Lives of torment and resistance unveiled

Three books about the position of women in Afghanistan

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.

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.

In 1977, a young woman named Meena founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a nonviolent, democratic movement that ran schools for girls, helped women in need, and, in the '90s, fought against the Taliban. RAWA played a crucial role in documenting the fundamentalists' violence (its members took pictures with cameras hidden behind their burqas) and in disseminating information on their website.

Most of the women involved with RAWA were ordinary Afghans from cities, villages, and refugee camps – yet their everyday acts of heroism were reminiscent of the French resistance. "Veiled Courage" relates the stories of these women as told in their own words. Drawing from interviews conducted during 2001 by RAWA's members, Benard gives the reader a broad sense of what women experienced during their country's era of "gender apartheid" as well as what they suffered during the rule of the Northern Alliance, when women were routinely raped and terrorized. Why the brave, civic-minded women of RAWA have not been fully incorporated into the peace process is beyond comprehension.

The idea that every woman has a story to tell propels Harriet Logan's powerful collection of photographs, Unveiled. Logan visited Afghanistan twice – once during Taliban rule in December 1997, and again after their defeat in December 2001. When possible, she located the women from her first visit. Logan's stark black-and-white photographs and her subjects' stories of loss and hopelessness reveal the traumatizing conditions of poverty and destruction. And with the inclusion of a few photographs from the 1970s, a time when women walked the streets in miniskirts and makeup, Logan conveys how profound the changes have been.

My favorite picture is of a street scene in Kabul from 2001. Hundreds of posters and postcards of unveiled Indian women cover a wall – and in front of them stands an Afghan woman, fully concealed beneath her burqa.

While the proliferation of images suggests that the city is starved for contact with the outside world ("Titanic" was a huge underground hit during the last days of the Taliban), this woman's thoughts are out of reach. Does she remain in her burqa because, as Logan observes, Afghanistan's "predatory" streets are once again unsafe for women? What does this hidden woman think of the unveiled women she sees?

While many of us had hoped that the end of the Taliban would mean the achievement of freedom and peace, these books reveal that, to the contrary, Afghanistan's women still find themselves in an uneasy place. Their vision of the future remains as veiled and uncertain as our own.

• Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York City.

My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story

By Latifa with Shékéba Hachemi Translated by Linda Coverdale

Talk Miramax 210 pp., $21.95

Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan

By Harriet Logan


106 pp., $29.95

Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance

By Cheryl Benard

Broadway Books 293 pp., $23.95

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