Now we have only our dreams
Afghan women in exile 

This piece first appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue of the journal Conscience.

by Adele M. Stan

PESHAWAR--To Western eyes, the ancient, dusty city of Peshawar, Pakistan, seems hardly a city at all. Some 20 miles from Afghanistan's eastern border, the place comes across as an inchoate mix of sleepy suburban sprawl and pockets of bustling commerce. The business transacted in the main bazaar seems innocent enough at first glance, a mix of retailers trafficking in the commodities of ordinary life--clothing, electronics, foodstuffs and the like. The stalls that hold nothing but crutches are your first clues of the turmoil that lies just beyond the legendary Khyber Pass.

Travel a bit off the beaten path and you'll find where the real money is made in Peshawar, in the markets where the yields of gunsmiths and opium farmers compete for hard currency. Soon you notice that those clusters of overgrown, walled domiciles house not families, but scores of aid agencies charged with the mission of serving a refugee population that, in this town alone, is one million strong. Though the landscape is flat and arid, the monotony is broken by the sight of Afghanistan's spectacular mountain peaks rising in the distance.

This is Taliban country, every bit as much a birthplace of the extremist Muslim movement as its self-proclaimed place of origin in southern Afghanistan. The myth of the Taliban, promoted by the media, is that of an indigenous movement that is representative of a regional Afghan culture. But while the Taliban may have won their first battle in the southern city of Kandahar, hometown to the movement's enigmatic leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, it could be argued that the movement was born here, in the refugee camps of Peshawar and other border towns, where young men who have known a lifetime of war studied a brand of Islam promoted by outsiders.

The madrassahs or religious schools that attracted the young camp dwellers took their model from those of Deoband, a town in Northern India.

Along the way, agents of the Islamist Pakistani government encouraged the religious students, many of whom had never known life inside Afghanistan, to form militia groups. As was perhaps inevitable, the taliban applied their own spin to these South Asian ideas, eventually concocting an Islam that was full of surprises for the clerics of Deoband, the mullahs of Pakistan and a majority of the people of Afghanistan.

Once they seized the capital city of Kabul in 1996 from their former compatriots in the mujahadeen forces (the Islamic warriors who shamed the Soviets out of Afghanistan), the Taliban captured the world's attention with a series of draconian religious edicts or fatwas. These include the public amputations of the hands of convicted thieves, and the public executions of capital offenders, all carried out weekly in a Kabul arena. But what set the world aghast was a set of punishments designed especially for women and girls, simply for the crime of having been born female. These edicts stand today.

Women were expelled from public life, including virtually any kind of paid employment. They were banned from public view, commanded to wear a garment known as a burqua, which covers a woman from head to toe, revealing not even her eyes. Dressed as such, a she is condemned to viewing the world through a two-inch by three-inch piece of mesh inserted into the garment's face-covering. (A burqua that is deemed by the religious police to be too short can earn a woman a public beating. Since a burqua must be held closed by the wearer's hands, it makes the daily business of living extremely difficult.

Schools were closed to girls, who were also forbidden to play outside. Virtually all medical care is denied to most Afghan women. First-floor windows of homes in which women live must be painted black.

Today in Afghanistan, the situation for women remains nearly hopeless, creating a terrible irony: the very refugee camps that spawned the Taliban are now home to the regime's ideological opposition.

* * *

At the gate to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp, a cluster of uniformed Pakistanis armed with Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles eyeball and interview those who would enter the site. Once I pass muster, I proceed along a road that quickly dissolves amid a tangle of ravines and embankments created by the quarrying of the yellowish earth that forms the walls of dwellings the refugees have built for themselves. Some 50,000 people live in this camp alone; this is where the new arrivals, those who flee the Taliban's Afghanistan, end up.

For women, this place often seems no better than the one they left behind. Here they remain under pressure by taliban sympathizers, and reports of rapes perpetrated by the security forces have become an issue. And since the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) refuses to include women who flee their homeland because of the taliban's gender-specific repression in its classification of legitimate refugees, such women risk denial of food and services (unless they can pay for them, which few, if any, can) if they dare to be honest when claiming their reason for flight.

If there is any bright spot in Nasir Bagh, it is the Bibi Mariam School, at which some 3,000 refugee children--half of them girls--receive an education in tents provided the UN or in the mud-walled stalls that surround the rows of green canvas classrooms. Because of the edict against female employment inside Afghanistan and a general lack of job opportunities for Afghans in Pakistan, the quality of the teachers is high. I encountered a woman who had been an economist in a government ministry now teaching math to a group of adolescent girls, and another who had been a lawyer teaching the Qur'an to her young charges, their eager faces framed by white cotton veils. When questioned, the girls told us unequivocally of how the Holy Book guaranteed them the same rights to an education as it did their brothers.

Back in Peshawartown, a group of 12 women leaders from the refugee community gathers at the Agency Coordination Bureau for Aid to Afghanistan (ACBAR) for the benefit of this foreign reporter. The women hail from a range of aid agencies. Most are dressed in the modest yet comfortable Islamic dress that, in the days before the burqua became mandatory, defined the Afghan style. Together they represent the gamut of Afghanistan's ethnic groups--Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara. Aside from their gender, the women have another thing in common: a knowledge of the Qur'an and a belief in its mandate for their rights, along with concern about the effects of the Taliban's rule on the perception of Islam in the West. Belquis R.A., who runs the women's desk at ACBAR, urges me to take this message back to the U.S.: "Do not judge Islam by what some Muslims do. I mean, Islam is not what the Taliban does; it's totally something else."

In Islamabad, we found that sentiment echoed by the 20-something leaders of the Afghan Women's Network there. "We don't know where they get this idea to treat, to behave with women so badly," one women leader explains. "The Taliban, they don't understand the Holy Qur'an; they are uneducated people."

In the madrassahs in which the Taliban study, she says, the emphasis is on learning to recite the whole book in its original language--Arabic. The native tongue of the Taliban is Pashto, so few really know the messages contained in the verses they chant so eloquently, she says.

"I think that [the Qur'an] is more than a religious book," she asserts. "Because if someone reads this book and understands it, he understands all the words about the rights [of women], about the nature of all things. Of course, our Book is a weapon for women-against the men! Because if we know about our rights, we can use it as a weapon against the men."

* * *

At an Islamabad high school cobbled together by Afghan refugees, six young women from an English class have gathered to meet me. As their classmates frolick in the after-school sun, the girls tell the story of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad: how she was a businesswoman, how she had called the Prophet into her employ before she asked for his hand in marriage.

If they could be anything they want when they grow up, we ask them, what would they be?

"I want to be a lawyer and get the rights of women," says the first girl. All the others, it turns out, want to be doctors.

When asked why the unanimity in vocational aspiration, a chatty girl asserts, "They [the Taliban] won't let us go to the doctor. Therefore, we ourselves want to be doctors."

One future physician, though, is going for a dual career. "I want to be a politician," she says, her veiled head bobbing. "Yeah, I like politics very, very much--and I also want to be a brain surgeon--a special brain surgeon."

"--against Taliban!" pipes up the would-be lawyer.

The girls erupt in a round of giggles so infectious that it would be easy to lose oneself in the optimism. Then the the voice of a thoughtful Qur'an teacher at the Afghan Women's Network, not yet 30 years old, echoes in my mind. She had really wanted to be a journalist, the religion teacher explained. "But you are still young," I offered. "You could still do it."

The Pollyannish suggestion planted a pained look on her lovely face. "No," she said urgently, her brow furrowed. "Now it is not possible. Now we have only our dreams."

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