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Lives of torment and resistance unveiled

Three books about the position of women in Afghanistan

By Heather Hewett / May 30, 2002

No other image has come to symbolize the enigmatic position of Muslim women more than the veil and its paradoxical mechanics: By concealing women from our eyes, it actually increases our desire to see them.

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The practice of hijab, or veiling, encompasses a wide range of styles and degrees of covering. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, my vocabulary expanded to include "burqa," the full-length body tent that erases any suggestion of bodily form. When the Taliban fell in 2001, the world waited to see if Afghanistan's women would throw off their burqas. While some of them did, many did not.

Three new books take the veil as their entry point into an examination of women in Afghanistan. Although different genres – one is a memoir, one a sociological study, and one a collection of photographs – all attempt to uncover the many layers that enshroud women by giving voice to their experiences. After 23 years of war in Afghanistan, where do women stand? As their country rebuilds, what responsibilities will they assume? And will they play these roles with or without their veils?

In her riveting memoir My Forbidden Face, Latifa (the writer's pseudonym) details how, when she was 16, her life was taken away by the Taliban. A few days after she finished the first part of her entrance exam for Kabul University, the Taliban took over the capital city. Latifa's family – urban, educated, and middle-class – was devastated. After working through years of civil war, their "normal" life ended on Sept. 27, 1996. With the Taliban roaming the streets with guns and whips, they were afraid to leave their apartment. They had to hide all of their now-forbidden possessions – books, clothes, photos, music, videos, makeup.

Her mother, a gynecologist, could no longer treat patients; her father, who lost his business, watched helplessly as his wife sank into depression. "We all feel our faces drooping from sadness and fatigue," Latifa writes. "No one turns on the radio now because there is no more news, no more music, no more poetry. Nothing but propaganda." When she is forced to wear a burqa outside, the strong-minded teenager rebels: "This isn't clothing, it's a jail cell." But she has no other choice.

Eventually they found ways to resist. Her mother treated women who were prohibited from seeing male doctors; Latifa began an underground school for girls and boys. Her story ends five years later, with her family torn apart and Latifa living in exile. She longs to return but wonders "Who speaks for Afghanistan? I don't know anymore."

While Latifa chronicles the everyday struggles of living in Kabul, Cheryl Benard provides a broader survey of women's experiences throughout Afghanistan. In her engaging, and at times polemical, study Veiled Courage, the sociologist details how Afghan women have fought for equal rights over the past few decades.