Afghanistan's Veil Of Oppression

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., signs autographs during a rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Friday, Feb. 2007.
What started as a rule of protection for Afghan women under the law of the Taliban now looks like severe descrimination. In the second of a three-part series, CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reports on the human rights abuses women face under this government.
It is a strange, perhaps disturbing sight: anonymous, mysterious figures hiding behind a full-body veil called a burka. To many in the outside world, the burka is the defining symbol of everything repressive and cruel about Afghanistan's new ruling militia, the Taliban.

"We don't have any rights to go out with this veil", declares a woman in a burka. "It is the rules of the government of Taliban that we have to wear this."

But just as the burka shrouds what lies beneath it, its purpose and meaning are hidden from most foreigners.

Inside Afghanistan
Read the rest ofCBS News Anchor Dan Rather's series of reports:

Part One: Aftermath Of A War Of Terror

Part Three: An Afghan In America

Sayed Rahmatullah, a Taliban official, is aware of the perceptions of foreigners.

"I understand that the Western concerns about our women in Afghanistan—we are very sorry for that—but they have to understand our problems here," he says.

Afghanistan is falling apart, broken from 20 years of war. After repelling a decade-long Soviet invasion, a coalition of Afghan freedom fighters turned on each other. It was bedlam.

Laili Helms is an adviser to the Taliban.

"It was like a Mad Max scenario," says Helms, refering to the apocalyptic action film. "Anyone who had a gun and a pickup truck could abduct your women, rape them."

It was this lawlessness that the Taliban rose up against. With the Koran in one hand and a rifle in the other, these young, militant students of Islam have largely brought law and order where there had been anarchy.

"Women had no security," explains Helms. "So 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 the security came at a cost. Early on, the Taliban shut down girls' schools, limited a woman's right to work, and forbade them from appearing in public without a male relative3all, they say, to protect women from rape and assault.

"For us, in a state of war, our priority is to keep them safe," says Rahmatullah. "I mean, we want them to be educated. Unfortunately, we can't do it now. Our priority for women is to keep them safe."

International monitors have called the human rights situation in Afghanistan one of the worst in the world. William Schulz is the executive director of Amnesty International USA and a critic of the Taliban's policies.

"Are the only two options to have women raped and assaulted on the one hand, or to have them totally repressed and refused the opportunities for education and employment?" asks Schulz.

But the Taliban insists the strict policies are largely a thing of the past. The government has begun to relax some of the laws; more women are working, and more girls are going to school.

"We are trying to stabilize the country first. Once it's stable, women will have the access to work, women will have the access to education, and all those human rights will be applied to women," says Rahmatullah.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan and refused to officially recognize the Taliban. But these Afghans say the West's criticism won't help them rebuild their country—and that the United States is condemning what it doesn't understand.