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Afghan Widows Often Suffered Most Under the Taleban

When the Taleban swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996, many Afghans welcomed the ultra-conservative Islamic warriors, hoping they would bring stability and an end to years of civil war. The Taleban did establish law and order, but with the increased security also came extreme repression, especially against women. And of the women it was often widows who suffered the most.

Everyone in the Yakakut neighborhood of Kabul knows where the bakery is, right off the narrow dirt track along the canal. But this is not just any bakery. This is a women's bakery and strictly off limits to men.

Ten women work in this small room, dominated by a large mud brick oven. They form an assembly line with one woman measuring out the dough, others pounding and rolling it into flat loaves and two more women handling the oven. These women are mostly widows and working here has been their lifeline, a way to earn money to feed their children.

Under the Taleban women banned from working and the women's bakeries offered one of the very few exceptions to that rule.

Jamila has worked at the Yakakut bakery for the past two years. She used to be employed at the state-run radio and television center, but all that changed when the Taleban came.

She says she lost her job as a civil servant. With no husband and with children to support, she had to find a way to earn money. And so when this bakery opened she came here to work. It doesn't pay enough to feed her family, she says, but at least it's something.

There are 21 such bakeries throughout Kabul, established and supported by the World Food Program to help women, especially widows.

Thirty-three year old Sejiya lives in a 6th floor apartment in the Microrayon neighborhood. She studied literature at Kabul University and used to have a job at the Social Works Department. Her husband died 10 years ago, leaving her with three children to care for. She says she managed until the Taleban came and she lost her job and her income. Life was very difficult and I had three kids to raise, she says. I used to work, and with the salary I used to get I was able to feed my children, but when the Taleban came life was very difficult and impossible and I didn't have any hope for the future.

The Taleban also imposed other restrictions. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women could not leave the house unless accompanied by an adult male relative and even then, they had to wear the traditional Afghan head to toe cover, the "burka."

Sejiya says she earned some money by giving school lessons secretly at home. But she says if the Taleban had stayed in power just one more year she would have been forced to go out and beg for money.

Her friend Hamida nods solemnly in agreement. She too used to have a job in the ministry of transportation. Her husband was a military officer, who was killed in the civil war. She has an 11-year old son. Life was very difficult under the Taleban, she says. I lost my job and my income by which I was supporting my family.

Hamida says she had to sell some of her belongings the television, refrigerator and carpets just to buy food.

Both women have vivid memories of their encounters with the Taleban.

Hamida recalls the time she went to a tailor shop to have her son's clothes mended. A Taleb confronted her asking why she was not accompanied by a man from her family. She explained that she was a widow and had only her son. She says the Taleb beat her with a stick in front of her son.

Sejiya recounts another incident. She says she was once turned away from a hospital when she was ill simply because she was not accompanied by a man.

Sejiya and Hamida say they left their apartments only when necessary. When they did go out, they wore the all-covering "burka," which neither of them like. Sejiya says it was like being in prison.

I felt like a bird that had been put in a cage without bread or water. God gave everyone two eyes to see, but they (the Taleban) had closed and locked our eyes and we were not able to do anything.

Now, inside the apartment, Sejiya and Hamida are wearing Western-style clothes, long skirts and sweaters. They have also begun to go back to work. But when they go outside, they still wear the burka.

Both say that, even though the Taleban have been driven from power, most Afghan women are still afraid to go outside without covering up. Both hope in time that will change.