Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 6, 2002
Afghan recalls liberated past and laments a dim future
She was one of a new group of unshackled women

At War With Terror

KABUL, 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 Night Fever.

It 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.

"I'm 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 depressing."

Though 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 familiar.

The 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.

After them came the Taliban, who ended the chaos - but wouldn't allow women in public unless accompanied by their husbands or blood relatives.

"All 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 well."

She 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.

"Wife of an Englishman!" they said as they struck. "What have you done with yourself?"

Every 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.

"Don't worry," he said. "Have patience. These things will not go on forever."

She 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.

A Northern Alliance soldier assigned to guard the group made it clear he had not fought the Taliban in order to restore women's rights.

"The 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."

His felt pakul beret and camouflage jacket were trademarks of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, whose forces now dominate the new interim government.

So 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.


Wahidi 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.

At Sultan Razir High School, she quickly rose to become a supervisor.

"At 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."

At 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 family.

Even 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.)

Taher's military job did not pay well, but it included monthly allotments of such rare commodities as flour and fuel.

Under 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 that."

After 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.

They 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.

One 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.

When 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.

The 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.

"I heard many stories like that," said Wahidi.

And there was the larger-scale violence, one mujaheddin faction targeting another with no regard for the people of the city caught in between.

On 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.

One of the 9-year-old twins, Selsela, lay on the floor, blood trickling from her forehead. Taher tried to close her eyes.

Wahidi 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 head.

Their house burned down. Much of Karte-she still lies in ruins.


The Taliban drove out the mujaheddin in 1996. Dour, uneducated men, they banned music, television, movies, sports. There was no art. There were no jobs.

"People 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."

Wahidi 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.' "

She became a tutor, teaching a half-dozen students for a few dollars a month in tuition. "It was very dangerous," she said.

Eventually some friends whispered, " 'You are being noticed. You are looking for trouble.' " After four months, she stopped.

"I 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?' "

She 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."

Wahidi 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 opportunity."

Under 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.

Any 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."

Still, they are not the Taliban.

"We 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." home page   
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