Editorial: Taliban Timetable (3/99)

Every March, Toward Freedom is dedicated to women’s issues. Since this will be the last such edition of the magazine in both the current century and millennium, it seemed appropriate to look back while simultaneously offering at least a glimmer of hope for an uncertain future.

This month’s pages contain many horror stories just barely tempered by a few grace notes of accomplishment. From India to Tibet to Latin America to Europe to the US and Canada, the world’s male-dominated societies have a dismal track record, to be sure.

Yet, "little pockets of light" – to lift a phrase from Louis Malle’s 1989 film, My Dinner With Andre – beckon from even such a bleak horizon: An AIDS educator in South Africa, a revolutionary collective in Chiapas, an epidemiologist trying to heal Iraq’s long-suffering population, the banning of female genital mutilation in Senegal.

But any publication devoted, as this one is, to "a progressive perspective on world events" must continue ringing the alarm bells as we prepare for another 100 and 1000 years of human history.

A June 1998 article by Barbara Crossette in The New York Times tallies the grim state of things in several global trouble spots – Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, Algeria, Rwanda. She reports that women continue to be prime targets of ongoing warfare in those regions, with "premeditated, organized sexual assault as a tactic in terrorizing and humiliating a civilian population."

And then there is Afghanistan, where crimes against women have an altogether different slant. The Taliban, which fought its way to power in late 1996, is comprised of Islamic fundamentalist tribesmen who have turned back the clock to establish what is essentially a medieval nation. Forget the next millennium; think bygone millennia.

A 1998 study conducted by Physicians for Human Rights, The Taliban’s War on Women, cites numerous shocking facts: Women can no longer work or go to school. The windows of any buildings they occupy are painted, so that the women within cannot be seen from outside. They must be covered head to toe with a burqa, a garment that provides virtually no opening except for a tiny bit of mesh over the eyes. On the street, they must be chaperoned by close male relatives or risk beatings by religious police.

After so many years of war, the capital city of Kabul has an estimated 30,000 widows who are now not allowed to support their families. Food supplied by international aid groups can only go to men. For many women, suicide is becoming the only option.

Separate hospital wards for women lack basic equipment and male doctors cannot examine their bodies. Female doctors, of course, are banned from practicing medicine. The policy is really a form of genocide: Women have been dying in labor, unable to have their babies delivered.

Despite this monstrous policy, at least two US companies (and others in France and Germany) appear to be rushing in to make big bucks. Unocal, a California consortium, has proposed building a gas pipeline through Afghanistan. A $240 million contract will allow the Taliban to go cellular, thanks to the New Jersey-based Telephone Systems International in Parsipanny. Although the US punishes the people of Cuba and Iraq with economic sanctions, there are no federal restrictions on companies that want to do business with Afghanistan.

Moreover, officials at the UN apparently have suggested that international recognition might persuade the Taliban to change its ways. Is that a rational assumption, given that Afghan women are even forbidden to wear shoes that make noise when they walk? What a symbol: Total silence in a master plan for gender cleansing. This enforced silence should become a deafening roar for any corporations in the US or elsewhere willing to look the other way to make a few bucks.

In a speech to the Global Tribunal for Women, convened at the UN in December 1998, Zarghuna Waziri – an Afghan teacher now living in Pakistan – had a bleak tale to tell about a visit to a hospital in her homeland seven months earlier: "I heard the cries and screams of women and children. … I saw the Taliban militia beating women, doctors, and everyone in the room with cables. They started beating me as well. The little sick babies were falling on the floor from their mother’s arms. We kept asking, ÔWhy are they beating us? What is our guilt?’ But the Taliban kept cursing us and beating us. No one came to help."

Who is coming to help now? Even so apolitical a figure as television talk-show host Jay Leno, prompted by his wife Mavis, has expressed concern and donated money to fight the madness. She is on the board of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has launched a campaign to assist the Taliban’s victims.

Afghanistan today "makes Margaret Atwood’s darkest fantasy of The Handmaid’s Tale look like a feminist utopia," writes Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. The brutal insanity of the Taliban ranks with that of the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge, which two decades ago killed Cambodians who wore glasses in the belief they might be educated and therefore a threat to the country’s newly established slave-labor economy. In hopes of erasing all evidence of the previous civilization, Pol Pot decreed that 1975 was "Year Zero."

As the high-tech world frets about the Y2K bug that could bedevil computers when the calendar reads 2000, it is already Year Zero for the women of Afghanistan.