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Veiled women

Photograph by Pascal Maitre.

Hijab, or Islamic dress, distinguishes Muslim women. As the Qur'an says: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them when they go out or are among men. That is better in order that they may be known to be Muslims and not annoyed."

Though the extent of veiling is debated, in Afghanistan they take it to an extreme. The ruling Taliban command that all women who go out without the burqa (an all-concealing shroud with mesh over the face allowing vision) face severe beatings or even death. Even veiled women must be careful about going out. Holy days provide rare opportunities to socialise, as these Hazara women are doing in Kabul's Chalnawol Mosque.

Ashura is one of the main holy days for Shi'ite Muslims. Everyone goes to prayer meetings in the mosque. Outside, men take part in mournful processions, fasting, public breast-beating and lamentation.

Ashura falls on the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. Originally declared a fast day by Muhammad, for Sunni Muslims it marks such scriptural events as the end of Noah's Flood and the forgiveness of Adam and Eve. For Shi'ites, however, it commemorates a key moment in their history: the martyrdom of Hussein, one of the grandsons of Muhammad.

After Muhammad's death c.632, there was a bitter struggle over the succession. Hussein and 72 of his followers were murdered at Kerbala in Iraq. The schism between the majority Sunni and minority Shia (followers of Hussein) was to run deep ever after.

Shi'ite Muslims have been persecuted everywhere except in Iran, where they are the majority. They differ from Sunnis n believing in the imamate - a spiritual leader inspired by God to set the world to rights, such as the Ayatollah Khomeini - and in laying more emphasis on spiritual attitude and belief than on observances and good works ("the five pillars of Islam") laid down in the Qur'an.

In Afghanistan, the Hazara, largely of Mongol stock, are Shi'ites. Historically, they have been persecuted and enslaved by the dominant Pashtuns, who are Sunnis. Wild, barren and beautiful, the rocky landscape around Bamiyan protected the Hazara way of life, until they were driven out by the Russian invasion of the 1980s and then civil war in the 1990s.

Many Hazara fled to Kabul, the capital, many more to north-west Pakistan. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than 2 million displaced Hazara in Afghanistan, although no one is sure.

Nowadays, with the Sunni Taliban in power in Kabul, Hazara living there follow their Shi'ite customs under sufferance, and at least one Shi'ite mosque is said by US sources to have been sacked. In August 1998, more than 8,000 Hazara were massacred by the Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Perhaps these women share the view of Hazara hero Ustad Abdul Ali Mazari (1946-1995): "Our only wish for our people is that being Hazara should no longer be a crime."

Weblinks Information on the Hazara: www.hazara.net and www.hazaraonline.f2s.com; On hijab: www.usc.edudeptMSA The US view on religious life under the Taliban: www.usembassy.state.gov Muharram and Ashura: www.dailystarnews.com and www.usc.edudeptMSA Islamic portals include www.karbala.com ; www.islam.org and www.islam.about.com Victoria Neumark

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