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June 1, 2002

Women Risking Their Lives for Education

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A Dangerous Mission
In Pakistan, we meet journalists who have been waiting many months to get into Afghanistan. But we are very lucky. Within a week, after an extraordinary intervention on our behalf by the International Rescue Committee, we secure the visas we need. We will be escorted by Uma, a sweet 20-year-old woman who has been on only one other mission for RAWA in Afghanistan. If questioned, we agree to say that we are tourists and Uma is our translator. Uma is required to don the suffocating burqa. Willa and I, as foreigners, are permitted to cover ourselves with scarves instead. Notebooks, cameras and cell phones are banned, but we bring the first two anyway. An armed Pakistani policeman travels with us; when checkpoint officials along the route through the Himalayas seem ready to turn us away, he waves his Russian-made machine gun and they let us pass.

At the border, however, Taliban guards force us out of our car, claiming we do not have the right permit for it. Abandoning the car, we actually walk across the border into Afghanistan, our luggage in tow.

We hire a new driver, who loads us into a decrepit station wagon and takes us far through the desert to a particular city, where we check into a hotel. Like all public lodgings, it is run by the Taliban -- and judging from the urinal in our bathroom, we may be the first women to stay here.

Uma has set up a covert RAWA meeting for that evening. We cover ourselves in burqas in an attempt to blend in and avoid being followed. The three of us, covered in miles of fabric, squeeze into a tiny cab, a glorified golf cart. Almost immediately, the heat becomes unbearable, and I gasp for breath. I'm trying to be brave, but it's useless. I wouldn't last a day under the Taliban.

We take a circuitous route to a RAWA school, a house indistinguishable from the impoverished dwellings that surround it. A young teacher tells me that 35 small classes are held here, teaching science, math and reading. The literacy rate among women in Afghanistan is now 4 percent, she tells me; without education, there is no hope of raising a generation strong enough to defy the Taliban.

"The students arrive at different times, one by one," says the teacher. "If someone knocks on the door, we hide the blackboard. The students have so much interest in school. Most don't know it's RAWA -- but they know that if the Taliban sees them learning, they could die."

I interview the women and write for a few hours in a room illuminated by only a little pocket flashlight -- the Taliban has cut off the city's electricity. Then they tell us we must go: If we are seen outside after the 9pm curfew, there will be trouble. The women hug and kiss us again and again. They plead with us to tell their stories to the world, but they have no self-pity.

Staring Down the Taliban
We spend a week in Afghanistan, with only one joyous moment. I had heard that the Taliban beats women who eat ice cream in public. For some reason, this haunts me. So when Uma tells us she knows a secret place where women go for ice cream, I can't wait.

We walk through a crowded bazaar and into a broken-down restaurant. In the back, sheets have been hung from the ceiling to create a makeshift room. Willa, Uma and I walk in and sit down, and the sheets are pulled around us.

When Uma lifts her burqa and eats the cool, sweet ice cream, she becomes a child -- in the time before women were locked away without schools or jobs, when they could laugh and see the sky. For a moment, no one has control over her. Then we are warned that Taliban men are circling the bazaar in their pickups. The moment is over.

Some part of me fears I will never get out of Afghanistan. And indeed, as we drive back to Pakistan a few days later, our car gets stopped by a member of the dreaded Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (DPVPV). He is huge and raging, a mass of long hair and dirty beard. He sees that I am covered but not wearing a burqa, and he orders me out of the car. He is clutching a wooden paddle, attached to which is a long, flat, wide leather whip used for flogging. I recall the black and blue ankles of the woman I met at that first RAWA school, and the way she still had trouble walking.

I stare at him. He stares at me. Suddenly, our driver leaps out of the car, hysterical, giving Mr. Taliban all kinds of visas and explanations. As a result, he lets us go.

One minute out of his sight, our driver begins laughing wildly, as one might after a near-death experience. Uma confesses that it was the first time she had seen a member of the DPVPV in the flesh -- it made the struggle real for her. But Willa is quiet, very quiet. She keeps the cloth on her face for quite some time, even after we walk back over the border into Pakistan.

What You Can Do
For information on how you can help RAWA's cause, visit www.rawa.org.

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