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Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Afghan women's life in the shadows
Woman carries aid supplies dropped by US plane near Khodja Bahouddin
Life in the anti-Taleban camp seems just as harsh
By Caroline Wyatt in Khodja Bahouddin, northern Afghanistan

The women of this town are most noticeable by their absence. Today is market day and the ramshackle wooden stalls are bustling. They are full of men selling battered green water melons or chairs made out of old ammunition cases.

But all the stallholders and all their customers are men.

They give me a last wry smile and then the veil comes down over their faces and the lively women that I've spent the day with turn back into silent shadows

Outside the market, occasionally a woman passes by, made anonymous and invisible by her head-to-toe covering - the burkha - which leaves only a tiny mesh over the eyes to see through.

Here in this town, run by the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance, the local governor has banned women from the market. He is, I'm told, a bit of a traditionalist.

By dusk, just after five o'clock, there are no women on these dusty streets at all. So where are they and what do they think of what's happening to their country?

Face to face

All the requests made by curious Western journalists to talk to the women here have been politely turned down. It is not possible, we're told - women here don't talk to journalists.

Fahima Morodi was the one exception. She's a lively, attractive woman in her late 30s, with dark brown eyes, who runs the only women's centre in this province. It is funded by a French relief agency, Actit, and it is the only place in town where women are allowed to work outside the home.

The centre is on the edge of town, up a pitted track in the sand and hidden behind high walls.

Afghan woman in burkha in Peshawar, Pakistan
Some have compared the shapeless burkha to a burial shroud

An old man guarding the gate looks at us suspiciously before letting us in.

To my surprise, none of the women in the compound was wearing the burkha, just a brightly coloured headscarf over loose-fitting shirts and trousers.

Fahima welcomed us in fluent Russian. She studied economics in Moldova just before the Soviet Union collapsed. Smiling broadly, Fahima tells me how she met her husband there, another Afghan student.

Her family were liberal enough to allow her to marry the man of her choice. It is extremely unusual here.

After 15 years of marriage, she says, they have seven children - the average for most Afghan families. Fahima says she does not want any more, although there is not much she can do about it - contraception doesn't exist here.

While we talk, several women sit chatting in a back room, their hands moving fast above the clack of ancient wooden sewing machines. Almost all of them have been widowed by the Taleban.

This is the only way they can feed their children. For sewing five garments a day they receive five kilos of wheat each.

Education and health

Fahima, though, is determined that they will receive more here, in the form of the education they never had.

Only 15% of women in Afghanistan can read and write. Education for girls was only ever a priority for the Westernised elite of the bigger cities.

So for two hours a day, behind the mud walls of the women's centre, Soraya Mokhtar teaches the widows the intricate Arab characters from a large and battered book.

Soraya looks like a young Benazir Bhutto, with huge kohl-rimmed eyes. Like Fahima, she is softly spoken but with very definite opinions.

The Taleban are wrong, she says, to forbid women an education. Islam does allow it and women need to be able to teach their children.

Afghan refugee returning from Iran
Many Afghan women are not only covered up but have to wear noiseless shoes

But reading and writing isn't all they are learning.

In the afternoons another teacher arrives. Fawzia teaches health and hygiene, mainly using pictures drawn on a cotton cloth. She shows the women how to keep food clean and free of flies and how to diagnose childhood illnesses.

One in four children here will die before their fifth birthday. The hospital down the road is a sophisticated mud hut and its doctors must watch as one female patient dies slowly of a curable cancer when there is nothing they can do. That is where Fahima's husband works.

Hopes for the future

I ask her whether life here under the Northern Alliance is any better for women than under the Taleban. She has experienced both, although she did flee Kabul soon after the Taleban took power.

She pauses and thinks carefully. She hates the Taleban, she says, and she hates what they have done to her country. And yet she also hates wearing the burkha that the women of this town must wear at all times outside their home.

Fahima looks at me then and smiles again. The day we go back to Kabul, she says, I shall throw off my veil and celebrate. And the other women laugh.

Most are from the countryside here in the north. Their husbands insist they wear the burkha. Not to, they tell me, would bring shame on their family and insults on the streets.

University dream

Fahima nods. Her eldest daughter is 14. This year she officially became an adult and that means wearing the full veil. She hates it, says Fahima - she finds it very hard to shake off her childhood freedom.

Already, her daughter has had several offers of marriage from local families. Fahima wants her daughter to wait. She hopes that she too can have a university education. But that all depends on what happens next here.

If the Taleban are defeated, perhaps Fahima and her family can move back to Kabul and maybe the women of Afghanistan will again be allowed to learn and to work - at least in the cities.

It is five o'clock now and the sewing machines suddenly go quiet. It is time for the women to go home and cook for their families.

With a sigh, Fahima, Soraya and Fawzia each pick up their burkha and walk towards the gate. Before it opens each pulls the folds of the patterned material over her head.

They give me a last wry smile and then the veil comes down over their faces and the lively women that I've spent the day with turn back into silent shadows.

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt
reports on the burkha, an item of Islamic dress worn by Afghan women
See also:

25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's clandestine army
27 Jun 01 | South Asia
Inside Afghanistan: Behind the veil
08 Jan 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghanistan: Through veiled eyes
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