The date: February 27, 1998. The day: Friday. Close to 30,000 men and boys poured into the dilapidated Olympic sports stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan. Street hawkers peddled nuts, biscuits and tea to the waiting crowd. The scheduled entertainment? They were there to witness the flogging of a young woman, Sohaila, who was to receive 100 lashes. Sohaila had been arrested for walking with a man who was not a relative - a sufficient crime for her to be found guilty of adultery. She was single, so her crime was punishable by merely flogging; had she been married, she would have been publicly stoned to death. As Sohaila, completely covered in her shroud-like black burqa, was forced to kneel and then flogged, Taliban 'cheerleaders' had the stadium ringing with the chants of excited onlookers. Among those present there were just three women: Sohaila and two female relatives who had accompanied her.
These Friday circuses, at which Rome's Caligula would without a doubt have felt at home, are weekly fixtures for the entertainment-starved male residents of Kabul. These events are regular and continual; each inspiring the same frenzy in the thousands present to witness them live. There is nothing covert or hush-hush about the regime's punitive measures; in fact, the Taliban ensure they are as widely publicised as possible. In March 1997, the regime's radio station - the only one permitted to operate - broadcast to the nation that a young woman caught sitting in a clinic chatting with a man who was not her relative had been stoned to death. On another occasion, it was announced over the airwaves that 225 women had been rounded up and sentenced to a lashing for violating the mandatory dress code. A woman had her fingers amputated for the crime of wearing nail polish, and the grisly photographs appeared in newspapers around the nation.
The Taliban now control between 65 and 85 percent of Afghanistan, a country where statistics are anyone's guess. And they have easily overstepped Saudi Arabia to become the most oppressive nation on earth for women. Many of the Taliban's restrictions are rooted in the hardline Gulf state's gender apartheid. Saudi Arabia has also been financially supportive of the Taliban and the religious schools in which they are indoctrinated. The Taliban regime claim they are restoring Afghanistan to the 'purity of Islam', and world media invariably parrots them. But authorities in a number of Muslim countries insist that few of the regime's dictates have a basis in Islam. In fact, the Organization of Islamic Conference, a 55-country body, has withheld both a seat and recognition from the regime. "The Taliban is not the image the Islamic world wants to project", says a Muslim diplomat. And with good reason.
Islam dictates that education is mandatory for both males and females. At the time of the Prophet, Muslim women attained such scholarship they became teachers to prominent men. They also worked. In fact, the Prophet met his first wife because she was his employer. The medical corps of the Prophet's army was an all-woman corps, and in most battles, women took up swords and joined active combat. Women participated in public affairs, were involved in negotiating treaties, were even judges. Islam declared gender equality through the Prophet's words, "Women are the siblings of men." Islamic scriptures are very clear on the veil: only the Prophet's wives were required to cover their faces. In fact, when women undertake the Hajj, they are required to do so with their faces uncovered. They also mingle with men not related to them. Obviously, the Taliban's military prowess far exceeds their knowledge of Islam.
The pariah regime has expunged all leisure activities. Their list of what is illegal grows daily: music, movies and television, picnics and parties, celebrations, any kind of mixed-sex gathering. They've placed but a blanket ban on children's toys: dolls, kites, card and board games. Photography and painting people and animals is forbidden, as are pets, cigarettes and alcohol, magazines and newspapers, and most books. They've even forbidden applause - a moot point, since there's nothing left to applaud. Explaining why the regime has banned virtually all forms of entertainment, they say, "Time should be spent serving the country and praying to God. Nothing else. Everything else is a waste of time, and people are not allowed to waste their time."
It would probably be quicker to list what the Taliban haven't banned. The regime has even outlawed paper bags. Like many of their edicts, this would be laughable if the penalties for infractions weren't so severe. Break the Taliban's law and you risk imprisonment, flogging, or death in the most brutal ways. And to insure their dictates are followed, religious police, part of the "Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice", constantly roam the streets. Often teenage boys armed with automatic weapons, they also carry broken car aerials or electrical cabling to whip those who they decide are not properly observing the regulations.
For women, the restrictions are even harsher. Female education, from kindergarten through graduate school, is banned. Employment for women is banned. It is illegal to wear makeup or jewellery, to pluck your eyebrows or cut your hair short, to wear colourful or stylish clothes and shoes, to walk about in high heels, to walk making a noise, to talk loudly, to laugh in public. In short, women are completely prohibited from being seen or heard, lest they 'excite' men into lustful misadventures, which all the afore-mentioned activities are supposed to do.
If women do venture out, it must be for an essential, government-sanctioned purpose, and they must wear the all-enveloping burqa at all times. Even then they risk their lives. Not so long ago, a young mother was shot repeatedly by the Taliban while rushing her seriously ill toddler to a doctor. Veiled as the law requires, she was spotted by a teenage Taliban guard, who tried to stop her because she shouldn't have left her home. Afraid her child might die if she were delayed, she kept going. The guard aimed his Kalashnikov machine-gun and fired several rounds at her. She was hit, but didn't die on the spot, as she should have. Instead, locals watching the incident in the crowded market-place intervened, and mother and child received prompt medical attention. When her family later complained to the Taliban authorities, they were informed that it was the injured woman's fault. She had no business being out in public in the first place.
The burqa covers women from head to toe; the heavy gauze patch across the eyes makes it hard to see and completely blocks peripheral vision. Recently in Kabul, a Taliban tank rolled right over a veiled woman who could not see it approaching. Fortunately, she fell between the tracks and was not crushed to death; she was severely traumatized, though. To ensure women are effaced as effectively as if they never existed, the regime has ordered all exterior windows of homes to be painted black, lest a woman inside be seen from the outside. It is illegal for women to talk to any male except close relatives, which precludes them from visiting male physicians, no matter how sick, or even when in labour.
Amnesty International calls Afghanistan under the Taliban 'a human rights catastrophe'. Afghan women, struggling to survive in what has become a police state claiming to be a theocracy, describe themselves as the 'living dead'. Conditions are so deplorable for these women that many are severely depressed. Without the resources to leave the country, an increasing number are now choosing suicide, once rare there, as a means of escape. A foreign physician working in the city tells his tale. "Doctors are seeing a lot of esophageal burns. Women swallow battery acid or poisonous household cleansers, because they are easy to find. But it's a very painful way to die." For most women, it's the living that is painful; death is but a release.
Why does the regime insist that women be confined at home? Reducing women to mere objects, a senior Taliban official says, "It's like having a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it. It [a woman] is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled." Another leader is less poetic. "There are only two places for an Afghan woman - in her husband's house, and in the graveyard."
As my tears flowed, I surmised that the graveyard is a far better option; one is free there - free from the world, free from being a woman, free from being.