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Behind the Veil: Women Subtly Fought Taliban

Behind the Veil: Women Subtly Fought Taliban ( Amy Waldman/The New York TimesDuring Taliban rule, Soheila Helal ran an illegal school for 120 students, mostly girls, at her home. A widow, she held a picture of her husband.

HERAT, Afghanistan, Nov. 18 — In the walled garden of her house, Soheila Helal waged a quiet rebellion against the Taliban. On a patio softened by rugs and book-ended by two small blackboards, she ran a school for 120 students, mostly girls. It was a transgression on two counts: as a woman Mrs. Helal was not supposed to work, and her female students were not supposed to learn.

So her students' lessons included what to tell any Taliban forces who stopped them — that they were just going to visit her. The after-school activities included learning how to leave discreetly in small groups, so as not to attract attention.

Mrs. Helal, a teacher for 17 years, saw no other choice. Her husband died as the Taliban came to power, leaving her with three small children to support. She says that continuing to teach also kept her sane.

"I thought of killing myself many times," she said of life under the Taliban. As a woman she was not supposed to leave home without a male relative; as a widow she had no choice. Buying groceries could bring a beating from the religious police. "Only my love for my students saved me."

That love no longer needs to be hidden behind an adobe wall. The school where Mrs. Helal worked before the Taliban came to power is reopening now that they are gone from Herat and much of Afghanistan. In areas now controlled by the Northern Alliance, the petty brutality that women endured for nearly a half decade has ended. When Ismail Khan, the commander now in control here, arrived last week, he made clear that he believed that women should be in school and at work.

The freedom is still too new to completely trust, and the wounds too fresh to be healed, but for the first time in years, women here say they have hope — that they will be treated like human beings, not wayward cattle; that they will be free to leave their homes and work; that their daughters will be able to learn.

"The good days are ahead," said Rana Entezari, a neighbor who stopped by Mrs. Helal's house today. A doctor, she was fired from a laboratory for being a woman after the Taliban came to power.

Herat is still full of women in burkas, the full-length shroud that covers even the face, rendering a woman more column than human, and making it impossible for close friends to recognize each other on the street. But now many of the burka-clad women are on their own or with other women. A week ago, that would have brought a lashing.

Today women showed off bruises and scars earned for going it alone or daring to speak in a government office. They described the cruel illogic of the Taliban: male doctors were not allowed to treat women but female doctors were not permitted to be trained; many widows here who were the sole support of their family were barred from going to work. Many of them resorted to shelling nuts or washing clothes at home, barely earning enough to fill their children's stomachs.

Women also showed resilience, even crafty defiance, for those who were expected to be neither seen nor heard. Knowing they would be lashed, they went out alone anyway. Confined to their homes, many taught their daughters to read. They started secret schools or secured small concessions — permission to open a nursing school, for example — from the Taliban bureaucracy.

Nouri, who uses only one name, described going to a courtroom on behalf of a relative who had been wrongly arrested. The Taliban beat her so hard for appearing there that her hands were swollen for days.

"Why are you doing this?" she said she shouted. "Aren't you Muslim? Aren't you afraid of God?" They told her they would do it as long as she was out of the house. Today she was out looking for work at the office of Habitat, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement. Many other women were there as well.

Sima Rezahi, 22, said she needed to support her elderly parents but had been allowed to work only in a relief distribution center since her family returned from Iran two years ago. She has been well educated, she said, and being restricted to such a lowly job smarted.

Her younger sister, Zahra, went out of the house today for the first time in two years. No one knew it was her since she wore a burka. But within the confines of the maternity clinic where Habitat's office is situated, the 17-year-old removed the veil, let the sun hit her face and allowed herself to think about a life outside four walls and after the Taliban. All she did for two years was cook.

"It was like being in jail," said another woman, Delband.

Today, the prisoners were free. Fatimeh Sadeghi brought her 16- year-old daughter to the office, hoping she could get a job sewing. Mrs. Sadeghi has seven children, one at her breast, and no foreseeable way out of poverty. Her only education had come from a childhood friend, Kobra Zeithi, who runs the Habitat office. Mrs. Zeithi, who had an education, shared what she had learned with her friend.

Mrs. Zeithi is a pharmacologist who became an activist. She was briefly imprisoned by the Taliban for traveling to Pakistan to pick up educational materials. She saw the Taliban threaten to beat her daughter, then 13, for not covering her face. She saw the opportunities for Afghanistan's women narrow unbearably.

She would not give up fighting, she said. "If we stayed home these five years, we would lose what little culture we have."

She managed to get permission from the Taliban to start a sewing program for women, although the permission took a month to get. She got permission to teach the Koran to women at a new cultural center, although the permission was then revoked. Her organization was one of the only places in Herat that women could get jobs. For 80 jobs at the cultural center she received 1,500 applications, mostly from educated women. Her activities were financed by international organizations. She and other employees had to swear to the Taliban that they would continue to uphold the Islamic values.

Now jobs, not to mention dreams and plans, do not have to be scrimped and hoarded. Mrs. Zeithi had forced her 16-year-old daughter to go to a nursing school started here three years ago because it was the only schooling available to women. Her daughter cried because she wanted to be anything but a nurse. Now she is free to choose.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information November 19, 2001;Amy Waldman;NYT;)

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