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Inside Islam, a woman's roar

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan, uses her religion to press for women's rights – and development agencies take note.

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"The fact [that] this woman is from within, and from the culture and society is much more powerful and salient than if a woman from outside said the same thing," says Eileen Babbitt, professor of International Conflict Management Practice at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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The power of religion

Indeed, Frogh believes so deeply in the power of religious arguments to bring reforms, she plans to get a graduate degree related to Islam. She says many mullahs in Afghanistan are usually only schooled by their fathers, who may be illiterate and not understand the Koran's original Arabic, even if they have memorized it. Her breadth of religious knowledge is key to persuading local religious leaders.

"My goal is to really represent Islam. It's not a religion that oppresses women," Frogh says. "Of course it's very risky. I may lose my life during this process, but if I am able to open a door for rights for one woman, then it is worth it."

She has worked for various humanitarian and development agencies to give women greater rights and education in Afghanistan. Now she works for the Canadian International Development Agency in Afghanistan, consulting on the suitability of projects there, implementing a gender-equity policy, and conducting feasibility studies and other preparations for new projects.

Changing men's perceptions

The mullah in Badakhshan Province is one of many men she persuaded to change with regard to their ideas about women. The first was her father. When her wealthy family fled upheaval in Afghanistan in the 1990s for Pakistan, her father, a rigid former Army officer, had a hard time supporting the family.

Frogh, then in eighth grade, thought of a way to help. She offered her landlord's children tutoring in exchange for cheaper rent.

"It made a difference in the way my father perceived me," Frogh says. "He thought women are consumers [who could] never be providers." He even began to consult her on family decisions.

"Because I was able to have that status in the family, it got me thinking. I could be a lawyer and help other people," she recalls. Even as a child, injustice needled her. She resented the fact that women ate in the kitchen while men dined in the living room. Girls swept the yard, but boys played in it.

Her nation's future: hopeful, tenuous

At the age most American teenagers are learning to drive, Frogh crouched at night on the family's toilet in Pakistan studying English. Only there could she turn on a light without disturbing anyone in their one-room home.

Now, not yet 30, she has President Bush's attention. In February she and women from three other countries met with Washington policymakers and aid donors to discuss women and security. The president made a surprise appearance during the group's meeting with the first lady. With her usual directness, Frogh described Afghanistan's future to the president as hopeful but tenuous.

"There is not justice," she recalls telling Mr. Bush. "The Taliban is very much all over the country. Those [who] have violated human rights, they are the ones in the government." Frogh's solution: After her studies, aim high. "I want to be chief justice."

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