In the streets of Kabul, you can see something these days that has not been glimpsed there for almost five years--women's faces. Now that the Taliban has fled the city, a few brave women have shed the burka--the head-to-toe garment, to Western eyes a kind of body bag for the living, made mandatory by the defeated religious leadership. Men sometimes look in astonishment at these faces, as if they were comets or solar eclipses. So do other women. From the moment in 1996 that the Taliban took power, it sought to make women not just obedient but nonexistent. Not just submissive but invisible. For five years, it almost succeeded.
The Taliban's ongoing collapse guarantees at least some improvement in the lives of Afghan women. They are emerging from the houses that they once could not leave except in the company of a male relative. Some are returning to the jobs they had to give up when the Taliban barred them from all employment except for a small number of health-care jobs dedicated to women. Even more remarkable, Kabul's sole television station now features a woman announcer. In a country where people were required to paint their windows black so that passersby could not see the face of any woman who might be at home, the announcer appears onscreen without a veil.
But just as the meltdown of Taliban military power has not brought real peace to Afghanistan, neither has the disappearance of its hated religious police brought women freedom overnight. Afghan society is tribal and conservative. Except for a small minority of educated professionals in Kabul, women have long been relegated to a subservient role. In rural areas of northern Afghanistan that are under the control of the Northern Alliance, the burka is still universal, though no law requires it. Even in Kabul, where Western-style skirts were not uncommon before the Taliban, many women say the burka is the least of their concerns. Dr. Rahima Zafar Staniczai, head of the Rabia Balkhi hospital for women, remembers how Taliban religious police would beat her in the street any time they caught her rushing to work uncovered: "They would hit us and spit on us, and then we would have to come in to the hospital to do our work." All the same, she says, what women wear is a secondary issue. She lists the real priorities. "First we need peace. Then we need a central government. Then we need education. After all that, we will be in a position to make a decision on the burka."
And even when something like peace and order returns to Afghanistan, just how sympathetic to the rights of women the next ruling order will be, no one can yet say. Women have not suffered the systematic oppression under the Northern Alliance that was the signature of Taliban rule. But the years the Alliance ruled all Afghanistan, 1992 to '96, are remembered by many Afghans for the brutality of the warlords. Some Alliance leaders are as hostile to notions of women's equality as any Taliban mullahs.
If the future is uncertain, the recent past is an all-too-well-substantiated fact. The Taliban made Afghanistan a laboratory for the systematic oppression of women. What it did will haunt that nation and the world for years to come.
THE WOMEN SPEAK