Writers have long noted Afghanistan for its spectacular scenery and the warmth of its citizens. It is the birthplace of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and, writes historian Mohammed Ali, a breeding ground for thought and culture "at a time when Greece was in her infancy, when Rome was not yet born, and when the rest of Europe led a life of ignorance and superstition ." The country was part of the ancient silk route to China, and its primary location linked the Far East with Middle Eastern and European life. For these reasons, Afghanistan has been perpetually plagued by foreign greed and outside competition since the beginning of its course. Early conquers from the Persians to the Greeks to Genghis Khan vied for control of the land and its people.
In modern history, Afghanistan and much of Central Asia served as an imperialistic chess game for the most powerful nations of the day, Britain and Russia. In the 19th century, both countries sought to make claims on the region, not only for material gain but to keep the other out. On three different occasions (1839-42, 1878-80, 1919), the British imperialists invaded Afghanistan and took thousands of lives in hopes of expanding their vast colony and driving out Russian influence. Afghanistans size shrank repeatedly as Britain grabbed land to the east increasing their Indian empire, and Russia took land from the north to enlarge its boarders. Now in the 21st century, many more countries vie for claims to Central Asia and the Middle East as foreign greed and appropriation guide the course of this region while some countries hang on to survive. The U.S. and the U.N. repeatedly take violent actions against the Middle East in form of war and sanctions, and Middle Eastern oppositionwhether deliberate violence or peaceful protestis depicted by the government-fed American media as unwarranted terrorist frenzy in order to avoid responsibility for its creation and turn the public mind against Middle Eastern people.
The Truth About Islam
Misconceptions about Islam, combined with incomplete and misleading media reports, have led to a misplaced focus on extremist groups as representative of Muslims. The oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries is not tied to Islam. Islam gave 600 rights to Muslims, male and female, equally. Afghanistan Online Press writes, "Fundamental rights were given to [women] over 1,500 years ago. Many of the rights granted to women by Islam are still not enjoyed by non-Muslim women or they have recently received them. For example, in Islam, women were given the right to vote over 1,500 years ago, and in the United States women were give the right to vote in the 20th century . Muslim women have the right to own property, choose their own partners, divorce, abortion when necessary, education, and sexual satisfaction in marriage. What other religion allows a woman to divorce her husband if he is not performing in the bedroom?" The religion dictates tolerance toward all religions and advocates for the poor and suffering. It is a faith that teaches love and guidance through humility and fairness. Archaic traditions that predate Islam have never been fully abolished and have been erroneously tied to Islam, such as female circumcision, which is a custom of some African tribes but is against Islam.
A misconception about hejab, or the covering of Muslim women, is that a woman must cover her face. The Quran dictates that a womans body be covered (down to wrists and ankles) and that her head and hair be covered (similar to a nuns habit). The idea behind hejab and asking that women and men wear loose and modest clothing is to focus the faithful toward higher aspirations like intellect and charity. By mid-20th century, most countries viewed forcing a woman to cover as oppressive and left it to her choice. Islamic countries became increasingly Western focused, mimicking fashion trends and ideologies of the West. Some viewed this as progress while others saw it as a threat to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture and called for a return to their roots. Unfortunately, the movement did not stop with Islamic pride, but instead turned into an abuse of power against Muslims who did not practice the same brand of Islam as those in political control.
Afghanistan and the New Invasions
In 1978, the Soviet Union overthrew the Afghan government and set up a communist "puppet" government in its place. With no official army left to fight the takeover, the Mujahideen, or "freedom fighters," took arms and went to war with the communists. In December 1979, the Soviets moved 80,000 troops in to destroy all Afghans who opposed them. The super power imposed 11 years of war and oppressive rule on the impoverished country. Thousands of Afghans fled the country seeking solace in neighboring countries and abroad. The U.S.S.R. brought such a vicious war killing one million Afghans, many of them innocent civilians and children. In one day, the Soviets killed 28,000 Afghans in Herat (by comparison, only 15,000 Soviet soldiers perished during the entire war). So many Afghans died that day "there was no one to bury them," says Zieba Shorish-Shamley, Ph.D. Shorish-Shamley was a student in the U.S. during the invasion and co-founded the Afghan Relief Committee, Madison Chapter, in 1978 to protest what was going on in her country.
The United States poured billions into the extremist Mujahideen groups, instead of funding pro-democratic Afghan groups because the pro-democratic groups refused to be "puppets" for the U.S. and other foreign interests, says the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA), a feminist group that started in Afghanistan in 1977. "The CIA was/is the godfather of all extremist groups around the world, and this has been exposed by high-ranking U.S. policymakers. It significantly contributed to the disaster of our country," RAWA says. The former interior minister of Pakistan, Major General Naseerullah Babar says, "CIA itself introduced terrorism in the region and is only shedding crocodile tears to absolve itself of the responsibility." Osama bin Laden, a Saudi now labeled as a terrorist for bombing U.S. embassies, "came to Pakistan and brought with him thousands of Arabs and the U.S. gave him money and everything to fight against the Soviets [in Afghanistan]. When the Soviets withdrew," Shorish-Shamley says, "most of the Arabs stayed in Afghanistan."
In 1989, after more than a decade of war, the Soviets were finally forced out. When they left so did the American money. "The whole problem is," says Shorish-Shamley, "right after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan . The United States completely cut the support to the Afghans. This is at a time when the country is completely destroyed, all our infrastructure, education, everything ." With the withdrawal of American money, neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, India, and various other Central Asian countries, saw the weakened and vulnerable Afghanistan as a good opportunity. They moved in and supported different Mujahideen groups so that the Afghans could fight amongst each other for their political interests. The Mujahideen engaged in civil war as their heads and pockets filled with outside influence. Once again the Afghans were being used as pawns, now by their neighbors.
The Taliban grew from this chaotic atmosphere and are the most extreme. They refer to themselves as religious students, but are a mysterious and incredibly powerful group that seemed to spring from thin air. They were trained and protected in Pakistan and generously funded by the U.S. and Saudi. Most are not Afghan; they are Pakistani, Saudieven Russian and Chinese. Many who are Afghan are the children of refugee campstrained and indoctrinated from a young age. Not much is known about the Taliban other than they were able to do what the most powerful country in the world was not able to: Defeat the Mujahideen. When the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi saw the Mujahideen could not carry out their political plans, RAWA says, "they replaced them with a new ultra-[extremist] group, the Taliban." In 1994, the Taliban overtook Kandahar and then captured Herat in 1995, with the help of Pakistan. In September 1996, they took the capital, Kabul, and seized control of Afghanistan. Things would never be the same.
The Extremist and the New Rules
The Order threw everything into confusion. Children stopped playing. They were no longer allowed to smile. At every moment it was forbidden, forbidden to enjoy life, to joke, to laugh, to kiss each other in the groves. Forbidden, all what the Great Conqueror disliked, was forbidden.
-Afghan poet Said Bahaudin Majrouh
More than their curious origin, the Taliban are known for their crimes against humanity and highly inaccurate interpretations of the Quran. As the extremists conquered region after region, they enforced brutally oppressive edicts, targeting women especially. Girls were no longer allowed to go to school (most boys schools have been closed as well), and women were forced out of work. Thousands of widows (due to 23 years of war)and women who have disabled men to care for (the Soviets planted 10 million landmines in Afghanistan, many of which are still active)are the sole support of their families and have been forced into a life of beggary and prostitution. Boys as young as nine work to support their family, and orphaned children rummaging for scraps in garbage dumps has become commonplace. The Taliban closed many hospitals denying Afghans health care. Women are not allowed to receive medical help from male doctors, and most of the female doctors have left the country. Women are now forced to wear burqas, a cumbersome garment that completely covers the body and face, with only mesh to see and breathe through. They cannot leave their homes without a male relative; many no longer have male relatives and are prisoners in their own homes. The Taliban ordered women to be silent in public; their men must speak for them. RAWA says, "The extremists have formed a state where women are seen as subhuman creatures whose role is to satisfy mens sexual needs, procreate, and handle domestic affairs. The restrictions are imposed because anything female is seen as tempting a man to depart form his duties to God." Womens shoes that make noise, such as high heels, are now illegal because they, too, might excite a "pious" man. To further make women invisible, they are ordered to paint their home windows black. In a few short years, women have become completely removed from society. Before Taliban rule, women were an integral part of the community: 70 percent of schoolteachers and 50 percent of university students were women. They enjoyed the same freedoms as men and made up 50 percent of the civilian government workforce. By Taliban decree, they have no rights or voice at all.
Men were given 45 days to grow beards, by Taliban orders, and made to attend mosques for the five daily Muslim prayers. Any man seen in public during prayer time is immediately detained. Wearing white socks or shoes has been outlawed because it is the color of the Taliban flag. Flying a kite, once a favorite Afghan pastime, will get you arrested or publicly flogged. Laughing is not tolerated. Music is no longer allowed, even at weddings. New Years celebrations are seen as anti-Islamic and are banned. Sports, film, television, and books are forbidden. Taking a picture in public, even of an inanimate object, will get an automatic rifle pointed in your face. Any storeowner carrying fashion magazines will be arrested. Cab drivers are not allowed to pick up women, and tailors will be arrested for having women clients.
The Taliban now control 90-95 percent of Afghanistan. The opposition force, the Northern Alliance, controls the rest. Unlike the Taliban, the Northern Alliance are Afghans, and reports tell that conditions are better in these areas, as schools are still open, and women are allowed to work and walk freely. But they are in threat of falling to the powerful Taliban.
The Horrors and Hypocrisy of the Taliban
The Taliban have taken the cruelty and oppression of women to a new height while the rest of the world sits by and watches. Afghans are barely managing to stay alive and are helpless against the brutality. One woman was gunned down on the street for walking without a male relativeshe was taking her sick toddler to the hospital. Another was shot dead because her ankles were showing while she and her husband were bicycle riding. Teachers who have home schools have been killed for defying the Talibans anti-education orders. Islam dictates that all crimes be tried in court, yet the Taliban have taken to gunning down "sinners" in the streetthere is no force to hold the group accountable for their actions. Decaying corpses hang from street poles to show the citizens who is boss. The Taliban break into homes, killing the men and gang raping the women, with children watching, in the name of Islam. Women are taken as captives, married off to the Taliban or sold into prostitution. Boys, as young as 10, are kidnapped and forced to war against the Afghan people. People disappear off the street, young and old, male and female, without a trace.
Twenty ethnic groups represent the Afghan people. The Taliban are of the Pashtun ethnic group and are Sunni Muslims. Anyone who is not Pashtun and Sunni (and even some who are) is in jeopardy. The tyrannical group has committed mass rapes of thousands of ethnic women and large massacres, executing ethnic genocide. Hazaras, who are of Afghan and Chinese descent, are especially targeted. In four days in 1998, between 5,000 and 8,000 Hazaras were slaughtered because of their ethnicity. In the International Herald Tribune, Rupert C. Colville writes, "Some were shot on the streets. Many were executed in their own homes .Some were boiled or asphyxiated to death after being left crammed inside sealed metal containers .The bodies of many of the victims were left on the streets as a stark warning to the citys remaining inhabitants. Horrified witnesses saw dogs tearing at the corpses, but were instructed over loudspeakers and by radio announcements not to remove or bury them." Colville says it is a massacre that did not grab the worlds attention because more important things were going on "such as the Monica Lewinsky revelations [and] football games." The atrocities were "brushed aside" particularly "by the influential American press," he says. There have been other massacres: A mass grave in Dasht Laila was found with several thousand bodies; another was found in Pash Kanda with 600 skeletons; and recently, 300 were killed in Bamyan.
Due to the efforts of the self-proclaimed "pure" Taliban, Afghanistan is now the number-one drug-producing country, particularly opium. Sixty percent of the Talibans financing comes from the opiate. Drug addiction is on the rise, and farmers have taken to planting poppies instead of food because it is the only way they can make a living. In addition to all man-induced atrocities, the country is now experiencing the worst drought in 30 years and many food crops and livestock are being lost.
The Refugee Camps
Many Afghans who manage to escape from the country find the conditions at the camps even worse and end up going back to Afghanistan. The camps offer no provisions: no toilets, no medicine, inadequate shelter (plastic sheets), and barely any food or drinking water. The most needy Afghans have only received $7 in aid. As many as 30,000 people crowd the camps and clamor for old bread. They are vulnerable to diseases and have no blankets or quilts, and sleep on the cold ground. The camps are located in very hostile, barren land, which is boiling hot in summer and as cold as minus 20 in the winter. The Associated Press reported on Jan. 31, 2001 "at least 110 people died in just one night because of freezing conditions in refugee camps .They had only plastic sheets to keep them warm as temperatures plunged to minus 13 Fahrenheit .An emergency U.N. appeal for $3.5 million to house and clothe an estimated 80,000 Afghans seems to have been largely ignored." Another 504 died later that week, most were children.
Neighboring countries are closing their borders to Afghan refugees. Ten thousand people are currently in between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, not allowed to enter the refugee camps and in danger of being gunned down if they return to their homeland. Many are reported to be living out of holes dug in the ground and eating grass to stay alive. Hundreds have died already.
The Journal of the American Medical Association visited Kabul and some camps in Pakistan in 1998 to check on the condition of womens health and human rights in Afghanistan. They were shocked by what they found. "Sixty-two percent [of the women] reported that they were employed before the Taliban takeover" but now barely eek out an existence. Seventy-one percent reported a decline in physical health, and 81 percent reported a decline in mental-health status. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder were reported by 42 percent, and the overwhelming majority, 97 percent, had symptoms of major depression. "Eighty-four percent of women reported one or more family member killed in war," says the report, and "Afghans remain the United Nations High Commission on Refugees largest single caseload of refugees in the world for the 17th year in succession." This was three years ago; the conditions, with the drought and elongated rule of the Taliban, are even worse today. Life expectancy of Afghans is only 45 years, and 25 percent of children do not reach their fifth birthday.
The U.S. Government and Inaction
The United States has shown it is concerned only when there is something to be gained. The U.S. and U.N. (which is largely controlled by the U.S.) launched a full out attack on Iraq for invading Kuwait and shamelessly said it was to save the people of Kuwait and not for their own vested interests. Afghanistan is a poor land that has no oil or natural resources. But recently "the newly freed Central Asian countries, such as Uzbekistan, Krygyzstan, and Tajikistan, [have been found to have] a tremendous amount of natural resources, especially gas and oil. So the U.S. became interested [in this region] again. They tried to bring a quick fix to the Afghan civil war and crisis, so they created the Taliban," says Dr. Shorish-Shamley, now founder of WAPHA, Womens Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan. "The U.S. wants to bring a pipeline [from the countries with oil] through Afghanistan because it would be the cheapest way to do it." The Taliban stand to gain $100 million in this deal if they work with the U.S.the U.S., avariciously sponsoring brutal murderers, will make much more.
U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher addressed the Congress in 1999 about the Afghan crisis and the United States involvement. Rep. Rohrabacher traveled to Afghanistan in 1988 and says, "What has happened during the past few years under Taliban rule is a tragic perversion of Afghan culture and religious heritage." He charges that no supposed "student militia" could wipe out "very seasoned former-Mujahideen fighters" without a lot of financial backing and suspects the United States. He goes on to say, "While the Taliban imposed a blockade on more than 2 million people of the Hazara ethnic group in central Afghanistan, putting tens of thousands at risk of starving to death or perishing from a lack of medicine during the harsh winter months, the State Department undercut my efforts to send in two plane loads of medicines .State Department representatives made false statements that the humanitarian crisis was exaggerated and there were already sufficient medical supplies in the blockaded area. When the relief teams risked their lives to go into the area with the medicineswithout the support of the State Departmentthey found the hospitals and clinics did not have even aspirins or bandages, no generators for heat in sub-zero weather, a serious lack of blankets and scant amounts of food. The State Department, in effect, was assisting the Taliban's inhuman blockade intended to starve out communities that opposed their dictates." He reports that, in 1998, U.S. representatives went to Afghanistan and talked the Northern Alliance (Talibans opposition) into a ceasefire by request of Pakistan, at a time when the Taliban was weak and vulnerable. "The ceasefire lasted only as long as it took the Pakistanis to re-supply and reorganize the Taliban" and months later, the militia went on to destroy their opponents. "In addition," he writes, "there has been no major effort to end the flow of opium out of Afghanistan, which is the main source of revenue that enables the Taliban to maintain control of the country, even though the U.S. government observes by satellite where the opium is grown." Rohrabacher demanded the Clinton Administration release all documents regarding U.S.-Taliban policy. The Secretary of State promised Rohrabacher the documents, but the papers were never released.
American network-news stories are written from government press releases: Because U.S. has a vested interest in keeping the Taliban in place, the news does not report on the crisis and Americans remain uninformed. TV shows and movies ridicule the Middle Eastern person to a funny or strange caricature, making it easy for the public to foster misconceptions and indifference. Organizations like WAPHA, RAWA, Afghanistan Online Press, and the Feminist Majority Foundation aim to educate people about the crimes against humanity that are being allowed by the U.S. and other governments.
WAPHA calls for the U.N. to impose sanctions on Pakistan and other countries that support the Taliban. WAPHA also calls for Afghan women to be involved in the first to final steps of the peace process because they make up the majority of the population and have been hurt most severely. The womens organization also asks that the Afghan people be allowed to democratically elect their own Afghan leaders instead of being controlled by outside dictators.
Nafissa Rashidi, a Los Angeles resident who moved from Kabul over 30 years ago, says it hurts her when she hears what is going on in her old homeland. "It makes me sick," she says, her voice quickening. "This is not the Afghanistan I know. What these Taliban are doing to people is genocide and against Islam and general humanity. But no one does anything about it because Afghanistan is a poor countrythere is no oil or gold. There is only people."
Ms. Nadia Maiwandi is an independent, New York City-born, Oregon-based writer. Her parents moved from Kabul in 1966. Her mother's family was in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded and escaped over the Hindu Kush in Pakistan in 1980. She is currently working on a project about Afghan women's history, along with a commentary to the destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
Farewell, good ol' Marjan... The lone king of Kabul zoo succumbs to his age at 48, after surviving years and years of deprivations and symbolizing to kabulis the spirit of resiliency itself Well.....that's sad news, indeed. To my eyes, Marjan symbolized hope. However, in thinking about that dear old lion's death I choose to believe that when he heard the swoosh of kites flying over Kabul, heard the roars from the football stadium, experienced the renewed sounds of music in the air and heard the click-click of chess pieces being moved around chessboards....well, the old guy knew that there was plenty of hope around and it was okay for him to let go and fly off, amid kite strings, to wherever it is the spirits of animals go.
Peace to you Marjan and peace to Afghanistan.
[Diana Smith, via the Internet]