The Day the Music Died: 
Women and Girls in Afghanistan

by Karen Johnson
Vice President Membership

The music died for millions of women and girls in Afghanistan in September of 1996. That was when the ultraconservative Taliban Islamic militia took control of the capital city of Kabul and more than two-thirds of Afghanistan. The Taliban considers itself a religious army and its leaders or "mullahs" have a unique interpretation of Islam as it applies to women. Thus on Sept. 27, 1996, the Taliban issued an edict that forbade women and girls from working or going to school. The edict took effect immediately, and women who tried to go to work the next day were beaten and forced to return home. Since that date many more edicts have been issued by the Taliban which restrict the human rights of all Afghans. Music, television, kites, mixed-sex photos, cameras, short hair, smoking and applause are forbidden. An 8:00 p.m. curfew is strictly enforced, and all men must grow beards of sufficient length.

On Sept. 26, 1996, women were 70% of the school teachers, 40% of the doctors, 50% of government workers and 50% of the university students — what a difference a day makes! Today, a woman must be accompanied by a male relative in order to leave the confines of her home. When a women is outside the home she is compelled to wear a head to toe covering called a "burqa," with only a small mesh opening over the eyes to facilitate a limited view of the outside world. It is important to note that the peripheral vision of Afghan women wearing burqas is so restrictive that many have been injured due to poor visibility.

Women have been beaten for showing a bit of ankle or having noisy shoes. Women are not allowed to speak in public and any female from puberty until death may only speak to men who are relatives. Homes in which women reside must have all the windows painted over to obscure view.

Health care is virtually nonexistent for women, and journalists report that the girls living in the Kabul orphanage have not been let outside since the edict was issued. Tens of thousands of families are starving. In the city of Kabul alone there are 40,000 widows who can no longer work to support themselves and their families. Some widows are fortunate enough to have male children who can beg for the family. Others sit in dark houses praying for humanitarian aid which can only be delivered to them by a male intermediary. Many are eating grass, suffering from skin diseases due to the lack of sunlight and dying due to starvation and untreated illness.

The Taliban asserts that the prohibitions for women and girls are religious and protective in nature. Yet it is known that many Taliban break their own rules and send their daughters to school in other countries. Since the Taliban took control of much of Afghanistan, the production and export of opium poppies (used to make heroin) has increased 25 percent, making Afghanistan, with 40 percent of the world's growth, the number one opium producer on the planet. The Taliban, which forbids drug use, does collect a 20 percent tax from the opium farmers.

The United States Government and the United Nations—along with all but three of the world's nations—refuses to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government because of their human rights abuses. However, the U.S. oil company Unocal is the major player in an international consortium that plans to begin building a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline through Afghanistan by the end of this year. As long as the Taliban is in power, this pipeline would benefit their oppressive regime.

NOW Advisory Board Co-Chair and Feminist Majority leader Eleanor Smeal has spearheaded the feminist response to the atrocities occurring in Afghanistan. In late January 1998 NOW's Vice Presidents Elizabeth Toledo and Karen Johnson joined Smeal, NOW LDEF President Kathy Rodgers and other feminist leaders in a meeting with Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth to discuss the plight of Afghan women and girls. The two Afghan women in the group, Sima Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development, and Zieba Shorish-Shamley, chair of Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, had recently returned from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. They told of the heartbreaking misery and suffering caused by the Taliban's oppressive regime. According to Assistant Secretary Inderfurth, the U.S. influence on the Taliban is minimal and a quick resolution to the oppression is not likely for years. In Inderfurth's judgment the only thing the Taliban desires is recognition by the United Nations. Meanwhile, the conditions for Afghan women and girls is abysmal.

What can we do to help? Spread the word about the plight of Afghan women and girls. All NOW chapters were mailed fact sheets that can be copied and distributed. Urge United States and United Nations leaders to continue not recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government and to do everything within their power to restore Afghan women's basic human rights to work, education, health care and safety. Encourage Unocal to immediately suspend any and all business ventures with Afghanistan until women's basic human rights are restored.


Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
U.S. Department of State 
2201 C St. NW, 
Washington, D.C. 20520 
fax: 202-647-7120


John Imle Jr.
2141 Rosecrans Avenue
El Segundo, CA 90245

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