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Saturday, 24 November, 2001, 16:38 GMT
Kabul women keep the veil
Woman wearing burqa
Many women in Kabul will continue to wear the Burqa
Kate Clark

I met Nargis as she was hurrying home with her mother-in-law from a wedding. "Come in for a cup of tea," she said. "See how we live."

Her home is a broken down, bombed out house in the west of Kabul. Sunlight comes through the roof - where it exists. The walls are pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes.


When there's peace, when there's security, we will be glad to take it off.

Woman in Kabul
The neighbouring houses were all destroyed from the mid-1990s rocketing of Kabul. Nargis - her name means narcissus in Persian - lives in an area of utter desolation.

Once we were inside, Nargis' father-in-law took over the conversation, but eventually, I got his permission to interview Nargis herself, although he did not allow me to take her photograph.

She sat with her back to my translator, a large shawl over her head, breast-feeding her youngest child.

Conscripts

"Of course I'm pleased that the Taleban have fled," she said, "It will mean my brothers can come home.

They're in Pakistan. I haven't seen them for years. The Taleban were trying to conscript them."

What Nargis is most interested in is the possibility that I might be able to get her a UN or Red Cross ration card.

Women's rights demonstration
Many women have missed out on education

She counts out what she thinks she might be given on my fingers, "Flour, oil, rice, beans." Her eyes are bright at the prospect that she might be able to feed her children properly.

She laughs when I ask her whether she'll try to get a job or go outside without wearing a burqa.

"I'm illiterate," she says, "Where could I get a job? If I could work, maybe I wouldn't wear the burqa, but I go out so rarely, it wouldn't be worth not wearing it."

Food not rights

Nargis missed schooling because of the war. She was married at 14 and at 18 has three children.

What the fall of the Taleban means to her, is hope for the reunion of her family and hope for an upturn in the economy.


I'm illiterate... Where could I get a job?

Nargis

She makes no mention of dress codes, girls' schools or work for women.

When Western politicians decry the Taleban┐s treatment of Afghan women, it is difficult to recognise the picture they paint.

Many stories repeated as fact never happened - at least not as far as I can judge from living in Kabul for two years.

Exaggerated stories

Afghan women never had their nails removed for wearing nail varnish or their feet beaten for wearing white socks.

Indeed, in Kabul, they walked proudly - wearing high heels, platform shoes, fish-net stockings and tailored trousers, letting their burqas flow behind them to reveal what clothes they wore underneath.

Kabul sign
Kabul is a sophisticated city by Afghan standards
They ran underground schools for their daughters. There was always resistance, despite the rule of conservative village mullahs and their fearsome religious police.

Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country where most women live in seclusion. In areas where Taleban-type restrictions are normal life will go on as it has always done.

In more liberal areas and among more liberal families, parents will now legally be able to educate their daughters - if the schools exist - and women will be legally be able to work - if they can find jobs.

Professional women

There will be state-sanctioned room for manoeuvre. Nargis' daughters will go to school and their lives will be different.

For the many professional women in Kabul, the rule of the Taleban was a nightmare, a denial of who they were.

It was a matter of great joy in Kabul when they heard female voices on the state radio the day after the Taleban fled. It was a symbol that women could once again be public citizens in Afghanistan.

women in burqas
The burqa gives women protection

However, even in a city like Kabul - with a sophisticated population by Afghan standards - only a tiny number of women are taking off the burqa.

For the moment, it is useful. The city has been taken over by an armed faction whose soldiers come from areas where most women live in purdah.

The last time this faction was in Kabul - along with other former communist and mujahideen factions in the mid 1990s - women's lives were ruled by fear of rocketing, looting and rape.

The burqa gives women protection, allowing them to move round their city without harassment.

The burqa was never oppressive in itself. Being forced to wear it was the oppression. For now, almost all women in Kabul are still choosing to veil.

"When we feel comfortable. When there's peace, when there's security," one woman told me, "we will be glad to take it off."

See also:

23 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan women enjoy their freedom
23 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan women to attend talks
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan women shed their burqas
18 Oct 01 | Forum
Women and the Taleban
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's clandestine army
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