By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
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Helms may be just another suburban mom in the States, but last year in Afghanistan she got movie-star treatment, driving around downtown Kabul in a smart late-model Japanese car, escorted by armed guards waving Kalashnikov rifles, rattling away in English and Farsi as she shot video footage to prove that Afghan women are working, free, and happy.
She stands at the public relations hub of a ragtag network of amateur Taliban advocates in the U.S. At the University of Southern California, economics professor Nake M. Kamrany arranged last year for the Taliban's Rahmatullah Hashami, ambassador at large, to bypass the visa block. He even rounded up enough money for Hashami to lecture at the University of California, both in Los Angeles and Berkeley. The trip ended at the State Department in D.C., with a reported offer to turn Osama bin Laden over to the U.S.
Kamrany hardly looks the part of a foreign emissary, showing up for an interview recently in Santa Monica dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and insisting on a tuna fish sandwich before getting down to defending the burqa, the head-to-toe covering required for Afghani women. In addition to Kamrany, there's the erstwhile official Taliban representative, Abdul Hakim Mojahed, in Queens, whom Helms dismisses with a wave of her hand as a do-nothing, not worth talking to. Mojahed's voice line has been disconnected, and his fax number never picks up.
Dr. Davood Davoodyar, an economics professor at Cal State in San Francisco, joined the jihad to fight against the Soviets in the early 1980s. Today he keeps in touch with the elusive Mojahed, who seems to have gone underground since his office was shuttered. Davoodyar thinks the Taliban is helping to stabilize Afghanistan, but concedes, "If I asked my wife to wear the burqa, she'd kill me."
Also in San Francisco, Ghamar Farhad, a bank supervisor, has served as host to the Taliban's visiting deputy minister of information along with the ambassador at large. She generally likes the Taliban because she believes they have cut down on rape, but got very upset when they blew up the Buddha statues. When the Taliban explained to her that these satanic idols had to go, Farhad says, she changed her mind.
Led by Helms, these people have answers for all the accusations made against the Taliban, starting with its treatment of women. To a visitor it might seem as if women had just disappeared, as if by some sort of massive ethnic cleansing. Though they made up 40 percent of all the doctors and 70 percent of teachers in the capital, women were forced to abandon Western clothes and stay indoors behind windows painted black "for their own good." Ten million reportedly have been denied education, hospital care, and the right to work.
The Taliban insists that a woman wear a burqa, stifling garb with only tiny slits for her eyes and no peripheral vision. Even her voice is banned. In shops or in the market, she must have her brother, husband, or father speak to the shopkeeper so that she will not excite him with the sound of her speaking.
Helms argues that foreign observers have forgotten conditions in the country following the war against the Soviets. "Afghanistan was like a Mad Max scenario," she says. "Anyone who had a gun and a pickup truck could abduct your women, rape them. . . . When the Taliban came and established security, the majority of Afghan women who suffered from the chaotic conditions were happy, because they could live, their children could live."
But a current Physicians for Human Rights poll taken in Afghanistan reports that women surveyed in Taliban-controlled areas "almost unanimously expressed that the Taliban had made their life 'much worse.' " They reported high rates of depression and suicide.
Last year a group of Afghani women gathered in Tajikistan made a concerted demand for basic human rights, citing "torture and inhumane and degrading treatment." Their address noted that "poverty and the lack of freedom of movement push women into prostitution, involuntary exile, forced marriages, and the selling and trafficking of their daughters."
The Taliban drew more worldwide criticism for its abuse of other religious and ethnic minorities. It required that Hindus wear yellow clothingsaris for women and shirts for men, so they could be distinguished from Muslimsa move that immediately brought back images of Jews in Nazi Germany wearing the Star of David. There are 5000 Hindus living in Kabul and thousands more in other Afghan cities. An Indian external affairs spokesman condemned the new requirements as "reprehensible" and told The Times of India it was another example of the Taliban's "obscurantist and racist ideology, which is alien to Afghan traditions."
Helms argues outsiders don't understand the import of the yellow tags. "We asked them to identify themselves [to protect] their religious beliefs. Everyone has identity cards. The intention is to protect people." She shrugs. "Here you have labels for handicapped people. So you can have special parking."
Blowing up the ancient statues of Buddhas, hewn from cliffs in the third and fifth centuries B.C., was another matter. "That was a very big deal," she says. "That was them thumbing their nose at the international community."