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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Doctors Cast Off Taliban Edicts

Health: Some female patients died because male surgeons were forbidden to look at them while guiding women colleagues who had to wear burkas.

November 21, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban were so obsessed with hiding women from men's eyes that even a male surgeon could not see his dying patient's exposed flesh. He had to operate virtually blind, or not at all.

Dr. Mohammed Hashem, the director of Kabul's Malalai Maternity Hospital, often had to stand in the hallway and give instructions through an open door to a junior, female doctor. Any closer, and he probably would have ended up in a Taliban jail.

The Taliban's strict dress code for women required a female doctor to wear a burka, a head-to-toe robe that conceals everything but a woman's shoes, whenever there was a man in the room assisting.

Not only is it difficult to practice medicine from beneath a cloak, while trying to see through the burka's heavy eye screen, but the robe is not very hygienic. Neither is the long beard that Hashem was forced to grow to adhere to another Taliban decree.

"There was no choice. One had to obey," Hashem said in an interview Tuesday. "If one didn't obey, he would be fired from his job and his private medical examination rooms would be closed. He would lose all medical privileges. We fought with the Taliban many times, but it was no use. We just kept working nervously."

If a woman's X-ray indicated she had a tumor in her womb, Hashem was not allowed to perform a proper examination. He could only reach under the sheet that covered every inch of his patient and hope that by touching her abdomen he could detect with his hands what his eyes were not permitted to see.

"We were trying to save lives and we were also trying to obey," Hashem said. "If they caught us while talking with a woman without her burka, we would be put in prison for two or three months."

Hashem, who has been a surgeon for 30 years, managed to toe the Taliban line closely enough to stay out of prison. But he has no doubt that by obeying the bizarre edicts, he failed to save several lives.

It often happened when women arrived from villages after giving birth in primitive, dirty conditions. By the time the women reached Kabul, the capital, they were close to death. Still, Hashem could not get close enough to them to use the experience that only he had.

"There was a patient who had given birth at home," he said. "She had had a great deal of blood loss. We tried to help her, but she died at 8 p.m. I had to stop at the door and give advice to the women doctors."

Hashem will have to live with the painful thought of what might have been if it were not for the Taliban, but at least now he can again feel the joy of witnessing a new life being born.

For the last five years, Hashem was not allowed to deliver a single baby. On the morning of Nov. 13, after he was sure the Taliban had abandoned the capital during the night, Hashem scrubbed and went straight into the delivery room.

There were 84 Afghans born at Malalai hospital on the day the Taliban fled, and Hashem wanted to be sure he was there to welcome at least some of them into a changed world.

"The Taliban didn't consider a woman a human being," Hashem said. "If one died, they simply looked for another because they were trained to do so."

The Northern Alliance administration now in control of Kabul brought Afghan women out of the darkness symbolically by putting several of them on state-run television, which began broadcasting over the weekend for the first time in five years.

But on the streets of Kabul, progress marches much more slowly. Although the alliance insists that women may now choose whether to show their faces in public, by far the majority still cover up out of tradition and fear.

At the maternity hospital, patients covered in burkas still speak to their husbands and other male visitors through holes in the wall of the waiting room. The men are not allowed inside the building.

A few hundred Afghan women threw off their burkas Tuesday and gathered to march on the U.N. headquarters to demand a voice in talks on the country's political future. But Northern Alliance police said the women did not have permission to march and ordered them to hold their protest next week.

Although the Taliban banned most women from working, they made an exception for doctors and nurses who treat other women. But many who worked at Malalai quit rather than function under the harsh restrictions the Taliban imposed on them, Hashem said.

The number of nurses dropped from 150 to 70 during the regime's five-year rule, while 15 of the hospital's 60 female doctors left their jobs. Because girls and women were not allowed to go to school, the supply of new female medical workers dried up. However, some female physicians have returned in recent days, Hashem added.

The Taliban also failed on a regular basis to pay the hospital staff. Doctors and nurses have not received salaries in six months. Hashem, the highest-paid physician at the maternity hospital, is supposed to earn about $30 a month. Nurses earn half that.

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