Out Front, Fall 1998
"It's a good thing we don't have beaches anywhere in our country," Mawlawi Abdul Wahab says jovially of his desert homeland, Afghanistan. Wahab is perhaps the only man in midtown Manhattan who is cheered by the impossibility of a scenario of jiggling babes in bikinis. And skimpy swimwear isn't even his first prudish objection. To get to the beach, these women would have to first go outside.
According to his business card, Wahab is Permanent Representative Designate of the Afghanistan Mission to the United Nations. What he permanently represents is the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that, according to the New York Times and the UN (which does not recognize Wahab's business card), oppressively controls two-thirds of Afghanistan, coming down most spectacularly on the rights of the country's women. Since the Taliban takeover in 1996, Afghan women have essentially been under house arrest (their windows must be covered). They've been forbidden to work or go to school. Their contact with the outside world has been limited to the view from the smaller-than-ski-goggles patch of mesh in their government-mandated burqa dress.
"The important thing to understand is that between our cultures there is a tremendous gap," says Wahab, 36, in the midst of a three-Pepsi lunch at Pamir, a New York restaurant owned by Afghan Sikhs, whom the Taliban are in the process of crushing. Ah, but Wahab is a spokesman who understands complexity. That is why he — with the aid of his trusty translator — is the one sent to lunch with American journalists.
"It may look to you that we are forcing women there, but they are pretty happy," he says. Wahab at least has the decency to qualify, but I find it hard to imagine that the gulf between our cultures is so tremendous that an Afghan woman could be even moderately content, staying indoors for the rest of her life. (The Taliban have also made theater, movies, TV, and music off-limits, though Wahab points out that the state does offer "17 hours of daily radio." All Koran, all the time!) "Certainly mother, sister, wife have undeniable rights," he explains, polishing off a grill platter. Wahab has firsthand knowledge of these rights, as a married man and the father of five girls and two boys. "The Koran says that a man must search for heaven at the foot of a mother." Then eternal grace has gotten more attainable, as Mom's perambulations are now severely curtailed.
While Wahab excuses himself from the table for a brief prayer session, I consider the sins that I'd committed that weekend with a man not my husband — for starters, we walked through the West Village. Were I in Afghanistan, under Islamic law I'd be guilty on several counts, based on this lunch alone. (1) I'm single: "It would be nice if we had some division between us, a curtain or something saying that you weren't married," says Wahab. (2) I have a college degree: "Until the age of 10, of course, girls are in school." (3) I have a job: "In certain sectors, there are women working," says Wahab. "We have at least 700 older women, ages 25 to 35, learning the art of carpet-weaving." (4) My dress, though black and modest for a steamy New York day, reveals more than my eyeballs. "You should wear something to give a woman dignity and integrity." It's the first thing on which he and I agree.
The air-conditioning is out in the restaurant, and still hot after a pistachio ice-cream dessert, I wonder how Wahab — and his wife and five daughters back in Kabul — can stand to be inside on such a day. So I propose a stroll through Central Park. Wahab takes off his hat and smiles eagerly as the translator relays my suggestion. Ignoring the expectant looks from the Permanent Representative Designate, the translator turns to me and shakes his head: "I don't want him to go wild."