Off to work with new resolve

Afghan women inch back into jobs, while men remain reluctant.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Marzia Adeel wears her head scarf, a Dolce & Gabbana knockoff, pushed far enough back that it sometimes slips off and needs readjustment. Her black mascara, fuchsia lipstick, and red nail polish - all verboten under the Taliban - are for her statements of freedom. Her patent-leather Mary Jane platform shoes are definitely not what she was looking at the day a Taliban policeman a year earlier beat her in a shoe store for lifting up her burqa: high heels, also banned by the Islamic regime, are Kabul's favorite fashion statement that seems to peek out of the bottom of every young woman's burqa.

For seven years before the Taliban came to power, Adeel had been working at Kabul's only radio and television station, starting as a student intern and working her way up to reading newscasts and writing articles.

Though she completed a master's degree in engineering, she had a passion for literature - and for speaking her mind - that drew her to the studios of this decrepit recording station.

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"I feel the radio and television is my second home," says Adeel, who speaks a halting English that was flourishing before the Taliban shut down the language school where she was studying. "I missed it so much."

Adeel and other women who had professions before the Taliban wrested control of most of Afghanistan in 1996 have been gradually inching back to work. Women with "bare faces" - a head scarf to cover hair is still de rigueur - can now be seen on the nightly news on Kabul Television, where Adeel serves as a newscaster once a week. But there is hardly an uncovered female face anywhere in the streets and shops of Kabul, and the burqa - which literally means covering or tent - is worn by all but the very young or old.

The ubiquitous presence of what looks to foreign eyes like ghosts painted in shades of azure and aqua may show either how rare a woman Adeel is, or how slow the process will be of bringing women back into the workforce and getting girls educated and up to speed.

The United Nations estimates that only about 10 percent of the nation's women are literate, compared to 25 percent of men. The country's new minister of higher education says he will try to institute catch-up classes for girls who would otherwise be entering university next semester but haven't had a chance to study for five years. And Hamid Karzai, leader of the country's interim six-month government, says that women will "have rights due them under the country's law."

But working outside the home, while no longer banned on paper, may be slower to catch on in practice. Men interviewed around Kabul say that while they welcome seeing women such as Adeel on television, they wouldn't let their wives or sisters take the same job. It is perhaps not coincidental that Adeel, in her late 20s, is still unmarried, while most of her five younger sisters are.

Her family was particularly reluctant to let her go back to work since the television news broadcasts at night - the only time most people have electricity to watch TV. But she was so thrilled, she says, when she heard the voice of her female colleague, Jamila Muhajid, on the radio the day after the Taliban fell that she had her brother take her back to her old job in Kabul on the back of his bicycle, an hour-and-a-half ride.

Even at the radio and television studios, women as colleagues seems an idea that will take some getting used to again. Outside the director's office, five women shift nervously in their seats as they wait to take reading tests in the hope that they, too, might have an opportunity to make it big in broadcast journalism. They wear dressy scarves pushed back to the crowns of their heads, showing as much hair as possible without looking too audacious.

Radio and television are undergoing a renaissance that goes a deeper than fashion, though. Adeel's speciality is literary programs, and her colleagues say that no one has a more beautiful delivery than she. The years before the Taliban took over, she won a national award for poetry reading.

"Marzia's sound and style of delivery is better than anyone else's, and therefore we prefer to give her the richer literary programs," says Najiba, the producer of yesterday's show, which focused on the readings of a famous Indian poet who wrote in Dari, one of the country's two dominant languages.

As long as she's back at work, Adeel says she can live under the burqa a little longer. She tries to think of it as an overcoat. In the chilly Kabul winter, it's not so bad. But by spring, when heat can make the burqa stifling, she hopes others will be ready to take it off. Hope for the future, after all, was how she lived through five years of sitting at home.

"My boss said, 'This is temporary,' " she recalls. " 'You must have hope.' "

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