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Saturday, 8 December, 2001, 17:01 GMT
Afghan women still wait for liberty
The Taleban have gone, but the beatings go on in Kabul
Hilary Andersson

The Taleban regime virtually imprisoned Afghanistan's women for five years, forcing them to stay at home, banning them from and punishing them brutally for minor offences.

Now, the new interim government has come to power, and it has promised change.

I'll get up and beg tomorrow just like I did today. My life is exactly the same now as it was under the Taleban

Oyish Bibi, Afghan woman
The ban has been lifted on women attending schools and working. And women are no longer required to wear the burqa, a cloth that covers them from head to toe with only a small grid for the eyes.

In a dingy apartment block in downtown Kabul, a 21-year-old woman, Alean Haidery holds an English class.

She has been teaching girls secretly for the past three years. Her students used to smuggle books in under their burqas.

Had the Taleban caught Alean she would have been jailed and beaten. But now the classes are held openly, and they are twice the size they were.

Culture swings

Women can also be seen in crowds in Kabul, signing up for jobs. Many worked before the Taleban regime came in, and want their old jobs back. Not so long ago, 70% of Afghanistan's teachers were women.

Afghan women return to school
Before the Taleban 70% of teachers were women

Where women's rights are concerned Afghanistan has gone from one extreme to the other.

In 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul, and this spawned a communist revolution - equality between men and women became an ideological goal.

Women walked the streets in mini skirts and western dress, and no-one blinked an eye.

But years of upheaval and chaos after the Soviets withdrew gave way to the Taleban regime, and a time of sinister, brutal discipline and order.

Physical abuse

Until a month ago women were stoned to death in Kabul's football stadium for adultery. There were beatings with wire cable for crimes such as wearing lipstick, showing ankles, or even laughing too loudly in public.

Afghan woman begging on street
Many have been reduced to begging

All this has a psychological impact on the country that will be hard to erase. Men's attitudes have changed, and women's expectations have been lowered.

In central Kabul every afternoon a local rich man hands out free food. Soldiers stand with whips, and beat the women in the crowd to keep control.

"The men in the crowd listen to us, but the women don't. They need discipline," one soldier said.

Old attitudes here are hard to break.

On the streets no women's faces can be seen. Almost every one still wears the burqa, afraid that they will be scorned by men if they do not.

An Afghan woman breaks down after another beating
A pitiful sight is that of women beggars sitting in ditches on the sides of the roads, their heads bowed. Covered entirely in cloth, they look like ghosts, anonymous, silent and unheard.

Women here have been beaten down. And with few jobs to be had in the new Afghanistan, dignity is scarce.

Oyish Bibi's has lost any dreams she once had. She has been forced into a life of begging because she has no male relative to support her. Like a million other Afghan women she is a widow of the war.

She has seven children, and they all live and sleep with her in one tiny room. Oyish has no chance of getting a job. She was born in a village where there was no school for girls.

"I'll get up and beg tomorrow just like I did today," she said. I am ashamed of what I do, but I have to feed my children. My life is exactly the same now as it was under the Taleban. Nothing's changed for me."

Oyish Bibi is testimony to the fact that if there is real progress here for women it will be excruciatingly slow.

The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"Old attitudes here are hard to break"
See also:

06 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's new women politicians
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghan women want their voices heard
27 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul women's march thwarted
24 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul women keep the veil
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