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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2004/ 29 Tishrei, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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A long way from Kabul, baby | Western women can be such spoiled brats. The photographs of Afghan women bravely peering through their burqas to vote make up a picture of the female of the species at its best. How magnificently minimal, defying Taliban threats, risking their lives to vote.

What sharp contrast to the high-fashion runways in Paris, where one model at Dior, her eyes rimmed in thick dark blue mask lines with matching lipstick, was dressed in a T-shirt with the message, "Dior not War." (As if that's anyone's choice.) Dresses in classic Stepford Wives fashion were updated with huge pouffe skirts mocking both femininity and feminism. Dramatically high hairdos were sculpted with thick curls built into towers, or pulled into curved structures that looked like straw huts. One model wore a see-through plastic bag over her head.

Of course no one is meant to take most of these fashions seriously. High fashion for the female in the West is sexy and fun, dictated by men (and a few women) who are out to make a statement, sometimes playing it for humor and sometimes rendering themselves absurd even when they're not trying to. Middle Eastern fashion is for hiding the female face and body. Theirs is deadly serious fashion, dictated by men afraid of temptation and women afraid to be tempting.

Memories are long and Afghan women remember how the Taliban beat them for exposing the briefest flash of flesh. Before the elections, many Afghan women spoke of their deepest fears, of bringing shame to their families if they were beaten to death outside their homes. Death on the street is dishonor. Many husbands forbade their wives to vote. Others told them whom to vote for.

In spite of such obstacles, large numbers of women turned out to vote, cheerfully waiting in long lines. Forty-one percent of the nation's registered voters are women, and exhilaration, not fear, marked election day across the nation. Some women even worked at the polling booths, further risking stigma; village radicals circulated stories that the only women voting would be prostitutes catering to Americans and other foreigners.

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Under Taliban rule, education was forbidden to women, and 80 percent of Afghan women cannot read or write. The few educated women gravitate to the city, and rural women must fight a lonely fight to learn to read and to vote, struggling against intimidating fathers, brothers and husbands. Many Afghan men fear that the presidential election marks the loosening of their traditional power and control over their women, and we can rejoice that they're probably right. Warlords and tribal elders are particularly threatened.

One candidate, a writer recently returned from exile in Paris to run for president, spoke out against polygamy and campaigned for women to have a voice in divorce. This was more than a political issue, and mullahs called for his disqualification as a candidate, citing his "blasphemy." Eighty years ago, an Afghan king was forced into exile when he banned polygamy and advocated the education of women. Change is difficult.

Among the original 18 candidates for president, only one was a woman, but that's a start. A quarter of the new parliament to be elected next spring must be female.

Robina Muqimyar, a woman who made the team Afghanistan sent to the Athens Olympics earlier this year, finished next to last in the women's 100-meter race, but she had a longer way to go than most. She trained in Kabul Stadium, where the Taliban once hanged Afghan men from the goal posts for their amusement.

The presidential election in Afghanistan can rightly be regarded as a remarkable victory in the war against terrorism and the struggle to establish democracy in a backward part of the world, but it's also a breakthrough for women struggling to rise above narrow male chauvinism embedded in a particularly backward version of an ancient religion.

"Just three years ago, women were being executed in the sports stadium," says President Bush. "Today they're voting for a leader of a free country." The emancipation of women in the Middle East, as Bernard Lewis, the distinguished scholar of Islamic culture, observes, "is the touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization."

More than a million girls are now studying in Afghanistan. Their education will move the struggle for democracy forward. Most women have given up the burqa for headscarves, long dresses and pants, and that's a long way from a T-shirt that reads "Dior Not War." Americans can take a certain pride that we have contributed to their emancipation. "You've come a long way, baby."

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS