STATUES OF STONE AND FLESH
It's like a scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster: turbaned Arab-looking terrorists in military get-ups train anti-aircraft missiles on two colossal stone Buddhas, mutter praises to Allah, and blow the centuries-old statues to smithereens.
Only it's happening not in Hollywood, but in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. And it's quite real.
The destruction of the aforementioned statues, as well as thousands of smaller ones not hewn into rock, is a direct order from Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar, who makes Saddam Hussein look like an art therapist.
"We are not against culture," the foreign minister of a government that prohibits literature, film, photography, television, dance, theatre, painting, and now, emphatically, sculpture told The Associated Press, "but we don't believe in these things. They are against Islam."
The mandate prompted an international outcry. UNESCO condemned the Taliban and sent an emissary to stay the razing. Buddhist monks led vocal rallies (!) in India and Nepal in protest. Even leaders in such bastions of religious and cultural tolerance as Iran and Cambodia criticized Mullah's decree.
Taliban's Minister of Culture and Information, who we presume focuses more on the latter, told the world that the Taliban was making quick work of the two statues. "It is easier to destroy than to build," he assured The New York Times.
There may be a silver lining in the dark cloud that makes murky Mullah's mind. Perhaps this wanton act of barbarism will focus the world's attention on the real atrocities taking place in Afghanistan. Cultural treasures or no, the statues are stone. The ten million Afghan women who live under harsh Taliban law are flesh and blood.
The Taliban consolidated power in the aftermath of the 1979 Russian invasion, bringing stability to a country wreaked by bloody conflict. Women were badly abused before the Taliban imposed strict Islamic law. Since, their lifestyle makes The Handmaid's Tale read like a fairy tale.
According to the Taliban clerics, women should not be seen or heard in public -- except to be tortured, mutilated, or executed, that is. They exist to cook, clean, procreate, and sate male sexual desire. Anything else is a violation of Islamic law and subject to cruel reprisal.
The result: Women are in effect under permanent house arrest. They are rarely allowed outside of their houses, and then only with a proper male chaperone and covered from head to toe with a burqa, a shapeless black bag veiling the skin. They are routinely flogged for not properly covering their ankles. They can't wear shoes that make a clicking sound when they walk. Bright colored garments and cosmetics are verboten. If they wear nail polish, their fingers are hacked off.
The houses in question have painted-over windows. This is ostensibly to prevent men from glimpsing inside the house, but it also prevents women from looking out. They are also forbidden to go out on the balconies of the houses. All night and all day they are confined, often alone.
Not that there is much to do outside. Women are not permitted to gather for any recreational purpose, nor can they use public baths or other public facilities. They are forbidden to play sports, or ride bicycles or motorcycles. They may not communicate with any man who is not their chaperone -- this includes shopkeepers, tailors, doctors, judges, and teachers. They are not even allowed to laugh.
Worst of all, they are not allowed to work and are denied education. There are precious few female doctors and nurses in the country, and Afghan women are not permitted to go to male ones.
Women are nothing in Afghanistan. They are beaten, maimed, abused, raped, and executed with alarming regularity. They are given away by farmers who are no longer allowed to grow opium, Afghanistan's sole lucrative export, in lieu of cash to repay debts. And the psychological damage is impossible to imagine.
This has been going on for a decade, and the world allows it to go on. Afghanistan, after all, has no oil, so the suffering of its citizens is not a priority of the U.S. or any other government. And until it is, the Afghan women will continue to suffer.
Let's hope the destruction of the statues will put the real atrocities of the Taliban on the radar. Let's hope the powers that be end the gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Let's hope the Buddhas will not have died in vain.
By Greg Olear