For many Afghan women, bare faces and lives resumed

Saida Oranos Al Ghazal was so elated Monday night when the Taliban fled Kabul, "I couldn't stand up," she says.

But the real test came the next morning. She gingerly walked the few blocks from her home to Radio Afghanistan to reclaim her old job - her face bare, and without the all-encompassing burqa.

"I was afraid, and I regret not wearing a burqa on the way, because everyone was looking at me," she says. "Today was better than yesterday. More and more women are doing it every day. You will see."

Now, with the Taliban on the run, the word "freedom" is breathed repeatedly through the mesh shrouds of head-to-toe burqas - required dress here until just days ago. The change for Afghanistan's women is not just a revolution - it is an emancipation.

At a wedding yesterday, women danced and listened to music and forsook their burqas - a scene impossible under the Taliban. Listeners of Radio Afghanistan woke yesterday morning to a woman's voice presenting the news. Men ogle at a shop hung with new posters of beautiful Indian "Bollywood" movie stars, in revealing clothes and lurid poses.

Ghazal's quest to work again (she will be back on the air, reading her beloved

Afghan poetry and radio announcements by early next week), is an example of how quickly Afghan women are seizing a new life.

"The five years of the Taliban regime is the darkest period in the history of Afghanistan, especially for its women," says Ghazal, in a fluid, angelic voice. Today, she wears a simple black scarf that covers only her head - not her face - a long, black, shapeless dress, and white leather pumps."In the end, God pushed them out."

The way the Taliban saw it, the tight restrictions were a way that its hard-line brand of Islam - as a "rescuing religion," it said - respected women and protected them from the lust of men.

"Women, you should not step outside your residence," read one 1996 Taliban decree. If women go outside with "fashionable, ornamental, tight, and charming clothes to show themselves, they will be cursed ... and should never expect to go to heaven."

Women could not work, they could not be educated, and they were required to adhere to Draconian rules of dress and behavior. Punishment was often public beating with a length of cable.

Ghazal, of course, is on the cutting edge. Not all women yet feel free enough to shed the head-to-toe coverings on the street. But they love the freedom of choice the new changes bring.

On a Kabul street, now, a woman wearing a blue burqa says she has no qualms about speaking to a Western man. "We are feeling free; we are not afraid," Farishtah says. "Even with the burqa before, sometimes they punished us anyway. It was tedious, boring, and difficult."

She says the biggest change in her life is the ability to choose. "I will decide what to do with my life," Farishtah says emphatically, despite the mesh facemask of the burqa. "For the first time in five years, I will decide."

Throughout Afghan history, Kabul has been a source of cultural liberalism that often grated against the poor countryside. As such, it was the subject of some of the harshest enforcement of Taliban rules by the Ministry of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

What that meant for young women like Ghazal - who had to quit her literature studies at Kabul University with just one year of studies left before graduation - was a descent into hopelessness. One of the toughest memories of Taliban rule she carries occurred in the first days they came to Kabul: The sleeves of a woman in the bazaar were deemed too short by a Taliban enforcer. She was beaten so severely with a cable that she collapsed and was rushed to a hospital.

Ghazal says she rarely left home after that. For work, she could only teach young children in her own home.

A bright spirit with an easy smile, she nevertheless sent poetry to local newspapers. But her feminine voice was forbidden for broadcast. She thought her two-year-old radio career - reading poetry for all of Radio Afghanistan's programs that included poems - was over.

"We had a lot of educated women, but the majority have left Kabul. They weren't able to suffer through the Taliban," she says. Her friends wanted her to go, too, but she couldn't bring herself to leave. "I love my country. I wouldn't leave it," she says.

The Northern Alliance rebels who have taken control of Kabul and all of northern Afghanistan in the past week do not restrict women by enforcing rules, though they can be as "protective" as any Taliban official of women in their own families, and burqas are common in alliance territory.

They recognize the denigrate role women played under the Taliban, though. One rebel commander even jokes that if his forces didn't topple the Taliban, "I'm sure the women will kill the Taliban themselves."

Playing on that image, propaganda leaflets dropped into Afghanistan by American psychological operations teams from planes show a photograph of a turbaned Taliban "Virtue" enforcer, beating a row of women in burqas with a truncheon. The words read: "Do you want such a life for your wife and children?"

Many Afghan women say "no." "We weren't able to walk down the road," complains Qandigul, as she waits in line for a meal ticket, wearing a burqa. "We couldn't send our girls to school. Our children were in the dark."

While mothers say they have already been asking the new authorities to begin admitting girls to schools, for budding professionals like Ghazal, the harm has already been done by five fallow years. "Many women lost much in their minds, because they were forced to stay home," she says, tapping a white leather shoe on the floor at the memory of the anxiety. "We want to be in sophisticated positions. But women have been so damaged. If they were allowed, they would now be doctors, engineers, and professors. Now there are hardly any."

She can't wait to renew her studies for her diploma, but also recognizes that Taliban rules do fit for some. "There are many women who want to wear a burqa, for religious and cultural reasons," Ghazal says.

But for her, the choice is clear. "My burqa is at home," she says. When asked if she will ever wear it again, she answers with a smile on her face, before she gives voice to the word: "Never!"

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