Afghan activist with unveiled ambition

Since arriving last year, Faranaz Nazir has worked to improve education, healthcare for women.

In a land where few women show their faces, Faranaz Nazir stands out.

For one thing, she refuses to wear the burqa, an all-covering veil with a small mesh peephole over the eyes. And in an area where deeply ingrained customs and religious interpretation sharply define roles for men and women, she speaks openly about change. Even loudly.

"I take a risk for all women in Afghanistan, because we need freedom," says Mrs. Nazir. "We are human also, and we need more rights."

Such views have made Nazir something of a local celebrity since she arrived last year with her husband and children in this dusty desert outpost near Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan. The family fled Taliban rule in Kabul, her home town, for territory controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance. Nazir thought life would be easier here. And it is, marginally.

The Taliban prohibits jobs and education for women and strictly regulates the appearance of both sexes. Women deemed insufficiently covered - not even ankles may show - and men whose beards don't meet regulation length - usually two fistfuls - are subject to beatings, jail, or worse.

In Northern Alliance areas, women may work, but there are few jobs open to them other than teaching or working for an aid agency. (Nazir works at a women's clinic run by France-based Doctors Without Borders.) Girls may attend school, although only larger towns have them. There is one school for girls in Khwaja Bahauddin, with about 60 students. And while women here are not required to wear the burqa, Nazir is the only one in town who doesn't.

But it was her activities that brought her to the attention of conservative local leaders. Nazir launched a grass-roots group, the Khwaja Bahauddin Afghan Women's Association, teaching its three dozen members basic healthcare, English, and literacy. According to UNESCO, 78 percent of Afghan women, and 48 percent of Afghan men, cannot read or write.

Some local leaders objected that she used the Koran, Islam's holy book, to teach women and tried to shut down the program. Nazir says she has few other printed materials to work with. Besides, she says, according to the Koran, "not teaching women is against Islam."

Health care is another pressing issue, in a nation where poverty, drought, and more than 20 years of war have taken a heavy toll. One in 4 children does not survive until age 5, and overall life expectancy is just 43 years, according to the United Nations.

Taliban edicts bar women from contact with men who are nonrelatives, including doctors, and the custom is broadly accepted in rural areas outside Taliban control. Across the country, medical supplies and doctors, male or female, are scarce.

Lack of education can compound problems. Amir Qasim, a woman in her 20s, recently brought her daughter Sabra to the clinic where Nazir works. At 1 year old, Sabra weighs a little more than nine pounds, with sticklike arms barely as wide as her mother's thumbs.

"Severe malnutrition," says Nazir, handing the young mother high-protein biscuits to mix with water as babyfood.

Mrs. Qasim receives food supplies from foreign aid agencies, Nazir says. But six months into a second pregnancy, she took the advice of local mullahs, or religious leaders, to fast as a mark of piety and could no longer breastfeed Sabra. With no math skills, Qasim had difficulty calculating portions for mixing powdered-milk formula for her daughter. She also appears confused by instructions for the high-energy biscuits.

"She is just too uneducated to understand," says Nazir. "This, too, is a human rights issue."

Improving conditions for women in Afghanistan will be a massive undertaking, confronting huge logistical, social, and religious barriers. Bringing women into the public sphere will be crucial to any turnaround, Nazir says.

Earlier this month, Nazir and women from her association drafted a letter to US authorities, asking them to keep women's rights in mind during the process of forming a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan.

At a press conference last week, the Northern Alliance foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, pledged: "Women will be part of the Council of National Unity.... We are committed to that."

But Nazir isn't so sure, noting that there are no women involved in efforts to form the new government, and there has been little mention of women's rights in public statements so far.

Privately, many men in Khwaja Bahauddin complain that Nazir is a foreign-educated city woman - she was born in Kabul and educated in Ukraine - who doesn't understand Afghan village life, steeped in a deeply patriarchal culture.

But many local women here express the same frustrations as Nazir.

At a sewing center run by the French aid agency Acted, about two dozen women stitch clothes in a food-for-work program that Nazir organized. "If men are working outside the home, we should be working alongside them," says green-veiled Khoban, who like many Afghans uses only one name. Unlike Nazir, most of the women do not mind wearing the burqa in public. They say it should be up to the women of Afghanistan to choose for themselves. "First of all we need peace in Afghanistan," says Khoban. "We also need more rights."

"Society is like a bird, woman is one wing and man the other," says Nazir. "The bird, like our society, can not fly without two wings."

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