In order to make the Taliban what they are, they had to be taken away as small boys not only from their parents (if they had them; many were orphans) but from daily village life and from the influence of women, according to an archival history of the destruction of civil society in Afghanistan.

Mohamed Atta, one of the men alleged to have taken part in the September 11 attacks against the US, in 1996 wrote a will in which he ordered that no pregnant women or “person who is not clean” be present at his funeral or visit his grave. In the will, published recently in the German magazine Der Spiegel, he also instructed that when he died, “he who washes around my genitals should wear gloves so that I am not touched there”.

This might, you would think, indicate a fairly unhealthy attitude towards both sex and women. In the religious fundamentalist mindset, sex is sinful. Women provoke lustful thoughts, therefore women are to be hated and feared. Presumably, pregnant women are especially unclean because pregnancy is evidence of sexual activity. Men are not to blame for their sexual impulses, women are. Therefore women must hide themselves from men’s eyes, must cover their bodies, heads and faces.

In Kashmir recently, some women who defied the order to cover have had acid thrown in their faces, a Pakistani journalist I met in Washington last year e-mailed me. She wrote that she is disturbed by the increasing numbers of women, even in Karachi, who are covering. “I went to Saddar bazaar today … I was struck by the fact that I was about the only woman visible. I found myself wondering what would happen if the creeping Talibanisation of society that we are witnessing really takes hold, or gets official sanction as it has in the past. That is the biggest fear of women like me in Pakistan.”

Despite Osama bin Laden’s rallying cry on behalf of the Palestinians this week, America’s support for Israel is a secondary reason for his organisation’s war against the West. “The Palestinians have actually complained that he cares nothing for them,” wrote British commentator Bryan Appleyard recently. “For bin Laden and for many Muslims, the primary crime is blasphemy against the holiest Islamic soil.” A turning point was the Gulf War of 1990-91. In Saudi Arabia, the land of Mecca and Medina, a widely circulated picture of American women soldiers riding in a jeep across the Arabian desert was enough to goad bin Laden and thousands of others into extremism, wrote Appleyard.

Now the Western forces are bombing Afghanistan because the Taliban have refused to give up bin Laden. The West did nothing to help the women of Afghanistan when the Taliban began locking them in their homes, taking away their jobs and their education, forcing them to shroud themselves from head to foot. Now the Western forces are planning the government Afghanistan should have when the job is done, when (if) the “carefully targeted” strikes destroy the Taliban. It must include “every key ethnic group”, they say.

What about the importance of having women included? Is anyone listening to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, women who have been fighting against religious fundamentalism for years, who say the Northern Alliance, now the favorite of the West, is as bad, or worse, than the Taliban? Many women I know, here and overseas, are frustrated and fearful because while it is men who are deciding the action, this conflict, on one level, is about a deep and atavistic hatred of women.

You can see remnants in Australia of the religious dislike of women. In the outrage that greeted the placement, next to a church, of a poster of a nude woman. (Why does a woman’s body defile a church?) Or in the comment of the new Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, that to have women as head of a congregation or a household is not “God’s way”. But these are pale shadows of the mindset, and are not taken seriously.

On Sunday, my husband got up before dawn to be part of the photograph of 4000 nude Melburnians on the Princes Bridge, by the American photographer Spencer Tunick. I didn’t go, only because I was too lazy to get out of bed. You should have come, he kept saying. “It made me feel good about being a human being.” I wish I had. Everyone who was there, men and women, say the same thing. It was beautiful and liberating. No one was overwhelmed by lust. No one touched anyone inappropriately. It was humanity-affirming.

It was, in fact, quite the opposite to the species-shame engendered in us by the acts of mass murder of those puritanically religious men.

It is possible to have a society in which thousands of men and women can walk naked together, in trust and friendship, in which the police not only don’t arrest you, but guard your clothes. Someone should tell the Taliban.

Pamela Bone is an associate editor for “The Age”
Reprinted with permission.

By Pamela Bone