Miniskirts, dating in after warlord leaves

With a flawless face and marble-smooth arms, a busty blonde mannequin dummy displays a miniskirt in a boutique in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat, where most women wear the bag-like burqa.

In the war-scarred capital Kabul, the dummy would hardly attract a second glance.

But in Herat, once ruled by powerful warlord Ismail Khan who oppressed women almost as much as the fundacmentalist Taliban, the display is a revolution.

“Her name is Venus,” says shopkeeper Aresh Azizi of the mannequin in a glittering window display in his newly opened Western-style shop.

“Under Khan you had to cover the faces of mannequins just as women cover their faces,” recalls the 25-year-old who has himself had a style change, recently abandoning the traditional shalwar kamiz of baggy trousers and a long shirt for a Western-type suit.

Since the turban-wearing former holy warrior was transferred to Kabul by United States-backed President Hamid Karzai in September 2004, more women visit Azizi’s shop. Most would have not dared to enter just over a year ago.

The removal of Khan, who ruled Herat as his own personal fiefdom, was part of a plan secretly backed by the United States and the United Nations to reduce the power of Afghanistan’s regional warlords and their private armies.

Karzai ordered the silver-bearded Khan to the capital to serve as energy minister, a sector in which he has some experience. He guaranteed 24-hour power to Herat, much of it from Iran, while Kabul’s supply lasts only a few hours a week.

Khan’s departure met with resistance.
Several people were killed in riots and the offices of the United Nations and other aid agencies were torched by his supporters opposed to the appointment, which Khan took several months to accept.

While the ethnic Tajik strongman was criticised by rights groups for his strict stance on women, including barring them from being alone with men who were not relatives, he won local support by putting money into public works.

One such project is Bagh-i-Milat park on a hillside on the outskirts of the city.

Young men and women now visit its several fountains and restaurants on dates; in Khan’s time they would have been arrested.

“I come here with my girlfriend—it’s fun,” says a 22-year-old student, who asked not to be identified.

“Ismail Khan would have killed me if I was seen here with a girl,” he said.

Sitting cross-legged in one of the restaurants, filled with smoke from bubbling chilams (pipes), two students sip from Pepsi cans filled with vodka smuggled from a base of about 800 mainly Italian Nato-led peacekeepers in the city.

Drinking alcohol is prohibited by both Islam and by Afghanistan’s Constitution, a ban Khan enforced strictly.

Despite the increased freedoms in the city of one million people, many are still conservative. There may be miniskirts in the shop windows but not on the street.

“Young women wear them only to wedding parties,” Azizi said. Men and women sit in separate rooms at weddings in Afghanistan.

“God knows what women wear inside their room,” jokes a director of a popular wedding hall.

Despite being cut off from his regional power base, Khan remains an important figure in Herat. About 10 of his supporters made their way into the Parliament elected in September, said university lecturer and journalist Ahmad Saeed Aqiqi.

“He will have his own men at the Parliament,” he said.

Many in the well-ordered city miss Khan. “He built streets, clinics and schools. He brought us electricity, good security—he was good, but Karzai took him away from us,” says car parts salesperson Ali Reza.

“He is a good Muslim. He was working for the good of his people,” says 34-year-old teacher Mohammad Shafiq.

Khan, now in his 60s, declared himself governor of Herat province after he and several other former mujahedin helped the United States topple the Taliban in late 2001.

While governor he refused to hand over to the central administration millions of dollars in tariffs from trade with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan, annoying Karzai’s cash-strapped government.

Instead he used the money on roads, schools, hospitals and factories, turning the war-damaged city into the most prosperous in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

“He was bad at limiting our freedoms and he was good because he worked on reconstruction,” recalls Shaker Payman. “I like him for the one and I don’t for the other.” - AFP

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