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Afghan Women Hope US Air Campaign Brings Better Life - 2001-10-19

As U.S.-led forces continue their anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, women in that war-torn country are wondering what their lives would be like if the Taleban government is toppled. For the last five years, the women in Afghanistan have suffered under the most severe restrictions. VOA's Alisha Ryu visited a refugee camp in Northern Afghanistan where she spoke with women who have fled Taleban controlled areas to escape repression.

An Afghan woman desperately tries to comfort her one-year-old son and find relief from the blazing heat. Sweat is dampening the edges of the face veil of her burka, a flowing robe that envelops her body like a cocoon.

She has been waiting for an hour with dozens of others in front of a makeshift tent that serves as the only medical clinic available to hundreds of women in this refugee camp. Inside the tent, 10 female volunteers from the non-governmental organization, Doctors Without Borders, have been working tirelessly for more than a year to educate as many young mothers as they can.

Using pictures and illustrations, they teach them the importance of maintaining good hygiene and seeking healthcare for themselves and their children. Most of the women in the camp are poor villagers, who fled from Paloqan, a Taleban-held city near the Tajikistan border.

For the past several years, women there have had to deal not only with poverty, but also the burden of having to stay invisible. In 1996, the Taleban took power in Kabul and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law in the 90 percent of the country it controlled. The Taleban decreed that women were biologically and religiously inferior to men.

Under the Taleban, the women must stay covered in a burka, even in their homes. They are not allowed to go to school or work. They are forbidden to leave their homes without a male escort.

An Afghan-born documentary filmmaker, who recently went to Kabul and secretly filmed women there, says the Taleban's interpretation of the role of women has nothing to do with Islam. Fearing for her safety, she asked VOA not to use her name.

"You are not just seeing a conservative culture in which women's problems are sort of hidden behind the veil, if you like. You are actually seeing, I would say, a much more widespread abuse of women's rights," she says. "You are seeing as a policy that women can't go to school, women can't get proper medical care and so on. I'd say and I think people here would say as well that that doesn't have anything to do with Islamic conservatism."

Here in northern Afghanistan, in territory controlled by opposition forces fighting the Taleban, there appears to be much more tolerance toward women. Many girls are attending school, and some of the educated women say they have the freedom to find work, if work is available.

The opposition Northern Alliance is promising to restore women's rights if the group takes power after the Taleban.

Abdullah Abdullah is the Alliance's foreign minister.

"As far as the role of the women in the society is concerned, the United Front late commander Masood has signed a declaration of women's principal rights, which will ensure principal rights of women. So we are committed to that," he says.

Many women in Afghanistan hope the next government will honor such a promise.