Thursday, November 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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After the burqa in Afghanistan

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No smile is as wide and engaging as one that has been hidden behind a full cloth covering for five years. Afghan women are coming out from behind traditional burqas, smiling as the sunshine warms their faces.

Women in areas of Afghanistan no longer controlled by the Taliban are once again looking for jobs, walking without male chaperones and reopening business shut down by Taliban rulers. Women suffered considerably under the Taliban, so their moments of freedom and reawakening are among the most rewarding to watch.

Afghan women have been non-people since the Taliban seized power in 1996.

"We had no life, nothing for us to do, we were not people," said a female beauty shop operator, who reopened her salon one day after the Islamic militia fled. "We were neither alive nor dead."

Afghanistan has long been a conservative place, but the Taliban's strict, even fanciful interpretation of Islamic law made the tent-like burqa mandatory. Women were not allowed to work outside the home; girls over age 8 were not allowed to attend school — all of which created an underclass of women.

Some women violated the rules by forming secret underground schools for girls; some ventured unescorted to market.

Rejoicing Americans must be careful not to impose their views of gender politics on women of a vastly different culture. Some Afghan women chose to observe conservative rules and wear burqas before the Taliban came to power.

But the good news emerging from Afghanistan is women once again can decide for themselves. They can pursue careers, they can walk like regular citizens in villages and cities.

Once again, they can live and feel like people.


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