Afghan Women Await the Promised Good Times

And as the hard-line regime fell, the world's media congregated in Kabul to snap up the much-awaited images of Afghan women shedding their burqas, the all-encompassing Islamic robes, in a symbolic celebration of their emancipation.

Those images however never materialized — after decades of war and instability, Afghan women were going nowhere without their burqas, or chaudris, as it is often called in Afghanistan.

Today, visitors to Kabul may see little girls on their way to school and may even spot women in crowds signing up for jobs. But of the grand gender revolution, there is no sign.

The streets of the capital are still lined with women — mostly widows in a country that has approximately 40,000 war widows — begging pathetically in their burqas on the sides of the streets.

And of the nostalgic tales of a swinging Kabul during its heyday in the '60s and '70s, when gender equality was a socialist ideal and miniskirts could be spotted on main thoroughfares, there is no sign.

Good News, Bad News

After six years of fighting for Afghan women's rights, taking their cause through the halls of the White House and Capitol Hill long before the Taliban and Osama bin Laden became household names, Eleanor Smeal, founder and president of the Washington-based Feminist Majority Foundation, has a mixed assessment of their fate today.

"There's good news and there's bad news," she says briskly. "Although it's hard to get figures, a number of girls are back in schools. Few women are in universities — although there are still overwhelmingly male students. And some women are being hired — mostly by the Afghan government and international aid agencies. The bad news is 90 percent of women, even in Kabul, still wear the burqa because they are afraid and because security is not what it should be."

In the months leading up to the November 2001 collapse of the Taliban regime, many Muslim women's rights activists bemoaned the excessive attention the Western media had been paying to what they called "behind the veil" stories.

The West was simply not getting the picture, they argued. The issue at stake was not the burqa, they maintained — it was war, disease, hunger, unemployment and insecurity.

And though the burqa may not be the heart of the matter — especially if, as some Muslim women say, it is worn voluntarily — some experts say it is certainly symbolic of the critical issues facing Afghan women: security and the freedom of expression.

Drawing a lesson from the country's modern history, Thomas Goutierre, dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says he anticipates that Afghan women will indeed start shedding their chaudris once a general election is conducted. A general election is likely to be held in 2004.

Noting that Afghan women began shedding their chaudris around the time the progressive 1964 Constitution was approved, Goutierre notes that it was only after the 1965 elections that "one really saw Afghan women shedding their chaudris. I think we may see more of it in the future, but an election is critical."

A Matter of Legal Rights

Far more critical than the burqa, though, is the issue of the legal rights women will enjoy in the reconstructed state.

The international community has been on alert since last month's attack against Samar, when she was charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under Islamic law.

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