For woman minister, rebuilding Afghanistan is a personal quest

When delegations of tribal leaders file in to greet Dr. Sima Samar, they offer the deference due a government minister - one who just may be the most powerful woman in Afghanistan.

But it's a lonely position: Not one woman could be found among the processions that came on a recent morning to recite glowing odes to Ms. Samar, Afghanistan's first minister of women's affairs. The men celebrated her arrival - but left their wives and daughters home.

Among the daunting challenges that Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai will face in the next few months - from spending international donors' funds wisely to strengthening law and order in a still-fractious country - is getting women back into public life after years of being barred from it.

And, Karzai may have to work hard to make sure Samar, internationally renowned for her work in education, health, and human rights, stays in the picture.

"I'll see how positive I can be in this government. If I can't do much, I won't stay," Samar says in her first appointment of the day, which will soon be filled with tribal leaders from various parts of Afghanistan.

Scores of men wrapped in striped silk turbans and tan wool blankets file into her home's receiving room, and as they arrive, she covers her short, brown hair with the gossamer white headscarf she had let slip down to her shoulders.

A natural choice

When Afghani-stan's interim government was inaugurated in December, there was no question that Samar deserved to be one of the two women in the cabinet - and the only female deputy prime minister. Samar, a physician, opened four hospitals, 10 clinics and 48 schools in Pakistan and Aghanistan - often in defiance of the Taliban's ban on the very presence of women on the job or girls in the classroom.

In a recent interview, however, she said she still had not been assigned an appropriate building to house her ministry. And, concerned that women's issues could be given token treatment by the government, she says she will not stay in the cabinet if she cannot make an impact.

Four other government ministers - all of them Afghan professionals returned from abroad - express similar doubts as to whether they will continue in their posts past the mandate of the interim government, which ends in June.

The first halfyear is not just a test for international donors - who last week pledged $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year - but also for a class of educated Afghans hoping for a government that is serious about peace and reconstruction.

Wanted: office space

For Samar, that means setting up shop in a proper office. She has been offered a section of the Ministry of Social Affairs, she says, but she insisted that she would not be stuck in the corner of someone else's office.

"They offered me some other place, and I said, no, I don't want to be under your roof and your orders, I want my own place, so that women can easily reach me," says Samar, covered in a bulky sweater to fight the winter chill.

Though the idea of a government ministry just for women may sound a little odd to Western ears, it is in part a recognition of the fact that some of the country's most urgent needs boil down to women's needs. Only about 10 percent of women are literate - compared with 25 percent of men - and women here have one of the lowest life expectancies on earth.

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

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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