Shirlee Taraki takes on the Taliban
The spice trade and vibrant silks, oppression and poverty. When
Shirlee Heda Taraki, AB43, AM47, talks about Afghanistan,
where she lived for 25 years, she provides contrasting details and
a call to action. In lectures around Chicago this springincluding
one at the U of C sponsored by International House, Amnesty International,
MidEast 2000, and the Feminist MajorityTaraki has called attention
to the plight of Afghanistans female population.
Since taking control of the Afghan capital of Kabul in September
1996, the radical Taliban movement has systematically imposed restrictions
on Afghanistans citizens, especially the women. Many women
have been forced into virtual house arrest under edicts banning
them from seeking employment or education, and from leaving home
unaccompanied by a male relative. Perhaps the most symbolic of the
restrictions is that all women must wear a chadari when in public.
Required by law of urban women until 1959, the head-to-toe garment
promotes modesty but interferes with mobility and safety, shielding
the eyes with netting and covering even the hands.
In 1988, Taraki founded the Afghan Womens Task Force. The
organization now raises funds to help women in Kabul, many of whom
have lost their jobs and are reduced to begging; tries to influence
the Taliban movement to allow women greater freedom; and aids Afghan
refugees in the Midwest. She estimates that there are about 100
families from Kabul in the Chicago area. Right now, my group
is helping refugees settle in, she says. One of my projects
is to help an Afghan family start an Afghan restaurant in Evanston.
Taraki, who grew up in Chicago, met her husband, Mohamed Rasul
Taraki, then a Northwestern University student, at International
House in 1943. When the couple moved to Afghanistans capital
city of Kabul in 1947, her in-laws offered her a chadari. As a foreigner,
Tarakis husband told her, she did not have to wear it.
Although she dressed in Western clothes, Tarakiwho taught
English in girls schools and raised their son and daughter
while her husband worked as a government officiallearned to
speak Persian and grew sensitive to the countrys mores. I
never wore sleeveless tops, she recalls, and I learned
to act modestly, especially in public.
Returning to the U.S. after her husbands death in 1972, she
experienced culture shock in reverse: I realized that I had
become a very different person than I might have been had I stayed.
I picked up really meaningful things in Afghanistanfeeling
compassion for other people, growing and sharing as a teacher, meeting
people who have influenced my lifebut I also learned to behave,
to be less assertive, and more subdued. Influenced by her
daughter (who, like her son, had come to the United States to attend
college) and other young women, Taraki read Betty Friedans
The Feminine Mystique and joined the National Organization for Women
In Afghanistan, similar reassessments of womens place in
society occurred, stemming from changes in government policies and
from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when, as men went to war
and were killed or disabled, women took on nontraditional roles.
With the Taliban takeover, many women have reacted to the loss of
their relatively new freedoms in a way that Taraki finds easy to
Although chadaris can be any color, drab hues are favored. But
recently, she says, Afghan women have been showing their resentment
at the Taliban by wearing brightly colored chadarislike green
and canary yellow. There arent any restrictions on wearing
bright colors yet. Its a small gesture, but one that
Shirlee Taraki admires.J.P.