Hindu Vivek Kendra
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The women defying Taliban

The women defying Taliban

Author: Stephen Farrell
Publication: The Statesman
Date: June 28, 2000

Stephen Farrell meets the Afghan women who risk their lives by going to the aid of their countrymen

THEY fled their homes when the mullahs of Taliban made life in their native Afghanistan unbearable. But now, a few miles south of the Khyber Pass, a handful of Afghan women are preparing to return home to brave Taliban's harsh Islamic regime in order to bring desperately-needed skills to their benighted country.

As tens of thousands of their countrymen continue to flow across the border into Pakistan, a number of university-educated refugees have started making the reverse journey to work secretly, teaching girls who are not allowed to go to school. Others risk the wrath of the mullahs by returning to work as doctors and nurses.

One such reverse refugee is 29-year-old gynaecologist Farzana, who gave birth to her first child just three weeks ago. Later this month, Farzana will take up a job at a mother and child healthcare clinic serving 15 villages near Rostaq, in the northern Takhar province.

This is only possible because, although Taliban continues to enforces its harsh Islamic agenda in the 90 per cent of the country under its control, medical workers are allowed to function under strictly-controlled conditions. These include wearing full-length veils and being chaperoned in public by a close male relative.

North Takhar, where Farzana not her real name will be based, is now under the control of anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Masood. But although his regime is much more relaxed towards women, the young doctor knows Taliban could overrun it at any time.

Neither this nor the prospect of earning nearly double the available pounds 75 monthly wage by staying in Pakistan, will stop her and her husband returning to the country she fled in 1991.

"The main reason I am going back is for my people. There are a lot of patients there and I want to help them," she said. "We will stay for three years and see what happens after that. Taliban doesn't usually interfere with health workers so I think we will be safe. If they come we will see what they do with us, and decide then."

Her job, like many in a country devastated by 20 years of fighting, is provided by a foreign organisation. The Norwegian Project Office aid agency identified her from a computer database of qualified refugees provided by the International Organisation for Migration.

Earlier this month, three women doctors already working inside Afghanistan returned to Peshawar in Pakistan to share their experiences. They told of being unable to send their own children to school, waiting hours for single sex buses to arrive together so they could travel with chaperones and of the restrictions on women socialising or gathering, which have only recently been slightly relaxed by Taliban.

One 32-year-old doctor forced to leave her husband and two children behind in Peshawar, said: "I do not regret my decision, but the only thing that always makes me sad is being away from my children. When I receive my daughter's letter she frequently writes {mother, you are a good doctor but not a good mother."

So desperate is the economic situation on both sides of the border that the Khyber Pass has become a revolving door for refugees. Thousands flee Afghanistan in search of work and nearly as many head back again for the same reason, despite deep concern for their safety.

But with two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan "hospitality fatigue" is evident among the people of Peshawar and other border towns, after two decades in which the Afghans have seen themselves decline from the anti-Soviet heroes of the West to an unwanted and forgotten economic burden. The United Nations High Commissi-oner for Refugees (UNHCR) fears this burden will only be slightly alleviated by a new US scheme to evacuate 4,000 women refugees deemed to be "at risk" by virtue of their education, politics or denial of opportunities.

Marie-France Sevestre, head of the UNHCR's Peshawar office, said she was delighted to see any refugee given opportunities, but questioned the long-term benefit to Afghanistan. "We recognise it is a good programme but we cannot send everybody abroad. It won't solve the country's problem. We don't want to encourage a brain drain, that's not the way to rebuild Afghanistan. We want to encourage more education and planning here."

Among the crowds of despondent village-dwellers, affluent Afghans who have "made it" and toy gun-wielding youths in the mud and brick refugee camps of Peshawar, there are some who are prepared to take very great risks to bring such education to their country.

Manizha, 39, a university literature teacher, will soon leave Peshawar to teach girls in the secret network of "home schools" that provide the only education available to young women in major Afghan cities where, unlike some outlying areas, Taliban's control is tight enough to enforce their rules. Manizha's Peshawar landlord recently increased the rent beyond her means and this, combined with boredom, persuaded her it was time to go back after eight years. "I had a Masters degree. I taught at Kabul University. Now I am teaching 12-year-olds," she said angrily. "There are a lot of Afghan teachers in Peshawar now, the education system is better than in Afghanistan. I want to go back to bring a little change to my home. The Afghan people there need our work more than those living here."

With arrangmnet - The Times, London.

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