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Interview With Nasrine Gross

Aired October 14, 2001 - 07:45   ET


KELLEY: In Afghanistan the Taliban treats women as second class citizens but that may just be scratching realities surface. For example, did you know it's been four years since women in Taliban- controlled areas have been allowed to take a bath?

Nasrine Gross just returned from spending five weeks in northern Afghanistan and she belongs to a Afghan women's rights group and says that the way that the women are treated there varies by directions.

Nasrine, good to have you join us -- thank you.


KELLEY: You just came back from five weeks there. Give us a better understanding of what you saw with the way that women and children are treated there.

GROSS: I spent five weeks in Northern Alliance areas. I had taken a group of American women who were interested, like me, in restoring the rights of Afghan women. We wanted to see firsthand what the independent Afghanistan is like in terms of the situation of women. So we did see a lot of schools, a lot of women's organizations. We went to the universities, the hospitals. And I personally talked with probably over 800 Afghan women, both educated and illiterate.

KELLEY: And are they hopeful for the future and what's happening in their country right now? This is -- as you way, you were in the opposition-controlled area. Are they hopeful for the rest of the country?

GROSS: They are very hopeful. As you know, they have been fighting this evil all alone for the last 60 years without any recognition from most of the world. And they now feel a little bit vindicated that what they are fighting is the right thing and what they believe is also important for an independent Afghanistan and for an Afghanistan that is interested in peace and democracy and normal life instead of this kind of terrorist and Taliban activities and supremacy.

KELLEY: things are different from them in the north, though. As you say, they can go to work, they can have their children and they can go to school. They can go outside of the house. For the folks -- for the women and children who are in the south how do they feel they can help them and tell us more about how the women have not been allowed to take a bath and what life is like for them.

GROSS: You have to realize that the Taliban are the first central authority in the history of the world that have revoked officially by written decree all the inalienable rights of 50 percent of their citizenry -- meaning the women.

The women have not been able to take a bath because the Taliban closed the public baths on women and you know that Afghanistan is a water-scarce place and not many people have running water.

So if you are a widow and have nobody to bring you water from outside or it's in the dead of winter when there is ice and you cannot go out to fetch water there is no way you can take a bath. And what is also important to note here is that Afghanistan is an Islamic country and for women you must have a bath after your period before you are allowed to pray to your God. This is a requirement in Islam.

So there are many women who have not really been able to pray to God because they haven't had a bath in four years.

KELLEY: And the 800 women -- 800-plus women that you talked about that you've been able to visit with when you were there how is their health -- their physical and emotional and mental health and the women in the south who don't have as many freedoms?

GROSS: The women in the Northern Alliance are impoverished. They live with the utmost hardships of daily life because they have been in a state of war for six years, and they're independence and their country has been invaded. So they are under very harsh circumstances.

But what I found in them was something extremely hopeful. I did not see in their faces that they have been vanquished. They have a determination to succeed.

Now, for the women under the rule of the Taliban the situation is completely different. They haven't had hope. They haven't had their voice raised; they haven't had their voice heard. I heard of so many cases of depression, of suicide, of nervous breakdown among the women who are living under the rule of the Taliban. And, of course, they have been totally silent.

KELLEY: You brought back some other pictures. We were just looking at some of them there. And you brought back some other pictures of Massoud, the opposition leader who was assassinated by a couple of people who were posing as journalists. And they stayed down, in fact, I saw earlier, a couple of doors from you in the house that you were staying in in Afghanistan. Tell us about the funeral that you went to. You were one of only a handful of women that attended this very well-attended funeral.

GROSS: Yes, I was one of four or five women who attended the funeral because, as you know, a Muslim funeral is mostly for men. The women have their own wake on the third day. So I was allowed to attend Massoud's funeral because Massoud was one of the best friends of Afghan women. As you know, I work for the rights of Afghan women and we have developed a declaration of the essential rights of Afghan women and we have been collecting signatures for this inside Afghanistan. Massoud was one of the first political leaders of Afghanistan to sign this document so that it will become part of the next constitution of Afghanistan.

On the day of his assassination I was there in the next house -- and, as you said, were the two terrorists. And then I went to Panshed (ph) and attended his funeral. And to me it was an important day. And not only it was a great loss for Afghanistan and humanity but I also felt that the women of Afghanistan had lost a very good friend.

KELLEY: Nasrine, I know you brought your burka (ph), or your cover, with you. If you'd like to show us that and maybe keep talking to us. We may hear a little bit of a shuffling if you put it on because it may crinkle around your microphone.

But is that a choice? Is the burka -- is the cover a choice for the women in Northern Afghanistan? It certainly has to be in the south part of the country.

GROSS: In the northern part of Afghanistan this burka (ph) is worn as a complete personal choice of the women. And a lot of women when they come to the city or to the town centers, to the roads, they wear them by choice. But there is edict forcing them to do so, while in the Taliban area every Afghan woman whether she has ever worn a burka (ph) or not, whether her family agrees to it or not, whether she agrees to it or not must wear it.

Not wearing it results in beatings and whipping in public and being put in prison. And...

KELLEY: I'm sorry -- excuse me.

GROSS: Let me put the burka (ph) for you. I wanted to get to the point that the reason the Taliban has done this is in order to create control over 50 percent of the Afghan population.

And let me show you what I mean.

KELLEY: Sure. Go ahead and hold yours up that you brought with you. Is yours -- what color is that? It looks like it's a navy blue?

GROSS: It's a navy blue.

KELLEY: I thought they were all black.

GROSS: No, no, they are actually -- the Taliban have a lighter blue. And most women in the Taliban area wear a lighter blue color. I just bought this from a very, very old lady last year, and so it's a darker color. But let me wear it so you can see what this burka (ph) does when...

KELLEY: Go right ahead -- please do.

GROSS: ... 50 percent of...

KELLEY: Oh, we may have lost her microphone at that point.

GROSS: Let me see.

KELLEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Is that -- can you hear me?

KELLEY: Sure. That's fine. We can still hear you -- you bet.

GROSS: OK. All right, let me put this on.

KELLEY: OK. And so it's a complete covering. And what is in the front then that allows you to breathe? Is that kind of a mesh there?

GROSS: It's a little mesh and I can see my front. Look at me: I have become invisible. And I cannot see the two sides of me. There is no peripheral vision. I cannot see in front of me. If I were to walk I would fall off because there is a step here and I would not be able to see it. And, of course, in the summer it's too hot. In winter it's maybe a bit of a protection from the cold.

But actually it totally makes the women of Afghanistan invisible. And it forces them to be outside the mainstream of society.

KELLEY: Nasrine Gross, thank you so much. The U.S. representative for Negar who is fighting for women's rights and children's certainly, too, in Afghanistan. We're so glad you could come to talk with us after your trip there and spending time there. Thanks very much.




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