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Voices from behind the veil

Women in conservative Islamic societies talk about their lives, and how the West perceives them.

(Page 2 of 4)

In some places, the departure of the Taliban means a return to freedoms that Afghan women enjoyed before - to work, study, and move at will. In more traditional areas, where most of Afghanistan's 25 million people live, the change is more modest, as ancient customs replace strict Taliban laws.

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In the cool shade of a tree, a farmer named Sher Jan and his wife, Rahmona, reflect on their lives since the Taliban's departure. They get sidetracked easily by gentle differences of opinion. She corrects him when he says they have three children. ("Yes, we have three boys, but we also have four girls," she says.) And he corrects her on her age. ("Forty," she says. "Fifty," he says.)

But on one subject, the couple speaks in harmony. The Taliban were enforcing Islamic laws that most Muslims already obeyed. "To wear a burqa, this is the instruction of the holy Prophet Muhammad and they made it obligatory, as if almighty God said it," says Sher Jan. The Taliban had good intentions and made the city safe for women, says Rahmona, but occasionally, out of zealotry, the Taliban themselves became harassers.

"One day, I was forced to get down by the Taliban from a bullock cart," she recalls. Reflexively, she pulls her black scarf across her face in the presence of a male stranger. "They told me, you should wear the burqa. I told them, I'm too old to wear a burqa. Eventually, they let me go."

It is midnight in Jeddah, and in Neda Hariri's plush living room the conversation is just picking up steam. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast all day and socialize late into the night, and Attieh has come to visit her niece and sister-in-law.

Out of her hospital whites, Attieh is coolly elegant in a gray linen suit. Ms. Hariri, newly married and pregnant, is still slender in a silk tank top and skirt. As she hands around cake and sweets, her mother whispers hostessing advice.

But when talk turns to Afghanistan, tips on serving implements are forgotten as the women start discussing Western reports on Afghan women and the veil. "You have to understand that most of these [Afghan] women want to cover their head," interjects Attieh. "They have no malls, no Internet, there is just religion. The veil is a symbol of faith, a form of protection, like a second skin."

Hariri complains about first lady Laura Bush's radio address last month on Afghan women, arguing that it was meant to provide the US with an excuse to keep bombing. "It's not for women in the US to say Afghan women are oppressed and should take off the veil," she says. "If an Afghan woman is upset about her situation, she should change it, not you."

History gives her good reason to be suspicious. European nations often used Muslim women to justify their intrusions into Islamic countries. In the late 1800s, the English envoy Evelyn Baring urged his superiors to colonize Egypt, arguing they could do so on behalf of the country's downtrodden women. At the time, Baring sat on a committee bent on denying English women the vote.

French charities in late 19th-century Algeria would dispense free oil and flour to the poor, but only if they removed their veils. "[Mrs. Bush's] speech resonates so much with this earlier use of women as a reason to interfere in internal affairs," observes Barbara Petzen, the Outreach Coordinator at The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Before Sept. 11, there wasn't much Western interest in Afghan women. The Islamic world was much more vocal about Taliban practices."

The misgivings aren't confined to Hariri's living room. Iran Aflatouni, a retired computer programmer in Tehran, doubts the West's understanding of Afghan women. "Even if women are liberated from Taliban rule, they have a culture that does not accept women as equals to men," she says.