Afghan recalls liberated
past and laments a dim future
She was one of a new group of
War With Terror
Afghanistan - Raesa Wahidi sat in her unadorned apartment, wistfully
looking through family photographs. In one, decades old, she was young and
single - unveiled, in a stylish houndstooth dress and high heels. In
another she was a youthful wife, her husband, Mohammed Taher, at her side.
He was clean-shaven with blow-dried hair, like John Travolta in Saturday
was early December, a few weeks after the Taliban's hasty departure from
Kabul, and already some restrictions had been lifted. But the Afghanistan
in Wahidi's photographs remained distant, unreachable. She was still
afraid to leave home without swathing herself in a burqa.
educated," said Wahidi, 43, the mother of five and - before the
Taliban forbade women to work - a science teacher. "I studied for 17
years. My husband is educated. Now all I do is stay at home. I want my
children to be properly educated, but I can't afford that. It is very
the Taliban have been vanquished, thanks to the American bombing campaign,
Wahidi does not rejoice. The Afghanistan in which she flourished
disappeared 10 years ago, while the one taking shape is frighteningly
Northern Alliance forces who ousted the Taliban were the same ones
governing Kabul in the early 1990s, a time of horror when women were
kidnapped and assaulted - and worse: Wahidi lost a child - by men calling
themselves holy warriors.
them came the Taliban, who ended the chaos - but wouldn't allow women in
public unless accompanied by their husbands or blood relatives.
of a sudden you're imprisoned in the house," Wahidi said. "You
can't move for four or five years. It's as though you're in a dark
was one of a new generation of unshackled Afghan women, the first to
choose their own careers, their own spouses, whether or not to cover their
hair. Abruptly, that freedom vanished and she was reduced to choosing
whether to teach her daughters at home or risk enrolling them in an
underground school, defying a regime whose religious enforcers once
whipped her for wearing a ponytail beneath her burqa.
of an Englishman!" they said as they struck. "What have you done
now and then, Wahidi said, there would be a flash of humanity. One day
when she was unable to find a bus, a Taliban car responded to her wave.
She got in and the commander, whom she did not know, rolled up the windows
and popped in a cassette of Naghma, a popular - and banned - singer.
worry," he said. "Have patience. These things will not go on
had prayed to Allah for that, and in November, when the regime fell like a
house of cards, at first she was filled with hope. The day after Kabul's
liberation she ventured out to a Canadian humanitarian organization,
joining hundreds of other women desperate for jobs, some of whom had
uncovered their faces.
Northern Alliance soldier assigned to guard the group made it clear he had
not fought the Taliban in order to restore women's rights.
Taliban did a good job when they were beating you up," he barked.
"There should be somebody like the Taliban to keep you in line."
felt pakul beret and camouflage jacket were trademarks of the
Jamiat-e-Islami party, whose forces now dominate the new interim
that's the way it's going to be, Wahidi thought. She understood then that
the Afghanistan of her youth would not return in her lifetime.
grew up in Kabul, first under King Shah and then the communists. In her
ethnic-Tajik family, her mother ran the household, and her father was a
government school inspector. Wahidi went to the University of Kabul to
study education; she wanted to teach science and math.
Sultan Razir High School, she quickly rose to become a supervisor.
that age you're full of energy and can do a lot of work," she said.
"I was single, and I was beautiful. Everybody loved me. I wasn't as
strict with the teachers as the previous headmaster."
25, she married Mohammed Taher, who had grown up in her neighborhood - a
marriage for love, not arranged. Taher worked for the army as a specialist
in radio codes. When he was assigned to Grazni province, where the
communist government was fighting the mujaheddin insurgency, Wahidi gave
up her supervisory job, returned to teaching, and worked on building a
with the war, she remembers those as blissful years. Twin girls, Pakeza
and Selsela, were born in 1985, then two more daughters, Benfsha and
Khojesha. (Later there would be two sons, Mansour, now 5, and Maywand, 3.)
military job did not pay well, but it included monthly allotments of such
rare commodities as flour and fuel.
the communists, women had many rights. There were even female soldiers -
which went too far, by many Afghans' reckoning. "This is an
understated society," Wahidi said. "One should remember
the communist government fell in 1992, Wahidi and Taher returned to Kabul,
where he worked for the new Islamic government. But the disintegration of
civil order under the mujaheddin soon grew unbearable.
lived in the Karte-she neighborhood, controlled by ethnic Hazaras. Goods
were cheaper in another neighborhood controlled by Pashtuns. So many women
earned extra money buying goods in one part of town and selling them in
another. Wahidi went into the charcoal business.
afternoon soldiers at a checkpoint stopped her. "You are not a good
woman because you go out and buy charcoal and leave your husband at
home," they scolded. It was late in the day, and the soldiers
detained her and took her to a mosque, making lewd comments. She feared
the worst. Fortunately, there was an older couple in the mosque. They
spent the night together and then fled before sunrise.
she returned to her frantic family, she did not reveal what the soldiers
said to her, fearing Taher would seek revenge. But she never again went
out again to buy charcoal.
daughter-in-law of a pharmacist in their neighborhood was raped by
mujaheddin, Wahidi said. "She was very beautiful. They dropped her
off in front of pharmacy. The pharmacist tried to keep it a secret, but
everybody knew what happened. The woman didn't want to come back to the
house. Her husband was embarrassed. He could not go to anyone to complain,
to ask for any help." In her shame, the woman went away, abandoning
her husband and two sons.
heard many stories like that," said Wahidi.
there was the larger-scale violence, one mujaheddin faction targeting
another with no regard for the people of the city caught in between.
the morning of Sept. 18, 1994, Wahidi was filling a thermos with hot tea
when a rocket streaked into the kitchen, filling the room with flames and
chunks of concrete. The missile from the Jamiat militia was aimed at the
Hazara faction in her neighborhood.
of the 9-year-old twins, Selsela, lay on the floor, blood trickling from
her forehead. Taher tried to close her eyes.
screamed - "I was convinced she was still alive and that he shouldn't
do that." She did not notice the wound in the back of her daughter's
house burned down. Much of Karte-she still lies in ruins.
Taliban drove out the mujaheddin in 1996. Dour, uneducated men, they
banned music, television, movies, sports. There was no art. There were no
lost all means of income," said Wahidi. "The Taliban didn't care
about people. During the Taliban time, people were alive, but it was a
gradual death, step by step."
continued to report to school every week to sign her time sheet and get
paid. After a year, she said, the mullah in charge told her, " 'This
is your last salary. You're finished with this place.' "
became a tutor, teaching a half-dozen students for a few dollars a month
in tuition. "It was very dangerous," she said.
some friends whispered, " 'You are being noticed. You are looking for
trouble.' " After four months, she stopped.
was sitting at home depressed, feeling very poorly," she said.
"I was telling my daughters: 'Don't go to school, it's no use. See
where it has gotten me?' "
did not really mean it: Her eldest daughter, Pakeza, took classes taught
by a neighbor couple until the Taliban forced them to flee the country.
Now, said Wahidi, "she'll always be behind."
warmly recalls her own youth, and her life as a university student.
"Those years have passed, but a good memory stays in mind," she
said. "I'm sad my daughter doesn't have that freedom. . . . There
were lots of things I used to do that I liked, but she hasn't had the
the Taliban, there was no way for girls to meet boys outside their
families. Wahidi had begun receiving visits from other mothers to discuss
marriage prospects for Pakeza. Now it is not clear what the future might
hold for Pakeza. The discussions are on hold.
optimism is, however, tempered by Wahidi's own long, disappointing
experience. "Until I see someone capable of leading, and I see them
in place, I don't have much hope," she said. "These mujaheddin
don't inspire me."
they are not the Taliban.
have been praying and reading the Koran for these people to go. In some
ways, we can only be grateful for Osama bin Laden. Without him, the
American planes would not have come."