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The Taliban restored order to Afghan cities, but it was order of a sinister kind. Most of the leadership and the fighters were Pashtun tribesmen from rural areas of the south around Kandahar. In some respects, the harshness of their treatment of women was their attempt to extend across all Afghanistan the primitive social order of their villages at home. And it allowed the leadership to claim that Taliban rule had conferred on its male warriors a new degree of authority. The nation was a shambles, but at least the women were firmly under control.
The rules were enforced capriciously, sometimes ferociously, by religious police from the Orwellian-named Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Ministry thugs wielding lengths of steel cable would beat women in the street for infractions like wearing white socks. "If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes," an early decree from the ministry warned, they "should never expect to go to heaven."
It is hard to find a woman in Kabul now who does not remember a beating at the hands of the Taliban. As it consolidated power, its orders became increasingly bizarre and sadistic, based on its extreme interpretations of Koranic instructions. One of these demanded punishment for women who allowed their shoes to make noise when they walked down the street. But this surreal pettiness masked real misery. The ban on work for most women had a disastrous effect on schooling for both sexes, since as many as 70% of all Afghan teachers were women. Excluding them from the classroom meant that boys had few teachers to instruct them.
The work ban extended to widows, who were left no recourse but to beg. In a nation with as many as a million widows--out of a population of just 20 million--that decree alone produced a silent disaster. Sabza Gul, 32, now begs at the Kabul bus station and makes about 50[cents] on a good day. Some years ago, when she was still living in a village north of the city, her husband went blind. The family became dependent on whatever money their son Humayoun, 17, could earn as a field worker. The fields were close to the occasional fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces. Eight months ago he was killed by a stray rocket. "There is no work for women," Sabza says. "We had nobody to look after the family, so I came to Kabul." Now that the Taliban is gone, she will try to find work cleaning offices or homes.
All schooling was forbidden to girls over the age of eight. A recent U.N. report estimated that at most 7% of Afghan girls were enrolled in school, compared with roughly half the boys. In Peshawar, the Pakistani city near the border to which many Afghan refugees have escaped, Masooda is a shy second-grade girl--but she is 16. She left school five years ago, on the day the Taliban entered her central Afghan town of Kota Sangi and beat her with a cane for not wearing a burka. When her family fled to Pakistan two weeks ago to escape U.S. bombing, she finally resumed lessons. "I once knew how to read, but I've forgotten everything," she says. "I'm ashamed to be so much older than everyone else."