“Yesterday, I saw a woman get beaten by one of the local cops for laughing out loud,” a lady stated this matter-of-factly.
The other women in the room nodded but didn’t say anything at all. This didn’t surprise them. Ever since that fateful day in 1996 when the Taliban took over the government, stories like this were ordinary.
Young male guards patrolled the streets with various weapons including whips, sticks and rifles. In accordance with policies declared by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of vice, women who wore makeup, exposed their faces, or laughed out loud were brought in for punishment. Punishments that included stoning, amputation, torture, floggings and public executions were commonplace.
“My neighbor’s daughter was sold for payment of a debt that her father had incurred,” one woman stated.
“My 14-year-old niece was forced to marry a 40 year old man despite the fact that the government insists that it is against the law to marry a girl under 16,” comments another.
An older woman bearing a large scar down her cheek admits that she was beaten every day for any small transgression. Because she was considered her husband’s property, the police would not lay charges. Several women in the group acknowledge this as domestic violence is rampant in Afghanistan and it continues to increase. It is estimated that 87% of Afghan women suffer at the hands of their husbands.
For those women whose husbands have been killed, their lives fair no better. They are often forced into a life of begging, prostitution or death. The reason for this is unlike Canadian widows, Afghan widows are denied their dead husbands inheritance. She basically has no way to support herself or her family.
Many women often try to commit suicide to escape their husbands and/or their lives. For them, it is the only way out.
One woman hesitantly removed her burka to show the scars that she bore from when she poured cooking oil over herself and lit herself on fire. “I was so tired of being restricted to my house. I couldn’t even go out to the grocery store without a male escort. Tell me why that is necessary?”
The woman who started the conversation put her arm around the woman. “It’s not necessary. That’s what sucks. We had so many rights finally getting returned to us as women before the Taliban took over.”
“I remember dropping my daughter off in grade 1 at the school down the block and then going to teach grade 3 to boys and girls. These children were normal. They learned, they lived side by side. And then, one day, this group of men carrying rifles comes in, separates the boys and the girls and drags all the girls out of the room. Female teachers were herded out of the school. Outside the school, they were handing out these ugly blue garments they called burkas. We were all told to put them on immediately.
Women struggled to pull this garment over their heads. It was hard because once on, we could not move our hands freely. We struggled to position the mesh area over our faces. I could barely see anything through the mesh. It was like looking through a sheer curtain – everything was blurred. When we pulled on the close-toes shoes, no portion of our bodies was visible. If the burka didn’t touch the floor or the arms were not covered to the wrist when the arm was extended, that burka was removed and another longer one was given to the woman to put on. It wasn’t really an article of clothing; it was more like a canvas prison.
“We quickly learned that walking in this garment was very difficult – like walking in shackles. It restricted all movement.
“No one explained to us why we had to put this garment on. Anyone who questioned any order was struck. The children watched in horror as this all happened.”
Other women nodded. They had had a similar experience.
The date was September 27, 1996. Taliban forces took over Kabul, Afghanistan, and imposed a set of laws on Afghan women the likes of which the world had never seen. They were denied access to education – both pre- and post-secondary. They were sent home from work and were not to return. They were no longer allowed to leave the house or family compound without the accompaniment of a male; they were no longer allowed to walk alone in the streets by themselves. They were no longer allowed to take part in activities that the male population took for granted including singing, dancing, flying kites, playing musical instruments or taking part in sports. They were not allowed to travel inside a taxi – instead they must ride in the trunk. They were denied any medical assistance from male doctors in the hospitals even if they were pregnant or in labor. It is estimated that X% of women in their child bearing years died from complications and X% of women gave birth at home. Talk about stepping back into the Medieval Age as far as women’s rights were concerned!
“I have glasses and wearing them under the burka was impossible.”
“I was hit by a car because I was unable to see clearly while crossing the road.”
“I found it nearly impossible to bond with my baby while wearing the burka,” one young mother admitted. “My baby could not see my face and I could not see my baby’s expressions when I was feeding her. My voice changed when I spoke under the burka and my child had to get used to that. I could not have direct skin contact with my baby.”
“I saw a woman the other day in her blue burka sitting by the side of the road beside a bag of garbage; ironically, the garbage bags were the same color blue as the burka. I actually had to look a few times before I realized that it was indeed a woman and not a bag of trash.”
Though the burka is not the Taliban’s invention, it was made notorious by the way it was forced upon the female population. The burka was introduced in the early 20th century during the Habibulla era. It was used by the king’s harem in order to stop men from staring at their beauty. At that time, they were made of silk and delicate embroidery and were worn by high class women as well who chose to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. When the Taliban enforce it, it was no longer a status symbol and it was no longer optional. It is no longer made of silk and embroidery instead it was made of a heavy blue canvas.
Imagine living in a tent 24/7 in the hottest day in Canada. Are you warm and isolated? Or are you sweaty and disgusting? Now imagine you’re carrying an extra 15 pounds inside this tent while you are walking. Sound like fun? Not to me.
The Taliban insisted that the burka was required to keep the women “modest” and to keep them secluded from men. It was like women were to blame for men wanting them. This extremism has been condemned by many countries.
To date, the burka is not required in Afghanistan but some local warlords still enforce its use. And some women, who would not wear the burka otherwise, do so for their safety.
The women in this story were purposely left without names or faces because this is the way they have been treated all their lives.
It is my wish, my hope that all women, regardless of the country they live in, the religion they practice, or the color of their skin, can afford the rights of the men who co-exist with them. Imagine if this was the case in the future; that the past would not be reflected in the faces of our daughters and our daughter’s daughters. This would be as close to utopia as most would get.
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