Published on Thursday, March 8, 2001 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
While the World Recoils at the Taliban's Summary Demolition of Ancient Religious Icons, the Women of Afghanistan Suffer in Stone-Faced Silence
by Glenda Holste
On this International Women's Day, this must be said: If the outrage directed at the Taliban for destroying ancient religious figures were instead channeled into rescuing the living from the hell that is Afghanistan, there would be much more to celebrate.
Not that the wanton ruin of Buddhist statues and carvings is a trifling thing. These treasures were unique and seem to be lost as both history and art. The Taliban rulers have chosen to destroy these pieces precisely because doing so renders the outside world powerless to change a shocking outcome. A ruthless decision, carried out quickly, will obliterate the irreplaceable.
But worse things have been happening to all the women and girls of Afghanistan for more than four years. No effective rescue missions have succeeded in freeing them from oppression, terror, death, creeping ignorance and almost no access to health care.
Some background: In September 1996, the tribal strongmen of the Taliban militia routed the government and took over Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. The Taliban, which has the guns, summarily voided the basic human rights of women and girls. Girls were (and are) prohibited from going to school. Women were denied the right to work and earn their livings. Women cannot see male doctors, and only a scant number of women health care providers are allowed to practice. Women must cover their bodies completely with a burqa, which has only a mesh-covered slit at eye level. Women are not allowed to venture outside the house without a male relative as escort.
The Taliban punishments for breaking these orders include stoning, beating and execution.
Of course, the Taliban metes out its ruthlessness to men it considers enemies, too. It also harbors some of political Islam's worst bad guys.
And nature has shown its wrath in Afghanistan, too. Terrible, prolonged drought has sent refugees in flight and subjected them to death by exposure. Drought coupled with the Taliban's decree that farmers cannot grow opium has impoverished rural families, who are reportedly selling off their young daughters to survive.
Over the years of Taliban entrenchment, there have been sanctions, condemnations and international human rights groups' campaigns to press the shameless Taliban into a more humane regime. There have been moments of improvement -- and much inertia. No wonder in this awful climate that a survey of Aghan women by Physicians for Human Rights found 97 percent of the women reporting symptoms of major depression.
The Russians (nee Soviets) can testify about the futility of messing around militarily in Afghanistan. The United States can testify (but won't) about supporting insurgent militias during the 1980s, from which the Taliban emerged as the controlling faction.
But something is worth pondering on this International Women's Day: If the Taliban oppressors were female and able to impose the same atrocities and mental terror on all men, wouldn't the international powers that be take effective action to hammer the Taliban down and out?
Perhaps the treasures of Afghanistan's art and religious past cannot be saved. Many of Afghanistan's women have been killed, degraded, impoverished and denied means to help themselves. But many remain, and possibly can be saved if care for them is as great as concern for old pieces of stone has been in the past week.
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press