A Precarious Time for Afghan Women

Nayeem Matin, still clean-shaven, has seen remarkable advances for women since he fled Afghanistan 14 years ago. Still, he's not ready to bring his wife back to a country where he fears a Taliban resurgence or civil war after foreign troops leave.

His sister says she never imagined, when she was weaving carpets in Pakistan, that she would one day be an educated woman who operates an ultrasound machine. But Afghan custom still requires her to cook, do housework and care for her daughter after a long day's work in rural clinics.

"Even if you're a professor, a woman must do her job at home, cooking and cleaning," she says. "If my husband asks me for money, I say, 'I'll give you money when you help at home.' "

She glances at her father, who is grinning. "This is a joke, of course," she says. ___ Ghazalan Koofi has just returned from a day's work at the Economy Ministry and is preparing for night literature classes at a local university. She is still smarting from her daily confrontations with male colleagues. They tell her that women don't belong in the workforce and should stay home. They make crude sexual comments about other women.

"It hurts me a lot to hear this," she says.

It is all the more painful because the men are young and well-educated. Koofi is the only woman on a six-member team that evaluates nongovernmental programs, some designed to expand women's rights.

"But I'm not surprised," she says. "This is Afghanistan. It's still a traditional country."

Most Afghan women don't push hard enough for their rights, she says. She often asks women who have worked for years in low-level government jobs why they don't apply for management positions.

"They say they aren't capable," Koofi says. "I tell them they need to become capable. They need to believe in their own abilities."

Her sister Oranous, 16, says Afghan women still have a long way to go. She points to her own marginalized life: She wears trendy jeans but follows Afghan custom and covers her hair. She attends high school, but the classes are girls-only. She will not be required to enter an arranged marriage, but she and her sisters must follow tradition and marry in order of age.

"Girls in Afghanistan still cannot live the life they want," Oranous says in English.

Ghazalan's husband, Azizi, is concerned that the end of the U.S. combat mission will allow the Taliban to regain power.

"If we go back to the way it was under the Taliban," he says, "women will suffer the most."

Azizi is a short, slender man with a quiet demeanor. But he becomes agitated when discussing the Taliban claims that educating women is "against Islam."

"Our prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, says you should give freedom to women and they should be educated," he says. "That's what our prophet says, and that's what I believe."

It is not anti-Islamic for a man to help with housework and child care, he says. His father, a police commander, did it, and he'll teach his son the same respect for equality.

"We can never go back to the days when a woman could only be a homemaker and nothing more," he says.

His mother-in-law, Shahgol Shah, says her own husband is "a traditional man" and has never helped with housework or child care. But he did recently relent and allow her to take literacy classes and to teach a class in sewing for women.

She peers from beneath her head scarf and smiles. "Life is changing," she says. "My daughter has a much better life than I had, a more modern life. And I still dream that life for my granddaughter will be even better."

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