KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Inside the mosque, the four corners of the main prayer room are packed with students, four different classes reciting their lessons in a diligent singsong cacophony.
The teachers are religious men, draped in the Afghan style in dark woolen shawls and turbans. But the students are all girls - an increasing phenomenon here, United Nations and relief workers say, that indicates how an array of restrictions placed upon women by the superstrict Islamic Taliban movement have begun to ease, if only slightly.
As Taliban control began to spread across most of the country in the mid-1990s, their version of Islamic law was far-reaching: Women were forbidden to work and were required to wear the all-enveloping burqa shroud, and girls' schools were shut down.
Grounded in deeply conservative Pushtun culture and Islamic religious beliefs, the Taliban argues that these restrictions are solely for the "protection" of women's dignity. And 20 years of war have depleted Afghan resources, officials say, to the point where a separate education system for girls - Taliban beliefs require that it be separate - is impossible to afford.
The policies have sparked fierce criticism in the West, especially from feminist groups. Because of local pressure from UN and Western relief workers for change - at least regarding education - along with what several observers call a "maturing" of the movement, more girls today are being allowed to hit the books.
"There has definitely been a positive change," says Eric Donelli, head of the UN Children's Fund in Kabul, which helps finance and supply schools. "People forget that Afghanistan is different from other countries, that it has its own tradition and culture. The reality is a big improvement."
Inside a girls' school
Chewing her pencil in the mosque, Shamin stands to lead her faith class of 20 girls in reading from a worn blackboard. "Our writing is according to the Koran [Islamic holy book]; our reading is according to the Koran...."
Bathed in afternoon sunlight that warms the wintry mosque, the girls recite after her, their fingernails ornately decorated with orange henna designs. They are too shy, however, to speak to a foreign stranger.
Only adolescent girls so far are able to attend such classes, and the waiting list for this school of 1,500 pupils - 60 percent of them boys - is 400 and growing. Boys' classes are held separately every morning, using the same books and teachers.
"The girls are better at math, because they are very fond of education," says Mawli Hamidullah, a mathematics teacher who also works at a Taliban ministry. "They are the best students."
But higher grades and women's places at university remain shut down. Also, what curriculum is available at lower levels is more than half religious studies.
Western experts here point out that the Taliban does not treat women much differently from ultrastrict societies in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Morocco, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. But equality for women has been an issue here for decades.
"If you go back 100 years, signs of Western emancipation of women led to rural revolts," says a senior Western relief worker in Islamabad, who has spent his life in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"Education was brought in for the bureaucracy of a secular state, from outside," he says. "So there was always tension between religious education and Western influence. The Taliban [people] are from religious seminaries and were often orphans who had no contact with women, mothers, and families. They were indoctrinated that Western ideologies caused trouble, so the first thing they did was close girls' schools."
Women's groups in the West, especially in the United States, have turned Taliban policies toward women into a mainstream political issue, focusing on the burqa. Marking Human Rights Day earlier this month, President Clinton declared Taliban restrictions of women a "despicable" abuse.
Clear-cut as the issue may appear in the West, however, in Afghanistan there are vast gray areas. Traditionally, for example, Afghan women have worn the burqa or similar covering, and many say they prefer it. And women have also been educated to a point where they could run their families and their children's religious training.
Today those ideas are codified in law here and are mixed with the Taliban's single-minded approach to a civil war that they claim has drained the education system of cash and facilities.
"Women are part of Islamic history and tradition, but this is the first time in Afghanistan we have an Islamic state," says Mawli Nooralhaq Azizi, the Taliban-appointed dean of this religious school and imam of the mosque. "The girls' schools are closed temporarily. There are shortages. That is why the US is thinking the Taliban is anti-education, but that is not the case.
"In Islam, women were interpreters, poets, and writers. Islam says that girls can be educated," says Mr. Azizi.
Afghanistan has always had one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. According to the UN, in 1970 just 8 percent of the entire population was considered literate - with female literacy estimated to be less than 2 percent. Figures today show an overall rate of less than 30 percent, with women again a similar fraction.
Wearing the burqa
Understanding use of the burqa helps put Taliban rules in context. At one time this shroud - usually an intense blue, with only a tight mesh bit in the front through which to see - was seen as a sign of sophistication by villagers, who would wear it if they went to town. But it was rarely worn in the countryside, where work in the fields made it unfeasible. Today bare faces under shawls and head scarves are still the norm outside cities, even under the Taliban.
Yet Afghan women often say that wearing the burqa is hardly their main complaint. In a rare interview with a male Western journalist - in contravention of Taliban rules that forbid such contact - one Afghan widow, who asked not to be named, explained: "I want to wear the veil: that is not the problem, I like it.... The ladies that were acquainted with the veil, the majority, they are happy with that. But the minority 10 percent who were not using veils are not happy."
This widow says that bigger problems are beatings of women by overzealous religious police enforcing the dress code. This contributes to a climate of fear and reluctance to go out. Prohibitions on working and schooling are also high on her list.
"We are prisoners in our own houses," the widow says. "I'm happy we use the veil, but I am not happy because I can't work.... If we are outside alone [without a male relative], the Taliban lash us. Women whose ankles show get whipped."
But she adds, "The Taliban is starting to make improvements. It is getting more relaxed."
Prior to the Taliban takeover in 1996, fighting between rival mujahideen groups in Kabul made insecurity chronic - and the risk of kidnap and abuse of women high. At local "police" stations, armed men would demand marriage and threaten to kill a woman's father if he didn't agree.
Although that government forbade women working, it was not strong enough to enforce it.
Taliban's rise to power
Promising to bring law and order, the spread of Taliban rule was popular at first. Rules for women, officials say, were to "preserve their dignity," so that there would be "no doubt" about their purity. But Kabul became a special case, and as the most liberal urban city was subject to especially strict enforcement.
"These guys [the Taliban] came from the deserts and saw Kabul as a corrupt, degenerate sin city in which every woman was a prostitute. Their mind was set on this," says Mary MacMakin, an American who has lived on and off for 40 years in Afghanistan. She is founder of the PARSA relief agency, which finds work for widows and the poor.
"Now a maturing process seems to be taking place," she says. "The Taliban has been here three years, and it's a learning experience. It's on-the-job training."
For women, she says, "it's all about coping. It's finding a way." To deal with Taliban rules against women working outside the home, her staff has met in taxis. They almost exclusively work on crafts and other moneymaking projects in their own homes.
In addition, women have been allowed to continue working in the health profession - to treat women patients.
Prohibitions against women working have meant a shortage of teachers, so that some boys schools have closed, too. Such developments have not always been appreciated by Taliban foot soldiers. But as the Taliban has settled into governance, it has begun to reexamine its policy.
"Early on, it was made a defining issue for them [by the West]," the Islamabad relief worker says. "Top Taliban people are embarrassed by it. They know it's a PR disaster. But they are afraid that if they back off, there will be trouble with the rank and file."
The result, says Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, is a "misinterpretation" in the West. "We have to understand the difference between communities. We don't demand that American women wear a veil and pray five times a day at the mosque," he said in an interview.
"There are misunderstandings, but truths also: Having an education in a veil is the truth here."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society