrates the wider political context. It does not diminish their particularity to say that they are illustrative rather than revelatory, reinforcing what we feel we understand rather than shedding new light or bringing new understanding.

The Taliban's treatment of women was well known before Sept. 11, not least because of the efforts of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, known as RAWA, which figures large in ''Zoya's Story.'' Zoya's account, written with the assistance of two journalists, John Follain and Rita Cristofari, illuminates the clandestine resistance, first to the mujahedeen and then to the Taliban, that many intellectuals engaged in. Both her parents were active in clandestine politics -- her mother as a member of RAWA and her father in an unnamed underground organization. But it was only when her parents disappeared that Zoya came to understand the risks they had run. She was left with only a surrogate grandmother to take care of her, and with RAWA's help, the two managed to escape from the Taliban's Afghanistan.

It's clear from all three accounts that the Taliban were only the most recent oppressors of Afghan women, whose suffering is in part the result of the conflict between modernity and tradition in which the West has, on occasion, been on the wrong side. More recently, both women and girls have suffered the fate of being the most vulnerable members of a society destroyed by more than 20 years of war.

All three of these memoirs are written from exile, in which the vanished Afghanistan of childhood takes on the cast of a lost idyll. In ''West of Kabul, East of New York,'' Tamim Ansary's account of growing up between his father's Afghan world and his mother's America, the author conjures up a lost Afghan world of extended families who lived in the private interior of the courtyard -- closed against the outside but linked to other clan families by ties of blood and belonging.

In the compound, he writes, everyone shared the same space and within its walls women lived freely. To go from one compound to another they were veiled and escorted. It was a traditional world, but one that was flexible enough to accommodate Ansary's American mother and her exotic ways. ''The family took her in as the Permanent Guest, always to be honored, loved and cared for. Afghan society settled on treating her as an exception to the rules of gender: she was considered neither female nor male, but American.''

The Ansary family were among the well-to-do urban middle class competing for education and government jobs at a time when the royal family -- in the person of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the Afghan monarch, and his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan, the prime minister -- were trying to modernize Afghanistan. In 1959, Daoud had challenged Afghanistan's religious leaders to show him the passage in the Koran that said women must be veiled. When they failed, he declared the veil un-Islamic. Shortly thereafter, the women of the royal family bared their faces in public. The progressive middle classes welcomed it. The mullahs and the rural traditionalists saw it as a breach of traditional values that had to be resisted at all costs.

Daoud's government did other things that stirred resistance in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan. He deposed the king and declared a republic, turning to the Soviet Union for assistance in modernizing Afghanistan. He tried to inaugurate coeducation -- Ansary's school was one of the first to allow girls to study in the same room as boys -- and to create a modern Islamic society. Women in the cities could wear Western dress, go to the cinema, study at the university and practice their professions. In the rural areas, though, they kept to the compound and the veil.

Zoya's Story, click here to order it
Zoya's Story:
An Afghan Woman's
Battle for Freedom
by Zoya with John Follain
and Rita Cristofari

The Marxist government that followed Daoud in 1979 decreed that girls should go to school and promoted the rights of Afghan women. The urban professional classes supported modernization but opposed the Soviet occupation for reasons of patriotism. The mullahs and the tribesmen were clearer -- they opposed both the reforms and the Soviet occupation. They had already declared holy war on the government, fighting to regain control both of their country and their women. With the entry of the Soviet Union, they got the support of Pakistan and the United States. With the Soviet retreat in 1989, the holy warriors had won their country back, if only to fight over it themselves. The women were next.

All three accounts agree that the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal, as the various factions slugged it out for power, was the worst of times. Women were raped and murdered by the warlords and their men. All Afghanistan suffered through four years of brutality and chaos. When the Taliban conquered Kabul, many greeted the news with relief. At least a measure of order would be restored.

Savage though the Taliban's treatment of women was, the mujahedeen had been as bad. In one of the most haunting passages of ''My Forbidden Face,'' Latifa describes the trauma of her brother, a student at Kabul University, who witnessed what happened during the departure of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at the time Pakistan's favored warlord and today still a menacing shadow over Afghanistan's future. When Hekmatyar's men ceded the university campus to Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance in 1992, among the souvenirs they abandoned was the naked body of a woman, bisected and nailed to either side of a pair of swinging doors.

In that context, even public execution for adultery stands out a little less than it would in New York or London, though for Latifa and her family Taliban rule meant virtual house arrest. As is clear from her account (written with Shekeba Hachemi and translated from the French by Linda Coverdale), the three women of the household -- her mother, a retired doctor; her sister Soraya, a flight attendant; and Latifa, with her ambitions to be a journalist -- adjusted badly to this suddenly enforced purdah. ''This isn't clothing,'' Latifa writes of the first time she tried on a burka. ''It's a jail cell.''

Her mother became depressed, her sister angry. Latifa alternated between the two. Eventually, though, they resisted -- her mother by treating patients in secret, Latifa by teaching girls in their home after the Taliban had banned them from school.

Revolutionary movements born in fire incline to the repressive, of course, but there was a hatred and fear of women in the Taliban creed that went beyond even the revolutionary norm and differed from the brutalities of war. In his book ''Taliban,'' Ahmed Rashid observed that the Taliban were largely a generation of refugees who grew up in an almost exclusively male society in the camps of northern Pakistan. There, the world of extended family and life within the compound gates -- the world of women -- had been shattered. Or, as Ansary puts it in his memoir: ''They had never tasted how it was. They knew nothing of the lost world except for scattered phrases they heard from their fathers and uncles, who came out of Afghanistan rarely, and then on stretchers . . . choking out the words 'Son, always kill infidels; never let strangers see our women.' ''

The word medieval was often used -- inappropriately -- to characterize the Taliban. They represented a third variant in the struggle for the Afghan soul: they rejected the Western (and the Soviet) vision of progress, but they were enemies, too, of the mujahedeen and of traditional tribal authority. Their vision of the state was hardly sophisticated, but to the degree that it demanded loyalty to a centralizing ideology rather than to a clan elder, it was closer to a 20th-century formulation than traditional rural society had been. Perversely, the Taliban became even more misogynist than the tribal leaders, perhaps precisely because they were free of tribal and family constraints.

Latifa, Zoya and Ansary all come from the kind of families that supported the trend toward modernization of Afghan society that was interrupted in the late 1970's. Ansary's father had studied abroad on a government scholarship; Latifa's and Zoya's parents were liberal professionals. This secular, nonbelligerent middle class -- often left-wing -- could find no place under the mujahedeen or the Taliban. Some suffered internal exile, abandoning their professions in favor of raw survival. Others went abroad, where the fortunate made new lives while a few less favored were murdered, even outside Afghanistan, by fundamentalists who saw their ideas as a threat.

One of the more famous such assassinations took the life of Meena, the young poet who founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in Kabul in 1977 to fight for women's emancipation. She was only 30 when she was murdered in Pakistan 10 years later. The organization she founded still educates girls in the refugee camps and promotes women's freedom in the most direct and daring of ways. Its members are dedicated to the organization with a passion reminiscent of a new religious movement or an underground political party. Zoya herself is now a RAWA activist, in the Pakistan refugee camp where she lives.

Latifa was exiled from Afghanistan when a trip she had made abroad with her parents to testify against the Taliban regime was discovered. Tamim Ansary came to the United States with his mother and has made his life, as he describes it, between his two cultures. Afghanistan is in ruins and desperately in need of the skills of its displaced middle class. If none of these authors is on the point of return, it may be in part because reality in Afghanistan remains a long way from those happy images of Afghan women shedding their burkas that we enjoyed last November.

Isabel Hilton is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of ''The Search for the Panchen Lama.''


Review on "Zoya's Story" in The USA Today
Review on "Zoya's Story" in The Washington Post
Review on "Zoya's Story" in The News

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