WASHINGTON, May 11 -- Elle, the world-famous French women's fashion magazine that over the years has featured glamorous and sexy models, broke with tradition when it published a photograph of a veiled Afghan woman on its cover last week.
Departing from its habitual latest fashion statements of fancy dress designs and glossy lipstick, the magazine dedicated an issue to the status of women in Afghanistan. This, says Elle Managing Editor Valerie Toranian, was done in hopes of drawing attention to the terrible plight of women in that country.
"The world's indifference shocked us," Toranian told United Press International in an interview. "The way women are treated in Afghanistan is without precedent," she added.
So Elle took unprecedented steps themselves. They replaced their usual star models and famous people with an anonymous woman on the cover.
The color photograph depicts an Afghan woman, wearing a traditional all-enshrouding dress, called a burqa, her face completely covered, with only a three-inch rectangular opening covered with mesh as the sole means for seeing through the thick, dark-colored cotton shroud.
Since they seized power in the capital, Kabul, and some other parts of the country in 1996, the Taliban have imposed the strictest form of Islamic law, or Sharia, on the country, in an effort to mold the purest Islamic state.
Dragging the country into worse than medieval status, they have forced women to always be veiled from head to toe whenever they appear in public. They have been banned from holding jobs, except in some public health sectors, such as doctors or nurses. They are barred from voting, and denied education and proper health care.
Females in the country are prohibited from being examined by male doctors, while at the same time, most female physicians and nurses are barred from the workplace. Only a few, selected women, are allowed to practice medicine in segregated wards.
The U.S. Department of State reports that in 1996, for example, the University of Kabul had several thousand female students while thousands of professional women worked in different capacities in the city. Since the Taliban takeover, however, women have not been allowed to attend school after age 12, and others have been forced to leave their jobs.
Even widows -- of which there are about 30,000 by U.S. State Department estimates, 50,000 according to Elle -- and who are the sole providers for their families, and with no means of income, are banned from the work force.
In fact, many of the edicts passed down from the Taliban relegate women in the country to an inferior status, and give their male relatives the right of life and death over them. Literally.
Women are often severely beaten if they fail to comply with the rules set for them. Under the slew of strict rules imposed by the Taliban, women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative.
"The women are not treated the way Islam describes," said Muzaffar Iqbal, president of the Center for Islam and Science, in Edmonton, Canada.
"Some of these things are tribal customs," said Iqbal. "As far as Islam is concerned there aren't any things like that. That is not part of Islam. Islam gave women a very high regard, and traditionally, at the time of the prophet, they were coming to the mosque, and had their own businesses."
Iqbal adds: "Women were even going to war, taking part in battles during the time of the Prophet Mohammad. These things are very well-documented. If there had been something in Islam, it would not have been allowed at that time."
Women at the time of the prophet were active members of their society. "We know that the prophet's first wife was a trader," said Iqbal.
Last week, Elle brought three Afghan women out of Kabul to help promote their cause. Traveling under hidden identities in order to protect themselves from retribution from the Taliban, Elle arranged for them to meet with members of the French and European parliaments. Toranian said she hoped this would raise international awareness over the country's gender apartheid.
They gave a horrendous account of atrocities committed against the women and girls by the Taliban, including one story of a woman whose feet were beaten until they bled because she was wearing white shoes -- the color of the Taliban flag. Others were stoned to death because they were seen in the company of men to whom they were not related.
Unfortunately, such stories are all too common in Afghanistan today.
"We took a risk coming here, but we don't care because what we go through every day is like death, so real death doesn't scare us," said one of the women, as reported by Feminist Majority Foundation On-Line.
The actions of the Taliban have led them to be shunned by most of the world, with only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognizing them.
Last February, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme ruler of Afghanistan's Islamic militias, had ordered the destruction of statues in the impoverished and war-battered country, including two invaluable giant Buddhas in the province of Bamiya dating back some 2,000 years.
Omar issued a decree stating that "All the statues in the country should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols by the non-believers before."
"Only Allah, the Almighty, deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else," the decree added.
According to Iqbal, there is nothing in the Koran, Islam's holy book, that calls for erasing one's cultural past.
"These people have emerged from a very narrow- minded system, they are the product of that system," added Iqbal. "Their world view is black and white."