Tenacity under Afghan burqas

In Afghanistan's Taliban-resistant northeast corner, women create their own jobs and schools.

"It's not hard to teach them. They respect their teachers," says Sultana Parast, a recent highschool graduate who is an instructor of religion and Arabic in an exclusive girls' school here. With their burqas hanging in the back of the classroom, her students whisper and giggle like teenage girls anywhere.

In backwaters such as Taloqan, one of the last remaining towns under the control of Commander Ahmad Shah Masood's Northern Alliance, women face many of the same challenges as others face in most of the country, which is under the strict Islamic fundamentalist rule of the Taliban regime.

"The only real difference is that in the north you can fly a kite," an aid worker remarks caustically, referring to a Taliban edict banning the flying of kites.

Silently, like blue and white ghosts, Afghan women mostly live a life of self-effacement, concealed in public by the burqa, a garment that covers them from head to toe, trans-forming them into faceless, shapeless figures.

Tradition here dictates that women don't have any business beyond their homes and fields. Fewer than 1 in 3 can read, and only a minuscule number are employed. Yet with the rise to power of the radical Islamist Taliban in 1994, the rights of women and girls have become all the more imperiled.

Just last week, the Taliban expelled Mary MacMakin, a longtime American relief worker in Kabul, on charges of espionage and proselytizing. The expulsion of Ms. MacMakin, who ran an organization to aid impoverished war widows, came after the Taliban began enforcing a previously announced ban on local women working for international relief groups. Following United Nations protests, religious leaders retracted the ban. Some Islamic scholars elsewhere say Taliban decrees reflect Afghanistan's tribal customs, not the edicts of the religion.

While the West condemns Taliban restrictions on female behavior, education, and employment, it pays little attention to the plight of women living in the northeast corner of Afghanistan that resists Taliban domination.

In spite of the social inertia that makes the burqa in rural Afghanistan as ubiquitous as the bikini on a California beach, women in the Taloqan area are seizing the initiative to improve their lot.

With the support of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan - an aid group that itself has become a leading employer of the country's educated elite - some 16,000 girls in six northern provinces now have access to primary education. Naqib Ahmad Moshfiq, head of the Swedish Committee's education unit in Taloqan, says girls' schools are given top priority.

"It's completely new for this region. There are a lot of cultural and religious restrictions," says Mr. Moshfiq. "We tell parents that their daughters will be able to write letters, read books on cooking and embroidery, and acquire knowledge about the outside world."

Even in Taliban-held territory, where his committee also is active, moderate religious leaders are receptive to educating girls, says Moshfiq. "We don't give up. We push and push and push, and try to soften their position on education."

In Taloqan there are two schools exclusively for girls, one directed by Manija (who uses only one name), a local women's rights activist. Many of the girls come from families that fled when the Taliban took over university towns such as the capital, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif, a main northern city. "One family from Kunduz moved here just so that their three girls could study," says Manija. "It was the main reason."

In three shifts per day, 1,800 girls rotate through eight sparse classrooms for classes in science, math, religion, English, Arabic, Pashto (the language spoken in much of Afghanistan), literature, and home economics. Many of the all-female staff are only a few years older than their pupils. Other than teaching or working for a foreign aid agency, there are virtually no jobs available to educated women.

The war that has ravaged Afghanistan for more than 20 years is never far off. Taloqan lies only 15 miles to the east of the front line, and for a brief period last year the Taliban occupied the town.

"When the Taliban came and captured Taloqan, they began to close schools, particularly the girls's schools," says Mohammad Ajmal Faiz, the provincial governor and formerly a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Education. "They forced educated people to leave."

Manija says that all her school's experienced teachers have fled the region. Girls from well-off families are continuing their education in Pakistan, Iran, or Tajikistan. And even those pupils who complete their education here in Taloqan belong to a privileged class that can afford to pay for books and stationery.

All the funds raised by the Northern Alliance go to the immediate war effort. Women are left to fend for themselves - and they do.

In December, Manija founded the Afghanistan Women's Association, a grass-roots organization with more than 3,000 members in the northeast corner of the country. They even have an e-mail address: AWA@aol.com. For women in the region, the AWA is planning projects to help them gain economic self-sufficiency through home-based crafts such as sewing and rug-making. But "our main goal is to reach women in Taliban areas," says Manija. "We demand our basic rights."

At a gathering in Taloqan in late June, the association issued a statement of solidarity with women living under Taliban rule and appealed to the international community to apply additional pressure on the mullahs (religious leaders) in Kabul.

"We reach out to all the countries in the world, especially the women, and ask of them to work in a positive way for the Afghan people," read the final statement. "We need action, not talk. We need education and jobs for women."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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