Unveiling the Taleban Dress Codes Are Not the Issue, New Study Finds
While outrage over the Taleban's requirement that Afghan women wear a head-to-toe veil continues, a new comprehensive study shows that the majority of Afghan women consider the Taleban's dress codes a non-issue, and many choose to wear the burqa or chadari whether the Taleban decrees it or not.
Physicians for Human Rights's 2001 study corrects for some biases in its hugely influential 1998 report, The Taliban's War on Women. "We made a huge deal in the last report about the clothing edicts," says PHR's Susannah Sirkin, sparking nationwide feminist outrage with the Taleban regime. But that report "was not a randomized sample," says PHR's Dr. Lynn L. Amowitz. "It was a discussion of what was happening to educated Kabulese women who had abandoned traditional practices." For their first study, researchers interviewed about 80 women in Kabul, the country's most modern city, and 80 refugees in Pakistan. Amowitz led last year's 3-month study in Afghanistan, which entailed interviews with over 200,000 Afghan women and men, from both rural and urban areas, some under Taleban control and others not.
While the media were “all over” the first study, PHR says, there's been precious little attention paid to this latest one. A wire service report was apparently ignored. The Los Angeles Times buried a brief mention on the most obvious finding—that the majority of Afghan women and men say the Taleban has worsened their lives—at the end of a story. Barbara Crossette's article on the study has yet to be published by the New York Times.
The results paint a more nuanced and complex view of Afghanistan's closed society and the brutal Taleban regime, in particular the vast differences between Kabul and other urban areas and the Afghan countryside. Whereas many women in Kabul worked, went to school, and wore Western clothing, in rural areas, tradition, poverty, and war had prevented many women from entering public life even before the Taleban rode into town. Most of the adult women in the new survey--subject to mandatory education during the 1970s and 1980s--attended school for less than 2 years. Today, while Taleban edicts drastically restrict women's access to health care, over half of Afghan women say the main reason they can't get medical attention is because they can't afford it.
Most striking in the face of U.S. feminist campaigns against the veil is the finding that over 80% of women in non-Taleban controlled areas say they wear the chadari all the time and over 90% say that their dress rarely affects their daily lives. Over 80% of all respondents consider persecution for dress code infractions an unimportant issue.
Feminist campaigns have been crucial in educating Americans about Taleban rule in Afghanistan. Amowitz, however, says she's concerned that the attention "is not for the issues that are most important." Feminist campaigns raised public awareness in many cases by making the burqa--and American repulsion to it--the emotional center of their projects. Oprah Winfrey's critically acclaimed reading of Eve Ensler's "Under the Burqa," to 18,000 people at New York City's Madison Square Garden told the story of an Afghan woman under Taleban rule, ending with the appearance of a burqa-clad Afghan woman. Audience members, who afterward signed petitions against the Taleban in the thousands, pinned bits of fabric from burqas on their lapels in remembrance.
The burqa is a "symbol of the total oppression of women," says Feminist Majority Campaign's Norma Gattsek. Thus, the centerpiece of the Feminist Majority's Campaign to End Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, launched in 1997 as the group's first foray into international politics, is a project that distributes burqas to schoolchildren across the country. Over 600 groups participate in the Feminist Majority's "Back-to-School" campaign. The campaign draws attention to the fact that the Taleban outlawed female education and employment (today, they allow girls' religious education up till the age of 8). In addition to viewing a wrenching Marlo-Thomas-narrated video, hearing lectures, and donating money to Afghan girls' home schools and NGO-run schools, participants are lent burqas to try on. Thousands of others buy the group's "symbol of remembrance," a small swatch of mesh material representing the burqa
"It is the most smothering experience to put one on," says Gattsek. "Anytime a group has used one, they have told us that that moment of putting that on was overwhelming. Because it really made them feel, how could I live like this, totally cut off from the world?"
A more accurate rendition of women's Taleban-induced problems would probably entail an enforced fast and/or being stoned by classmates. The Taleban continues to impose hangings, amputations, and deaths by stoning, in a society of gross deprivations and ongoing civil war. International repugnance with their regime has isolated the country. This January's latest round of UN sanctions aimed at pressuring the Taleban to hand over Osama bin Laden may intensify the civil war and deepen poverty, human rights advocates say. International flights have been banned, and a lop-sided arms embargo prohibits military aid to the Taleban but not to the factions fighting against them, which have openly stated that foreign powers continue to fund their war.
All of this has especially dire ramifications for women and children, who comprise three-quarters of all refugees from the country, making feminist activism in defense of Afghanistan's women especially critical. The work of the Feminist Majority and other women's rights groups--drumming up humanitarian aid, funneling funds to women's clinics and home-schools, petitioning the administration to pressure Pakistan and other countries to stanch the flow of arms to Afghanistan--is exemplary. But the tactic of capitalizing on American horror of the Muslim veil, while it may work well in drawing attention to the heartbreaking plight of women in Afghanistan, has now been undeniably uprooted from reality. Let's drop it.