Boston Globe

THE BURKA
Women shedding cloak of Taliban oppression

By Ilana Ozernoy, Globe Correspondent, 11/26/2001

KABUL, Afghanistan - Nurull Haq used to be a busy merchant, selling 10 to 12 burkas a day. The Taliban forced women to wear the floor-length robes, which hide a woman's face from the eyes of male strangers with a mesh panel. But now that the Taliban are nowhere to be seen around the Afghan capital, Haq hasn't been able to sell a single burka.

''When America started bombing, people thought it was the end for the Taliban, and I couldn't even sell one burka a day,'' said Haq, surprisingly apathetic that his business is failing.

The 30 blue burkas, hanging from nails on the walls of Haq's bazaar stall, are beginning to collect dust. Meanwhile, Haq is already planning a career in government.

''When the government stabilizes, I am going to apply for a job at one of the ministries. If I can't sell off these burkas,'' he said laughingly, ''I'll give them away to charity.''

Even then it will be hard for Haq to get rid of them. Many women in Kabul are too busy celebrating the retreat of the Taliban.

''When I heard the Taliban was gone, I danced around my house,'' said Nasri, 30, who worked in a bank before the Taliban banished her to the house. Like many Afghans she commonly uses only one name. ''I was so happy, I blasted music from the cassette player.''

Like most women in Kabul, Nasri has yet to throw away her burka, but it is evident that small changes are slowly taking place. In the crowded streets, women stroll unescorted, wearing sandals that peek out from underneath their robes. They ride alone in taxis and some are even going back to work.

Awa Nurstani, 29, recently gave her first news broadcast in five years at Radio Afghanistan. She was fired immediately when the Taliban took over Kabul, and she reclaimed her job with the same urgency once the Taliban left.

''I am grateful for this opportunity,'' said Nurstani, opting for a black scarf on top of her stylish up-do instead of a burka. ''I want to tell women that they don't need to fear their government anymore. They should go to work and help rebuild Afghanistan.''

The burka, a cape secured by a skullcap, is the most severe of the Muslim body veils.

Kabul was once a cosmopolitan city. Artists flocked to the capital and women studied agriculture, engineering, and business at the city's university. Enjoying the same freedom that the West offered, they held government jobs, drove cars, and went on dates. When mujahideen moved in on Kabul in 1992, all of that slowly began to change. And once the Taliban took the capital in 1996, women became prisoners in their own homes.

Masuri, 50, finished medical school and went to work as an obstetrician. Pictures of a smiling Masuri in miniskirts are scattered throughout her many photo albums. That was years ago, before she had to obey the inflexible Taliban code of behavior.

''While the Taliban was in power, I felt like a bird trapped in a cage,'' said Masuri, wringing her hands from the painful memory. ''Women became depressed. We were worried for our daughters, for whom there were no schools. The Taliban took away our rights. It was their culture. It was not our religion.''

In her sorrow, Masuri wrote a poem about the Taliban's religious police, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, titled ''Death.''

''Women, in their burkas, had no voice under the whip,'' Masuri wrote. ''Everyone was starving, while the Taliban walked around with resentment and whips.''

The Taliban religious police used brown, foot-long leather whips, 3 inches wide and a half-inch thick, to punish violators of their codes.

If a woman walked down the street unaccompanied by her husband or brother, rode in a taxi, or showed her wrists in public, she would be flogged by the religious police.

Masuri recalled an incident when she shared a cab with three female friends one evening, and was stopped by an officer from the religious police. The officer instantly took his whip to the driver before turning on the women, who were crowded into the back seat.

''We escaped out the other side, and tried to pay our fare, but the Talib was still whipping the driver,'' Masuri said. ''We were stunned by what happened and I was so scared.''

The Taliban forbade women to work, with the exception of women in the health profession, who were allowed to continue seeing patients, but under restrictions. The impediments on movement, and not being able to treat male patients, cut a female doctor's capacity in half.

Beaten down by years of oppression, Masuri is hesitant to take off her veil right away. ''I did not wear a burka when I was young,'' said Masuri. ''Once the government is formed, and they announce that we are allowed to wear whatever we want, I will be the first to throw away my burka.''

And if the announcement never comes, the women of Kabul, many of whom wore burkas in Northern Alliance territory because of custom, probably will grudgingly obey rather than stage a revolution.

''We wasted so much time fighting for our rights and we are tired from it,'' said Farsona, an energetic woman who used to work as a teacher. ''If we have to continue fighting, we will just get fed up. We will die from the conditions we are forced to live in.''

This story ran on page A8 of the Boston Globe on 11/26/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.