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Friday, 23 November, 2001, 13:48 GMT
Afghan women enjoy their freedom
Women are enjoying a new lease of life following the withdrawal of the Taleban forces in northern Afghanistan.
Less than 10 days ago the Taleban were flushed out of Taloqan, yet the prevalence of the traditional shawls - burqas - would suggest that little has changed for women.
Figures clad in burqas now dominate the streets of Taloqan.
Women can now walk alone, without being accompanied by what the Taleban used to call a legal guardian - a relative or husband.
They have the freedom to go to hospital without a letter of permission from a Mullah.
And they can be operated on by male surgeons without having to waste time getting the right approval.
But western journalists and aid workers who thought that piles of burqas would be burned in the street as the Taleban made a quick getaway are in shock.
They are incredulous that what has been perceived as the arch symbol of Taleban rule is worn even when the regime is long gone.
This is, of course, a rural town and is by nature much more conservative than its urban counterparts.
But reports coming out of the capital, Kabul, suggest there is little difference there.
I met Qudsiah, a nurse at Taloqan hospital, who told me that the burqa is a traditional feature of Islam.
"Because Afghanistan is an Islamic country and we are Muslims, wearing the burqa is an ancient religious custom here.
"People have been using the burqa for centuries, not years and we can't suddenly change this custom."
Professional women who work in hospitals and schools do not feel in any danger without their burqas.
But in these uncertain times many husbands want and expect their wives to wear the burqa.
Reports of rape cases and crimes against women were rife in the days of the mujahideen government.
Even women with progressive attitudes are unwilling to unveil themselves while the political picture is uncertain.
"When peace comes in Afghanistan," Qudsiah said, "many other women will be ready to take off the burqa.
"But many housewives are made to wear burqas. We cannot say anything about this, and we cannot prevent them.
"Many housewives are forced by their husbands to wear burqas. But if their families let them, they won't wear it, if not they will continue with family law."
"With peace in Afghanistan, they will also give up wearing burqas."
Life for women during the Taleban occupation was extremely difficult, Qudsiah said.
"When the Taleban came to Taloqan we had to treat ourselves like prisoners. We had to work as they wanted us to. We were obliged to carry on our life because we are poor and couldn't afford to leave the country.
"Work ground to a halt for the men of the town and the Taleban gave work to people who they wanted.
"Since the Taleban went, we have reclaimed our freedom," said Qudsiah.
"Now we have taken back authority for ourselves and we can now live freely."
"They can take care of themselves and work in offices and we now have our freedom to a certain a extent. And I hope it will continue in the future.
"We can now go about our business in freedom without any close relative with us."
I ran into severe difficulties writing this article. When I asked Afghan colleagues about meeting women they thought I had other motives. It was as I suspected.
And my Afghan fixer warned me of the difficulties.
As a male journalist, this is not a country to walk into the bazaar and ask to meet some ladies.
Women not seen
Even close friends in Afghanistan have never seen each others' wives and nor are they likely to either.
When I worked in Kabul two years ago, I was told by my Afghan colleague I would never meet his wife. This was separate from Taleban regulations.
At a lunch party held for me in the city of Herat one year earlier, the household's women were confined to a backroom where they cooked and delivered the food. They were never seen.
But behind closed doors things have changed for the better in Taloqan.
There is no longer the fear of zealous Taleban who have been ingrained with the idea that women should not work and should remain at home.
Women in this town are enjoying renewed confidence.
But the rest is a closed world which, even now the Taleban occupation is over, I do not have access to.
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