'We are like birds who have left the cage, but with our wings still clipped,' says one Kabul student. Women enjoy a much better life than under the Taliban, but still face age-old constraints.
Kabul, Afghanistan - One is the face of despair; the other, of hope.
Zeinab, 22, believed that only death could provide an escape from her husband's merciless beatings. So she set herself on fire, leaving one-third of her body covered with oozing, blistering burns. She faces a lifetime of disfigurement and, unless she returns to her abusive husband, the likely loss of her two children.
Twelve-year-old Nazira's classroom is a sweltering tent, and her desk is a plastic mat on the ground. But her teachers say she is one of their brightest pupils, encouraged by a mother and father who want her to get as much education as she can. Her eyes sparkle when she describes her ambition: to become a doctor.
Nearly eight years after the fall of the Taliban movement, Afghan women live on the cusp of triumph and tragedy. Life is immeasurably better than it was under Taliban rule, when they were forbidden to leave their homes without a male relative, beaten for infractions such as laughing aloud, deprived of schooling and employment, shrouded and faceless in public.
But dozens of girls and women, interviewed over several months in homes and mosques, in parks and in prison, in street markets and classrooms, described a nagging sense that the gains have not been all they had hoped for. That after all this time, all this effort expended, life should be different. Better.
"It's a kind of freedom, yes," said a university student named Zarifa, who like some of the other women did not want her full name published. "We are like birds who have left the cage, but with our wings still clipped."
The thwarted dreams of many Afghan women mirror a palpable sense of disillusionment in a country still battered and broken despite billions of dollars in international aid, and Afghanistan's place at the center of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's biggest and most sustained military campaign.
Many Afghans, of both sexes, describe the heady optimism that prevailed after the Taliban government was dislodged in 2001, only to be replaced by growing trepidation over the last three years as the insurgency reinvigorated itself, violence surged, corruption flourished and rebuilding proved agonizingly slow.
Although the U.S.-led invasion was spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks, the belief that Afghan women would be liberated from a reign of medieval cruelty provided a strong moral underpinning for the war effort.
"I think the West was naive, in some ways," said Manizha Naderi, a women's rights activist. "There was this notion that when the Taliban were gone, we would all be able to throw off our burkas and celebrate. But it hasn't been like that."
That, she and others said, can be attributed to deeply rooted cultural traditions that predate Taliban rule and persist in its aftermath, abetted by poverty, illiteracy and the growing insecurity of day-to-day life.
"The more security deteriorates, the more women become vulnerable," said Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "I dislike that word - 'vulnerable.' But that is the reality."
For many Afghan women, this feeling of disenfranchisement is heightened, not eased, by the national elections scheduled for Thursday.
There are just two female presidential candidates, in a field of nearly 40. Record numbers of women are seeking seats in provincial assemblies, but intimidation is commonplace and some have gotten death threats simply for daring to show their faces on campaign posters.
And almost no one believes that the elections will bring about any dramatic change in women's lot.
President Hamid Karzai, expected to emerge as the victor even if the race is forced to a runoff, has repeatedly yielded to conservative religious elements to win political support. He caused an outcry this year by signing a controversial law that in its original reading condoned marital rape. He has since pledged to review it.
"There's been no strong debate over women's rights in this election; it's just not a priority," Samar said. "None of the major candidates speaks very boldly on the subject. It has faded into the background."
When she poured gasoline on herself and struck a match, Zeinab felt as if it was the only decision she had ever made for herself.
Born to a poor Pashtun family in the west of Afghanistan, Zeinab never learned to read or write. She married at 16, at her family's behest.
As her husband's abuse steadily worsened, she had no idea it was possible to seek help. She learned that only later, when doctors and nurses fought to save her life at the country's only dedicated burn center, at Herat Regional Hospital.
"It's as if," Zeinab gestured with a bandaged hand, groping for words, "as if I didn't know that there was a world outside my house. Even what I have learned in these last three months, from my time in the hospital, it's more than I knew before in my entire life."
Marie-Jose Brunel, a French nurse with the relief organization HumaniTerra, sees Zeinab every few days as an outpatient, lavishing hugs and affection along with stern practical advice: Squeeze a rubber ball every hour to keep your burned hand from freezing into a claw. Crane your neck to make the healing skin more supple.
Zeinab's greatest concern is her children: a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Unless she returns to her household, they probably will be lost to her.
"When my daughter looks at me and sees my scars, she is afraid," she said. "That is the hardest thing of all."
For many Afghan women, events that would constitute a harsh but survivable blow in the West - a maiming accident, serious illness, the loss of a spouse - can mark a descent into inescapable poverty. Many of the beggars on the streets of Kabul are women in burkas, moving through traffic like blue ghosts.
"I cannot tell you how terrible was my life on the streets," said Qamargul, 40, whose husband forced her to beg after she proved unable to bear children. He took another, younger wife, and the two of them would allow Qamargul indoors to sleep only after she handed over each day's meager earnings. Otherwise, she was turned out into the cold.
A Western-funded group rescued Qamargul after a savage beating from her husband landed her in a hospital, and she hopes to learn a trade and live independently. But her efforts to get a divorce have been stymied, a common occurrence in a legal system that still considers ending a marriage to be a man's prerogative.
At a recent hearing, she was asked by the exasperated judge, "Why don't you just do as you should, and go home to your husband?"
In Afghanistan, as anywhere, there are many happy marriages. But for less fortunate women, the marriage contract can be used as a means of subjugation.
Girls as young as 8 are forced into marriage. Rape and domestic violence are endemic. Women and girls are routinely sold or bartered to meet clan obligations, a practice that is technically illegal but widely tolerated.
"I asked my father, 'Why did you sell me?' said Obeida, a 13-year-old who was sold into servitude when she was 8. She became a servant for her buyer - and a bride in waiting.
"I cried all the time for my mother," she said.
Her older sister, Maryam, who was sold at 11, managed to alert authorities before Obeida could be forced, as Maryam had been, to marry an older man. Obeida now lives in a Kabul shelter and is attending school for the first time.
On a recent morning, clad in her school uniform, she glowed with anticipation.
"I feel my life has begun again," she said.
Nazira, the Kabul schoolgirl, said she cannot imagine a life without learning. Her teachers sometimes tell the girls about Taliban times, but it all seems too distant, too impossible.
"Is it really true, what happened then?" she wanted to know.
The school's headmistress, Arifa Jalal, described the secret school she ran during Taliban rule. When militants knocked at the door, she would explain away the presence of the girls in her living room, inventing some family connection to each.
Now the biggest problem, she said, is the lack of funding, coupled with enormous demand. Even here in the capital, the school has no working plumbing. The girls bring water bottles. It's so crowded that they study in shifts. "But I know we will send many to university," Jalal said.
Jalal knows that she and her students are lucky in the relative security they enjoy in Kabul. In swaths of the countryside where insurgents have the upper hand, girls' schools are routinely burned and bombed, and teachers and pupils terrorized.
Nazira has classmates who have been forbidden by their parents to continue their education once they reach puberty, saying they are in danger when they leave home even to walk to class. But her parents have promised that she can stay in school.
"They say, 'Your books are like a passport in this life,' " she said.
These are the success stories of the post-Taliban era. Young women fill college classrooms. Women take part in government. Female newscasters appear on television, defying threats. Women have shown themselves to be among the most energetic of entrepreneurs, a driving force in the small-business sector.
Homaira, who owns and runs a beauty salon in downtown Kabul, used to secretly give haircuts in her home under the Taliban, not only as a means of earning a livelihood but also as a gesture of defiance.
"I have a skill, and I'm proud I can take care of myself," she said. "But for my daughters, I want more."
Support for women's advancement can sometimes come from unexpected quarters. In a rural district outside Kabul, a farmer named Haji Qudbuddin has 10 daughters. Two have married and left home, but all of the younger ones are in school. And he wants them to marry whomever they please when they grow up.
Qudbuddin, who is the malik, or headman, of a string of 10 villages, said he came to his views only after learning to read and write, something that did not happen until after he had spent his youth as a mujahedincommander, fighting first the Soviets and then the Taliban.
"Women have rights," he said. "But until I was educated, I did not know this."
At the hillside Sakhi shrine in Kabul, one day of the week is set aside for women, and on a late-summer day, the soaring structure is filled with shafts of sunlight, a few fluttering birds and the murmur of female voices.
Two heavily pregnant women prostrate themselves as best their swollen bellies will allow, praying for a safe delivery. Others offer up prayers they will conceive a child, or make a good marriage. Many simply sit, leaning against the brick walls, enjoying these rare moments of relaxation and sanctuary.
Among those taking time to reflect on her life is Mina, a model-slender 18-year-old clad in tight jeans and a fashionable asymmetrically cut coat. Her older sister, Nasreen, is about to marry a man who is a virtual stranger to her, and go live with him abroad.
Mina says that here at the shrine, she prayed for a happy life for her sister and for herself. But she also believes she can make her own destiny.
"My life is in my hands," she says. "I will go to school, I will work ... but maybe I will have to leave Afghanistan to do this."
Leila, a 41-year-old government employee wearing a long denim skirt, is beyond girlish dreams. "I need my husband's permission to go anywhere, including here," she says matter-of-factly.
Still, when she looks back to the years of imprisonment in her home under the Taliban regime, a day out like this one can seem like something of a miracle.
"I can hope for more freedom," she says. "And even that wish makes me a little bit more free."