Afghan women reclaim their working life

Saturday, November 24, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- After Humaira's beauty salon was shut by the Taliban, she hid her cans of hairspray, her portraits of coiffured women and her cracked hair dryer. A day after the Islamic militia fled, she reopened for business.

The chairs are old and torn, and the Taliban had smashed her larger mirrors, but Humaira has scraped off the paint they splashed over her "beauty salon" sign. And she's put her posters back on the walls, one showing a sassy young woman in heavily curled pigtails.

A beauty salon reborn, women on the air, and, from this Saturday, no more sexual segregation in the hospitals -- women in the Afghan capital are heading back to work after the collapse of the Taliban social order.

"We were like in prison," Humaira said. "We had no life, nothing for us to do. We were not people."

Afghanistan was always a conservative place, and many women were wearing the burqa, the tentlike, all-enveloping robe, long before the Taliban seized power in 1996.

But the Taliban's extreme reading of Islamic law made the burqa mandatory. Women were barred from holding jobs, and girls over 8 couldn't go to school.

Women were not supposed to move outside their home without a male chaperone. That seemed to be one of the few rules women ignored. They were always seen in small groups, unescorted, seeming to drift along the streets in their billowing burqas.

Shireen, 26, was a government statistician before the Taliban sent her home.

Now she is trudging from one government ministry to the next, looking for work. Like most women in Kabul, she still wears her burqa. She said she's waiting for a regular government to take office and give official clearance to shed the burqa.

For young women who have been unable to acquire other skills during the Taliban years, broadcasting seems to be favored as a quick way back into the job market.

Lack of education

The medical profession also suffered under Taliban strictures.

At Rabia Balkhi hospital for women, female doctors were forbidden to work alongside male colleagues. Starting Saturday, that rule is also dead, by order of the new health ministry. But there is a lot of catching-up to do.

"Our new women doctors are not properly trained," said Dr. Rahina Staniczai, head of the hospital.

The Taliban allowed women to take only three selected medical courses.

"Really this is our biggest problem today -- lack of education," said Staniczai.

At Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, women were secluded on separate floors, hidden behind walls built by the Taliban. The walls are to be torn down today.

One woman waiting to apply for a news reader job at Radio Afghanistan told of being beaten by a Taliban soldier.

Moving aside a tuft of her brown hair to reveal a red weal, Marzia Adeel said it happened while she was buying shoes a few months ago. She couldn't see through the mesh of her burqa and since there was only an elderly salesman in the store, she took a risk and uncovered her head.

Suddenly two Taliban soldiers burst in. One hit her with the cable. As the struggled to get her robe back on, he hit her again.

"I was bleeding. I was scared," she whispered, speaking in the halting English she taught herself during five years of enforced idleness. "The man selling shoes was scared."

Another applicant at the radio station, Parveen Hashafi, said that under Taliban rule "we were neither alive nor dead."

But she wondered whether the world that condemned the Taliban's treatment of women would now force Afghanistan to enshrine their rights in a constitution.

"Or, now that they have what they want, will they forget about us again?" she asked.

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