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Watchful, but Still Shrouded

Although the Taliban is gone, Afghan women remain wary of the future. A culture of subservience has them awaiting male direction.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Beneath the sky-blue burka obscuring her budding womanhood, 16-year-old Parwana Yusufi sorts through her hopes and worries.

The veiled garment is hated by virtually every woman forced to wear it. First, it is hazardous to movement, vision and breathing. Then there is the dehumanizing effect for the women of recognizing one another only by their worn-out shoes.

But for those most damaged by five years of fanatic Taliban rule, the burka remains a safe refuge from which to wait and see whether the outside world is truly changing.

"I'll take it off when everyone else does," Parwana says. "No one has told us yet that it's permitted to go without it."

Throughout Afghanistan, women are still waiting for word from male-dominated authority about what they can wear, what they can do, even what they can aspire to.

How much better women will fare in newly pacified Afghanistan remains an open question. There are two outspoken and self-assured women in the new 30-member Cabinet, and interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai has voiced his intention to see women accorded more rights. But Afghanistan has long been a patriarchal society where women have the status of men's belongings. Socially segregated even at weddings and funerals, they remain unwelcome wherever men gather, be that at sports events, political gatherings or the newly reopened cinemas.

Before the Taliban took over Kabul, the capital, in 1996, women were legally allowed to hold jobs, drive cars, own property, divorce and take their husbands to court for physical abuse. But those rights existed only on paper.

A legacy of subservience has endured despite the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, which many women now look back on with guilty nostalgia, for while their country was subordinate to Moscow, they were encouraged to work and see themselves as men's equals. Today, despite the Taliban's departure, most women still don their despised burkas whenever they are in public and automatically settle themselves in the trunks of cars to leave the seats for the men.

The young women now emerging from years of domestic isolation will probably have brighter prospects only if their men want that.

"I'd like my daughters to become doctors. I believe we will once again be a country where educated people are respected," says Ahmad Yusufi, father of Parwana and a rare Afghan male in his insistence that having seven daughters is a blessing, not a burden.

Yusufi's wife, Qotsia Moshref, was wed at 15 by parental arrangement. She had to leave school when she bore her first child 10 months later but went back between each of her pregnancies. She was 35 when she finished high school.

"I won't let [Parwana] be married until she's finished her education," says Moshref. "There have already been families who have asked for her, but we now have the right to say no."

For Some, Independence Is Only a Fantasy

Across this city of shattered homes and cratered roads, the young women of another family also yearn for knowledge but remain at home to do their father's bidding. Valued less than livestock because of the drain they place on family resources, the four unmarried daughters of bathhouse owner Nashid, who goes by one name, fantasize about careers and independence.

"I would like to be a pharmacist," 24-year-old Florence dreams aloud. She managed to finish high school before the Taliban halted girls' education, but now she is betrothed to a cousin she hasn't seen since childhood and must go to his household whenever he deems it time to marry.

As the oldest of Nashid's daughters still left at home, Florence spends her days in the family's squalid outdoor kitchen, plucking poultry and stewing vegetables for her father's dinner. In no hurry to marry, she bides her time embroidering borders on silk trousers. She spends her modest earnings on sweets for herself and her favorite sister.

"She takes care of me," Farial, 20, says with a laugh. "I hope she never gets married, so we can live like this forever."

But the sisters accept their fate with resignation.

"We must do what our father wants. It's our custom," says Farial, shrugging off her lack of a say in her future.

Choice is a concept slow in coming to Afghan women. Though some now in middle age caught a whiff of independence during the Soviet occupation, the very notion of deciding one's destiny has been drummed out of female consciousness by successively severe regimes and their narrow interpretations of Islam.

Muslim fundamentalists toppled the Soviet puppet regime in 1992. The moujahedeen warriors who fought the Soviets imposed a harsh version of Sharia, the Islamic code, in effect relegating women to being chattel even before the Taliban issued formal edicts proscribing women's public roles four years later.

Sima Samar, the new deputy prime minister responsible for women's affairs, says the women of Afghanistan are still too frightened to seize the chance for change.

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