Taliban are still brutal 'villains'

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Taliban are still brutal 'villains'

By Lynette Dumble

Since its seizure of Afghanistan in 1996, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban has rapidly become the world's most despised regime.

In August, a United Nations investigation revealed that the Taliban's war against women was "widespread, systematic and officially sanctioned". Three months later, Afghanistan's gross human rights violations, thriving opium industry and welcome mat for terrorists led to United Nations-imposed trade sanctions.

Despite this, some media outlets in Asia, Europe and Australia have recently conjured a new picture of Afghanistan's rulers. Many gave positive coverage to the Taliban's role in negotiating an end to the hijacking of Delhi-bound Indian Airlines flight IC 814 on December 24.

The world media reiterated Indian government praise for the Taliban's "constructive cooperation" when 154 passengers were held hostage in the Afghan city of Kandahar. (Kandahar is, coincidentally, the headquarters of the Taliban militia). Following a week of bargaining orchestrated by the Taliban, three militants held in Indian prisons were released in exchange for the freedom of Flight IC 814's passengers.

Most analysts viewed the swap as a victory for terrorism, but many also saw the perceived diplomacy in Kandahar as a step towards improving relations between the Taliban and the rest of the world.

The Taliban's authority in Afghanistan is recognised by only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The rest of the world still regards the Rabbani government, which controls only 10% of Afghanistan, as the territory's lawful authority. But following the hijacking, a spokesperson for the Taliban suggested that India should consider renewing diplomatic ties with Kabul.

These aren't the only attempts to rehabilitate the Taliban. Suzanne Goldenberg, in articles printed by the London Guardian on November 24 and December 21, and by the Sydney Morning Herald on December 24, claimed that it is unjust to "cast the Taliban as villains, and Afghan women as helpless heroines". She argues that the Taliban is slowly becoming more "tolerant".

Her account holds no sway against the vast body of evidence confirming the Taliban's obscene treatment of women.

After interviewing Afghan women, tens of thousands of whom live in appalling conditions as refugees in Pakistan, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, has concluded that discrimination against women is official Taliban policy. According to Coomaraswamy, armed militia patrol the streets of Kabul looking for women violating Taliban edicts, which forbid women from venturing outside their homes, even for employment, unless accompanied by a male relative.

Women are forced to wear the burqa, a garment which, except for a filigree strip across the eyes permitting vision, is all-concealing and symbolic of women's enslavement. Girls are barred from attending school after the age of 12.

Women who break these laws are publicly beaten, sometimes with radio antennae torn from nearby vehicles, but usually with an instrument resembling a leather cricket bat.

Examples of atrocities are easy to find: one woman was fatally beaten after she accidentally exposed her arm while driving; another was stoned to death for attempting to leave Afghanistan with a man not her relative; another woman, Zareena, a mother of seven, was publicly executed in a football stadium in November for killing her husband.

In October, a Taliban follower, after an argument with his wife, beat her, tied her hands and legs, poured gasoline over her body and set her on fire. The woman, Salehah, died in hospital two days later; her killer was sheltered by the Taliban.

According to Goldenberg, women living in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul have learned to navigate the "sporadically enforced", rigid moral codes laid down by the Taliban's Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Supposedly, Taliban concessions permit women to collect salaries and qualify for promotion, but only if they were not previously employed as judges or in other occupations which the Taliban's version of Islam deems unsuitable for women.

Goldenberg also argued that the Taliban's attitude to girls' education is mellowing — the first government girls' schools were opened in Kabul in November. Critics of the Taliban, however, recognise that these are minimal concessions and maintain their condemnation.

As Afghan women's organisations have themselves pointed out, the schooling amounts to nothing more than religious and domestic classes for the daughters of Taliban followers. And in a country with an unimaginable number of widows (35,000 in Kabul alone), the Taliban's still-in-place taboos on women's extra-residential employment have left many almost without options.

As never before, the ranks of Kabul's beggars are dominated by women. Driven to prostitution, some retain the guise of beggars, covering themselves from head to toe with tattered robes to conceal clothing designed to attract the men frequenting Kabul's thriving brothels. Unlike the beggar prostitutes, at risk from the Taliban's virtuous wrath, brothels are often protected by the Taliban.

Prisons are home to thousands of Afghans, many of them women and the vast majority innocent of any crime but being ethnic Tajiks, who are automatically deemed to have violated the Taliban's religious code.

Pol-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul boasts 20 blocks, two of which are assigned to female prisoners. Each block is divided into 116 rooms and each room crammed with 40 to 50 prisoners who are regularly raped, beaten, tortured and humiliated by the Taliban guards.

Each prisoner receives a daily ration of just 180 grams of dried bread, supplemented by 80 grams of boiled rice from the Red Cross, the only aid that actually reaches the prisoners. Three prisoners die each week from malnutrition. Others, often held for up to three years without legal representation, and facing conviction for an invented political crime which brings an undefined prison term, suffer severe physical and mental illnesses.

Living in exile and poverty in nearby Pakistan, the Revolutionary Association of Women from Afghanistan (RAWA) has refused to be intimidated by the Taliban's inhumanity. Regularly protesting against the regime's ignorant misinterpretation of the Koran, RAWA's courage has brought international attention to the Taliban's war against women, which does not stop at denying them dignified employment.

There is absolutely no indication that the Taliban is about to change its tune. To the contrary, the January 8 issue of the medical journal Lancet warned of Taliban plans to purge Afghanistan's heath professions of staff educated in socialist countries between 1978 and 1992 when Afghanistan was under communist rule. The Taliban has made no secret of its intention to replace those purged with "like-minded" workers.

[Lynette Dumble is the international coordinator of the Global Sisterhood Network and an associate senior research fellow in history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne.]