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Overcoming the burqa barrier

She dreamt of becoming a photographer when the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan but led a veiled life...

india Updated: Nov 14, 2006 12:42 IST

She dreamt of becoming a photographer when the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan but led a veiled life.

Five years after the militia was ousted, Farzana Wahidy has achieved her ambition.

"During the Taliban time I had been dreaming of becoming a photographer but it was an absolute daydream," says Wahidy, an Afghan female press photographer who usually wears a scarf but not a burqa.

"Luckily, my dream has come true now. Through shooting and releasing photos, I can express my ideas, and do something for the women in this country."

Wahidy, 22, now does part time for a branch of a foreign news agency in Kabul and several news organisations and magazines.

Five years after the Taliban was toppled, some open-minded Afghan women have unveiled themselves from burqas, which are a kind of traditional all-covering robe. But many more Afghan women are still veiled by the robes.

Some say burqa purely is part of Afghan culture, while critics say it is also a symbol indicating Afghan women still hide themselves cautiously behind men and suffer a lower social status.

During the Taliban regime (1996-2001), Afghan women were tightly tied by various rules and suffered from extremely low social status.

They were forbidden from receiving education, going to work and even walking on streets without a male companion. They had to wear burqas, scrupulously covering their bodies.

Despite harshness of social circumstance, brave Wahidy still risked attending underground classes.

"We had to change place for studying frequently. And if Taliban law-enforcers came suddenly, we had to flee swiftly or hide books under our dresses. It was really hard," she said in fluent English.

However, she rejoiced that she had learned English, mathematics and other subjects during the hard time, which were helpful for her to find a job later.

Soon after the Taliban's debacle, Wahidy joined photography training classes and eventually realised her dream of being a photographer, a career rarely undertaken by Afghan females.

Out of question, nowadays women in this land-locked central Asian country have enjoyed higher social status and better living conditions compared to five years ago.

The new Afghan constitution mapped out in early 2004 rules that women have equal rights with men. And more and more women have gone to schools or found jobs.

More and more women have given up burqas and wear more fashionable clothes.

Moreover, some women have worked in the government and played an active role, represented by Habiba Sarabi, who was appointed as governor of Bamyan province in central Afghanistan in March 2005, the first and only lady governor in this country's history.

Nevertheless, not everything is rosy.

Even in Kabul, the bulk of women still are veiled. In the provinces, in the countryside, nearly all women wear the all-covering robes except little girls and aged women.

About two-thirds of Afghan girls still fail to go to school because of poverty, or warning by extremists who threaten to attack the girls taking classes, or their families' timeworn ideas that girls need not receive education.

Up to 85 per cent of all Afghan women are illiterate, and the overwhelmingly majority of women still stay at home and do not go out for work.

Womankind Worldwide, a Britain-based rights group, said between 60 and 80 per cent of all Afghan marriages were forced and 57 per cent of girls were married off before the legal marriage age of 16.

The group also said violence against women was still endemic in this country and since 2003 there had been a dramatic rise in cases of self-immolation by Afghan women who cannot bear their lives.

Abdul Wasi, a 35-year-old pharmacist who graduated from Kabul University, said: "I think the status of Afghan women in a family depends on many factors, one of which importantly is the family's education background."

He said if family members were better educated, women usually enjoyed higher status.

Luckily, more and more Afghan girls have had access to education, although it is true that many still do not have that chance.

On a Kabul street, 11-year-old girl Siweta Hotak said: "Now I study in a Germany-funded school, and 16 out of all the 35 students in my class are girls."