Shedding their burqas - Post-Taliban changes will take time

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Scores of women shed their burqas and marched through the streets of Kabul to demand new rights Tuesday. Then, dutiful Afghan wives, they covered up again and hurried home.

"Change will take a little time," allowed Soriya Parlika, the protest organizer who headed Afghanistan's Red Crescent Society before the Taliban forced women to leave their jobs, "but this a start."

The sudden collapse of harsh and austere Taliban rule has lightened the mood for men and women in this tradition-bound capital of ancient ways. However, there is not exactly dancing in the streets.

It is Ramadan, when Muslims fast all day for a month and seldom pursue any new course. Leadership also remains in a vacuum -- an unstable condition in a place like Afghanistan where disputes are often settled with gunpowder.

The 21st century may eventually penetrate the crumbling mud walls and medieval markets of Kabul, Afghan elders and intellectuals agree, but nothing here happens in a hurry.

In some places, like the little cluster of electronics shops downtown, shopkeepers are ebullient.

Mirza Mohammed has sold 100 of the television sets he kept hidden for years, and more are on the way from Pakistan. A shop next door features DVDs of Indian films in boxes adorned by busty beauties with bare shoulders.

Won't be missed

"We have freedom now," he said, over the heads of customers crowding around him. "No one will miss the Taliban."

A few doors down, a 17-year-old shop owner who calls himself only Ahrash does a brisk business in homemade satellite dishes cut from tin cans. Fancier factory models can capture U.S. and European channels. His father smuggles TV sets, which sell faster than he can supply them.

Asked if he was getting rich, Ahrash laughed. "I'm already rich," he said. "Now I'm also free."

His friend, Mohammed Daoud, added, "If I catch any Taliban, I will kill them, whatever penalty I'd have to pay." Religious police smashed and burned his stock of banned TVs last year and jailed him for weeks.

In another part of downtown, bright yellow and green letters announce a new beauty parlor. It is decorated inside with photos of women in glamorous hair styles and elaborate makeup.

The bakery next door sells 80 percent more of the sticky sweets and cookies Afghan buy for entertaining than it did before the Taliban left. "People go out now to visit friends," said Abdul Wahed, 25, at the counter. "They have their lives back."

But the euphoria is more subdued in other spots, including in the adobe slums that crawl up low hills around the city.

Asadullah, who also uses a single name, sat in the sun wearing a white skullcap and long gray beard which gave him the air of an extremist mullah. In fact, he is a former traffic police colonel fired by the Taliban.

"We're all very happy," he said. "Before it was like we were in a prison. Those fanatics made people hate Islam. No free speech, no free thought, no cinema, music. I can't say one good thing about them."

Lots of worries

At the same time, he is worried. At 45, he looks 60 from a lifetime of Afghan reality. He drives a taxi, but desperately poor Kabulis take the bus. His children may escape religious school, but they still must eat.

Mostly, he fears for Afghanistan's political future. Intense diplomacy by U.N. envoys and Western leaders are seeking a broad-based government, but all he sees so far are familiar warlords he does not trust.

"If it continues like this, there will be chaos and anarchy," he said, "but at least we have hope."

Embodying the mixed picture are two offices, located side by side in Kabul's only tall building, an 18-story sky scratcher that houses the state power company.

Daoud Abubakar, 29, an engineer who watches the city electricity grid, is elated at the power shift. He whacked off his long beard, and a trendy polo shirt and black jeans replaced his hated requisite gown and baggy pants.

Abubakar's father, a lawyer, died in 1997 of injuries suffered when Taliban police beat him for wearing too short a beard. His mother, a legal assistant who lost her job, stayed home rather than buy a burqa.

In the next office, engineer Matti Ullah was less vehement.

"Everything has two sides," he said. "We were happy to get rid of them, but they also provided security and things functioned."

On Tuesday, the two engineers were scrambling to restore power to the city of one million. Lights went out all over town on Monday afternoon, and they did not expect to get them back on before Wednesday.

Most Kabulis assumed the problem was sabotage by Taliban stragglers of transmission lines from the hydroelectric dam at Sarobie, in the nearby mountains near where four journalists were put to death on Monday.

Ullah prefers a more pragmatic explanation -- a short circuit caused by too much use.

"People have returned to Kabul. It is winter and they are using heaters." He looked worried for a moment and added: "Well, that's what we think."

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