Afghan Women Fret Behind Islamic Veil

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE liberation of the Afghan capital by Islamic mujahideen guerrillas made 19-year-old Jina Karim a virtual prisoner in her own home.

Ms. Karim did not leave her parents' cramped two-room apartment in a Soviet-built housing block in southern Kabul for weeks after the mujahideen ousted the Communist regime in late April and installed an Islamic government. She stayed home of her own free will - mainly out of fear of that she would incur the wrath of Afghanistan's new leadership if she left.

"I'm worried about the Islamic dress," she said, a despairing look spreading over her face. "I've never worn a veil and I don't want to wear one. I prefer modern clothes," she continued. "I'd rather stay at home than go outside covering my head."

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While Jina's stance may represent an extreme, her comments underscore the concern felt by some educated, relatively cosmopolitan women in Kabul. Some admit privately they are wary of the new Islamic government, believing it eventually wants to take away the rights women gained during the Communist era.

So far, the only action taken by the government to roll back women's rights has been the order to cover up, issued shortly after the mujahideen takeover. But some, like Jina, fear the government eventually will try to restrict women's access to education and jobs. "I'd like to become a secretary, but I doubt that will be possible now because the Islamic government probably will not permit women to work," she says.

Malauwi al-Salah Rakhami, Afghanistan's Islamic Affairs minister, insists such fear is unfounded. As long as women obey the Islamic law, he says, they will be allowed to work in any capacity.

The government's position could change, however. The new power structures remain largely undefined, as rival mujahideen factions have been embroiled in a battle for influence.

A peace agreement between the factions calls for early elections. If representatives of the largest and most fundamentalist Islamic faction, the Hezb-e-Islami, do well in the elections they could impose their fundamentalist values on the country.

Yet even if they wanted to, the authorities wouldn't be able to banish women from the workplace anytime soon, argues Massoumi Wardak, minister of education under former Communist President Najibullah.

"The government can't afford to remove women from the workplace because there are simply not enough qualified men to take their place," she says, adding that about 75 percent of Afghanistan's teachers are women. Ms. Wardak also said women in the capital would not have much difficulty in adapting to the new conditions. "It really isn't bad. It's part of our tradition; women in the countryside have always covered their heads. It won't be so hard for women in Kabul to do the same."

One prominent working woman, television news reader Najiba Haidar, gladly accepted the Islamic dress code, saying her desire to continue working outweighed all other considerations.

"I want to stay here and work, so I do it," Ms. Haidar said, as she sat in a dressing room at Kabul's television center.

But Jina Karim says emigration is her only option. "I'm not angry, I'm just sad," she said of her decision to leave the country.

"All my friends have already gone," she says. "They knew the mujahideen were about to come to power, and they didn't like them, so they left a few months ago."

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