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Activist Shirlee Taraki takes on the Taliban

The spice trade and vibrant silks, oppression and poverty. When Shirlee Heda Taraki, AB’43, AM’47, talks about Afghanistan, where she lived for 25 years, she provides contrasting details and a call to action. In lectures around Chicago this spring—including one at the U of C sponsored by International House, Amnesty International, MidEast 2000, and the Feminist Majority—Taraki has called attention to the plight of Afghanistan’s female population.

Since taking control of the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996, the radical Taliban movement has systematically imposed restrictions on Afghanistan’s 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 Women’s 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 Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul in 1947, her in-laws offered her a chadari. As a foreigner, Taraki’s husband told her, she did not have to wear it.
Although she dressed in Western clothes, Taraki—who taught English in girls’ schools and raised their son and daughter while her husband worked as a government official—learned to speak Persian and grew sensitive to the country’s mores. “I never wore sleeveless tops,” she recalls, “and I learned to act modestly, especially in public.”

Returning to the U.S. after her husband’s 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 Afghanistan—feeling compassion for other people, growing and sharing as a teacher, meeting people who have influenced my life—but 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 Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and joined the National Organization for Women (NOW).

In Afghanistan, similar reassessments of women’s 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 understand.

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 chadaris—like green and canary yellow. There aren’t any restrictions on wearing bright colors yet.” It’s a small gesture, but one that Shirlee Taraki admires.—J.P.

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