Afghan Women: Journey Out of Darkness

It was in 1996 that we first met the five women who risked their lives to speak out against the Taliban. Shortly after the Taliban came to power — hanging the deposed president and warning women to wear their veils, obey men and stay at home or risk death — these women defiantly told us they would not be stopped.

They came out from under their veils in front of our cameras to tell of their sorrows, begging the Western world to do something to save them.

"We're fearful," said Massouda, a secretary, who was joined by Masshed, an engineer, Mouslama, a receptionist, Malalay, a cleaning lady, and Fatima, a pediatrician.

Fatima, who was forbidden to see patients under the Taliban, even took me to her home, hiding me under a burqa so I could tape with a small video camera through my veil. There she showed me the photos she hid from the Taliban under carpets, and the beautiful green dress she wore on her wedding day — it was stashed away just in case some day there would be music and dancing again.

Their city had once been among the most progressive in the Near East. The capital, Kabul, had been a cosmopolitan center, where men and women intermingled freely and women were prominent doctors, educators and government workers.

But the women I spoke to were at the mercy of Taliban enforcers, fearing for their lives in a country that was in shambles. As the women were leaving, one of them made a final request of me: Massouda asked me to tell the world that "our veils conceal our tears." With that, they walked away and we dared not try to reach them again, putting them at even greater risk.

Since then, we have wondered and worried about the women we had met: Had they survived? How much had they suffered? Five and a half years later, what scars did they — and thousands of other women — carry from the Taliban years?

Freedom, But New Problems

The post-war Afghanistan that I visited a few weeks ago was a very different country than what I had seen during my first trip. In the wake of American bombs, women now have freedom. They shop unaccompanied by men, and with sanctions lifted, food is plentiful in the markets. For the first time in six years, there was music, and even television (if the power went on at 5 p.m.).

Despite their newfound freedom, Afghanistan is a country so destroyed that all of her people are struggling in one way or another — especially the women.

"Once we get dignity and confidence back," said Sima Samar, an Afghan government minister for women, "they start to feel as if they are human beings and not the property of the male within society."

And there are new problems.

"Women with lots of difficulties," said Samar. "They were forced to marry with some of the commanders or some of the Taliban … They're really in a bad situation. They were crying here ready to kill themselves, instead of living with this person."

When the Taliban fled, they left behind thousands of women with no means to support themselves. Even worse, Primetime has been told of at least one instance where al Qaeda fighters slaughtered their wives and children before fleeing to the hills.

Revisiting the Women

The valiant women we had spoken to in 1996 looked like prisoners seeing sunlight again.

"For almost five, six years, I was in a jail in our own country," said Massouda. "We were afraid."

The Taliban had found out about our interview, and they began stalking the women to find out their identities.

"After the interview," explained Malalay through a translator, "I was beaten in a graveyard … I was beaten by a steel cable on my head "

Fatima, the pediatrician, said the Taliban were stalking her house and her life was in danger. She and her family moved, under cover of night, from house to house to stay one step ahead of the religious police. She tried to continue practicing medicine for foreign aid organizations, behind closed doors. But the Taliban began to close in.

"I really thought that it's time to leave the country," she said. "And I can tell you it is the most difficult decision to leave your home."

The Taliban couldn't find the identity of the other women, but they did track down the drivers who brought them to the interview. One man was arrested and tortured as they tried to get him to reveal the women's names. He was beaten fiercely for hours straight. His body was broken, but not his silence, which may have saved the women's lives.

When it was time to say goodbye again, we asked the women if they were sorry they had done the interview.

"Why should [we] be sorry?" said Massouda. "First time, you reach the voice of sorrow, voice of suffering and voice of prisoners. But this time, fortunately, you're reaching the voice of happiness, voice of freedom."

I reminded Massouda that the last time I saw her, she had asked me to tell the world about the veil that concealed her tears. This time, she shouted to me a reminder to give her my e-mail address, and not to forget them.

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