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For woman minister, rebuilding Afghanistan is a personal quest

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Although there are an estimated 1 million widows in Afghanistan, population 20 million, few women are able to work to provide for their families.

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Few peers

Before the Taliban seized control of the country five years ago, about 30 percent of the nation's civil servants and 70 percent of its teachers were women. Now, it is hard to find a woman working in virtually any government office, save Samar and Health Minister Suhaila Siddiqa, a physician who shares similar credentials: Both women were tolerated by Taliban officials, who often sent their wives to them for treatment.

Samar's concern is that it might be difficult to find many others. Untold numbers of educated women fled the country, not just during the op- pressive Taliban regime, but in the years before. "I'm still looking to see who is around so that I can build a staff," she says, her green eyes grinning. "You can't do everything on your own."

At times it seems like she has. After finishing school here in 1982, she fled the violence between the mujahideen and the Soviet Union, moving to Pakistan. In Quetta, in 1989, she founded her first hospital for women, many of them Afghan refugees ignored by Pakistani authorities. It later expanded into the Shuhada Organization that emerged into a network of clinics and schools on both sides of the border. Though her work and outspokenness sometimes earned her death threats, she carried on with the same aplomb as she does as the only woman in an all-male room full of tribal leaders.

Ambitious priorities

Her priorities include organizing literacy classes, returning skilled women to the workforce, and getting homeless women into shelters. She also wants to have a political voice. Local and international women's groups - as well as the UN - say that when the loya jirga, or national council, is formed at the end of the six-month interim period, 30 percent of the 700 seats should go to women. After all, in 1977, when she was a student here, women made up 15 percent of the loya jirga.

But this city is much changed since then. In the Kabul of 20 years ago, as she remembers it, young men rarely wore beards, and perhaps 5 percent of women, she says, wore the burqa. Though the dictates of the Taliban no longer require either, most men continue to go bearded - and it is virtually impossible to find an Afghan woman who is not covered with the loose blue sheet with a mesh screen around the eyes and nose.

Though other women have argued that the burqa must come off if women are to start coming out - activist Omena Afzali argues that Islam requires nothing resembling the shroudlike covering - Samar says this is a rather superficial layer of the problem.

"This is not an important issue," she says, readjusting her own light headscarf for a new flock of well-wishers. "It's not the law that requires this, but the mentality is not ready yet. We have to provide jobs for women." Seeing more than a tiny minority of women at work again, she hopes, is what will change minds. That plus stability, security, and prosperity - all desperately wanted here, and all in as short supply as functioning office space.

• Scott Baldauf in Quetta, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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