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The plight of women under the Taliban regime provided the United States with a tidy moral justification for its invasion of Afghanistan—a talking point that Laura Bush took the lead in driving home. Health care is so threadbare that every 28 minutes a mother dies in childbirth—the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
Girls attend school at half the rate boys do, and in at least 40 teachers were killed by the Taliban. Afghanistan has more than 2 million widows, and these and other desperately poor women often turn to prostitution, despite the risk of being killed by their families if they are discovered. So they remain in the shadows, beneath a double veil of tradition and shame. She sold her daughter into marriage before the girl was 10, and now she sells herself.
Malalai Kakar became a police officer before the rise of the Taliban. It helped, she says, that her father and brother were also police officers, and her grandfather a tribal elder. When the Taliban rose to power, she fled to Pakistan. When she returned to work after they were ousted, she received death threats.
Girls as young as nine set themselves ablaze, typically with cooking oil. In Herat Province, where last year 90 women lit themselves on fire, Zahra spent 93 days in the burn unit. Her husband beat her regularly, told her she was worthless and should just light a match. So she did. She is, by some accounts, lucky: More than 70 percent of victims of self-immolation do not survive. Her year-old daughter also sells herself, but not in the house. Too many men going in and out would alert the neighbors, and that could prove fatal.
If the odds hold, only a couple of them will receive an education. The streets of Afghanistan are pocked with divots and gaping potholes, and there is hardly any pavement to speak of. Still, heels are the norm, and beneath their burkas many women wear bright, beautiful dresses.