All Osema wanted was a bag of onions. The soft-spoken former nurse, who had moved to northern Afghanistan from Kabul to flee repressive Taliban rule, was making her first trip to the local market.
Around her face, she wrapped an embroidered green scarf; her lips were painted red. By the time she had passed the turnip and tomato stalls of Yang-e-Qale town, a crowd of jeering men had formed. It was a woman who delivered the first blow, then the men joined in, pelting her with stones. Children finished the job by kicking up swirls of yellow dust, as she lay on the ground shielding her exposed face.
Today, when Osema, 32, walks through the bazaar, only her dark eyelashes are visible from underneath a burka, a billowy head-to-toe shroud with mesh over the eyes. Call it a reality check for those who think Afghan women would be freed from years of oppression if the U.S.-led military campaign brings down the Taliban regime. Osemaís ordeal shows that even in the Taliban-free northern swath of the country, women suffer severe discrimination.
"Peace will be good for the Afghan people," says Hajira, a refugee from Taloqan city, who lives in a canvas tent with her seven children. "But it is too late for women my age. Maybe for my daughtersí daughters, life will be better."
In the mid-1900s, when King Mohammed Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan, wealthy women strolled Kabulís streets in jeans and Western dresses. The Soviets, although brutal in their occupation of the country, maintained womenís rights during their decade-long rule. But when the Islam-inspired mujahedin government took over in 1992, life began to change. Women still could attend university, especially to study in the medical and educational fields, but many started wearing head scarves to appease the mullahs. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, its fanatical clerics erased all remaining rights: women are forbidden to leave the house without a male chaperone, windows are painted so that females inside canít tempt passersby and women are stoned to death for adultery. The future of women depends on who ends up running the country. The Northern Alliance, the loose coalition of former mujahedin fighting the Taliban, could play a major role. Abdullah Abdullah, the Allianceís smooth-talking Foreign Minister, vowed recently that women would be part of any government he helped form. But in the Allianceís garrison town of Khoja Bahauddin women walk soundlessly in full burka. "The majority of Afghan men do not believe women should have rights," says Farahnaz Nazir, head of the Afghanistan Womenís Association, the only womenís organization operating openly in the country today. "Taliban or Northern Alliance, there are fanatics everywhere."
The Alliance can claim some progress: it allows Nazirís group to exist. But she is the only woman in Khoja Bahauddin who doesnít wear a burka in public. Her privileged status as an overseas-educated aid worker partially protects her from the beating Osema received. But when Nazir shakes hands with a Western man, she looks around furtively. It is the same motion countless Afghan women make every day, the rapid adjusting of veils to cover their faces or the eyes quickly downcast when men enter the room. To help empower women, Nazir runs workshops that include reading the Koran, Islamís holy book. "If women can read the Koran themselves," she says, "they will learn there is nothing in Islam that says women do not have the same rights as men."
The Northern Alliance also points to schools like the one in Yang-e-Qale, a remote hamlet a half-hourís jeep ride from Khoja Bahauddin, as proof that it promotes womenís rights. More than 50 veiled girls crowd the Yang-e-Qale schoolís first-grade class, reading the Koran. But in the eighth-grade class, only 12 students sit at the desks, their burkas hanging on hooks in the back of their classroom.
Many parents believe a couple of yearsí education is all their daughters need to become good housewives. Other girls in the area attend classes only because international aid groups give extra food to refugee families that send their daughters to school. Most of the teachers are still in their teens and will quit their jobs once they marry.
The schoolís 17-year-old history instructor, who asked not to be named, studied the subject for just two years. She giggles shyly when asked to cite examples of Afghanistanís heritage. "We invented the burka, I think," she says, after much thought. Just then, the male principal peers into her classroom. She adjusts her veil modestly. "But, I tell you," she adds, in a whisper, "I donít think the burka was a very great invention."