Since the rise of the conservative Islamic Taliban regime in 1996, the lives of women in Afghanistan have changed dramatically. Women who had held professional jobs for years were told they were no longer allowed to work outside the home. In public they were now required to wear a burqa–a cumbersome head-to-toe garment with an opaque mesh veil covering the eyes–and to be chaperoned by a male relative at all times. As punishment for violating the rules, some women have been beaten or stoned to death.

The Taliban “are fundamentalists who believe that women have to be sequestered,” says Evanston resident Shirlee Taraki, who married a man from Afghanistan and lived there for 25 years. “Now there are problems like not enough doctors, because they won’t let them work.”

It’s a huge step backward for Afghan women, who since the late 50s had enjoyed a gradual relaxation of the dictates on their behavior and dress. In August 1959 a member of the royal family appeared unveiled at the annual independence day parade. During the evening celebration that followed, “all women had to come without a veil,” says Taraki, who attended the event. “The prime minister’s daughters and wife came out unveiled. People were feeling very uncomfortable.”

The trend soon spread to the general public. “Teachers began to arrive at schools without veils,” says Taraki, who taught school in Kabul. The students followed suit, and “when I left [in the early 70s] women were completely free to do almost anything they wanted in terms of jobs,” she says.

The situation had been quite different when Taraki arrived in Afghanistan with her husband, Mohamed, in 1947, three years after the two were married. They had met through mutual friends when she was a student at the University of Chicago and he was at Northwestern. Her parents, who lived in Roseland, were not happy about the union; nor was his government, which terminated his scholarship.

“I wouldn’t have married him if he’d been a U.S. citizen,” Taraki says. “It wasn’t just a love story, you know. Here was this whole live person from another country–an exotic country.”

Mohamed had warned her about the restrictions on women in Afghanistan and told her she might have to wear a veil. As the foreign wife of a government official (at one point he was the governor of the province of Kabul), it turned out that she didn’t. She learned Persian, taught English at a girls’ school, and had two children (her son now lives in Evanston). “We had a lot of servants,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine. I didn’t even have a phone at times. We were completely dependent on other people to do things for us.”

When Taraki went out she was accompanied by her driver. “If I passed my brothers-in-law on the street I didn’t recognize them. My husband said, ‘You must not speak to any male in public, because someone may see you smiling at someone and then they might start a story.’ He was scared to death of any indication that people did not consider me a faithful and chaste wife.”

Mohamed died of cancer in 1972, after making Taraki promise that she would return to the U.S. “His honor was at stake,” she says. “In Afghanistan it’s tied in to the women of the family. I would have been thrown to the wolves.”

Taraki had read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in Afghanistan, and upon her return to the U.S. she joined a women’s liberation group and turned her back on her former home. Her resolve lasted until the Soviet invasion in 1979, when reports of thousands of Afghan refugees pouring into Pakistan convinced her to get involved in resettlement efforts. She became a member of Amnesty International after learning that a nephew in Kabul had been imprisoned by the communists and was the object of a letter-writing campaign. Eventually she organized the Afghan Women’s Task Force, a group that promotes ties within the local Afghan community and raises funds for overseas aid, most of it earmarked for women. For the past several years Taraki has hosted a slide talk, “An American Woman in Afghanistan,” detailing her experiences.

Her most recent project is a small exhibit tucked into a corner of the James R. Thompson Center. “Women of Afghanistan” features intricately embroidered clothing as well as jewelry, magazines, and pictures. In a photo dating from 1986, members of a women’s basketball team triumphantly hold up a trophy; the players sport bobs, bangs, and sweatpants. In another photo a female machinist in a denim shirt works in a factory. These images are juxtaposed with a recent photo showing a group of women in head scarves with their faces covered.

“I want people to know that these are real people behind the veil, with beautiful faces and wonderful lives they could be living. I’m not trying to get anyone to rise against the Taliban. That’s impossible. The important thing is that women are being abused.”

“Women in Afghanistan” is on display through January 29 at the center, 100 W. Randolph. Call 847-475-7839 for information. Taraki will present “An American Woman in Afghanistan” Saturday at 2 and 3:15 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington in Evanston (847-866-0300). Both the exhibit and the slide lecture are free.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.