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For those who stayed home, determined mothers have found ways to get schooling for their daughters. Rawshan and Nasima, both 30, are married to the same man, Abdul Qadir, 55, a porter in a Kabul market who makes about $1 a day. Rawshan has one son and three daughters by Abdul. Nasima has one son and two daughters. Desperately poor, they live in a house peppered with bullet holes. For the past two years, Rawshan's eldest daughter Wahida, 10, has been going to a secret school in an abandoned building. She has only one hour of lessons a day, given by local women who volunteer their services, but she is slowly picking up the rudiments of math and learning how to read. "I would like my daughter to work outside the home," says Rawshan. "I stayed in the home, and I have had a terrible life."
Next to education, women's health suffered the worst consequences of religious rule. The life expectancy of Afghan women now is just 44 years. There are 17 maternal deaths per 1,000 live births, the second worst rate in the world, just behind war-ravaged Sierra Leone. The statistics only hint at what medical care for women is like in a nation where a male doctor is not allowed to give a thorough physical examination to a female patient. Women had to be examined wearing the full burka. Male doctors sometimes had to stand in a hallway shouting instructions to a female assistant. A doctor could be imprisoned for talking to a female patient who was not fully covered.
Dr. Sima Samar left Afghanistan in 1984 but runs two hospitals in Afghanistan as well as 10 clinics from her base in Quetta, Pakistan. "There was a lot of harassment from the Taliban," she says. "They would enter the hospital at 1 in the morning saying they had received a report that our female staff was not dressed properly or was talking with the male staff."
Even with the final defeat of the Taliban, when and if that occurs, Afghan women will remain in a vexed position. The forces vying to take the Taliban's place are not always friendly to women. Within the Northern Alliance, there is a fundamental split between Western-minded technocrats and conservative religious figures. Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance's media-savvy Foreign Minister, is a technocrat. In his speeches he makes sure to point out that in Alliance-held areas women go to school. He goes so far as to support women's joining the government.
Not so Alliance President Burhanuddin Rabbani, once a foremost proponent of expanding the burka's reach across Afghanistan. More recently, Rabbani allowed to an interviewer that "wearing a head scarf is enough in the cities." But in the Northern Alliance stronghold of Faizabad, his acolytes make sure that all women are completely covered. "Rabbani is better than the Taliban," says Farahnaz Nazir, a women's rights activist in the Northern Alliance town of Khoja Bahauddin. "But he is still very conservative. He does not believe that women are equal."
That attitude extends into the rank and file. Zulmai is a Northern Alliance soldier lounging on a tank in the town of Farkhar. Ask him how many brothers he has, and he proudly tells you four, all soldiers. Ask how many sisters, and he says none. Press him repeatedly, and he finally admits to three. Why did he deny them? "Because girls are not important." He shrugs. "They do not count."