In Afghanistan, Laura Bush focuses on roles of women

First Lady arrived in Kabul Wednesday pledging US support to ensure women participate fully in public life.

First Lady Laura Bush made a high-profile visit here Wednesday to promote women's education and the freedoms of democracy.

Speaking to a gathering of women at Kabul University, Mrs. Bush said, "The United States government is wholeheartedly committed to the full participation of women in all aspects of Afghan society, not just in Kabul, but in every province."

That last clause was an acknowledgement that women's progress has lagged in Afghanistan's rural areas. Indeed, as Bush celebrates the progress of Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban three years ago, observers say women in rural areas remain captive to stubborn traditions that severely limit their role in public life.

"Women's rights in Afghanistan has come a long way in the last three years," says Asefa Kakar, a judge in Afghanistan's Supreme Court. "Girls are going to school and women are working. But this is mostly in the cities. Rural Afghanistan is a long ways away from much needed change."

Ms. Kakar is part of a small group of elite women in Afghanistan who are in positions of some power and influence. Others include the three women ministers in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet and one newly appointed female governor.

"Most women in the rural areas of Afghanistan can't even leave their homes, not because the Taliban are still here, but because their families and communities have yet to accept a new role for them," she adds.

Three years ago, the Taliban excluded virtually all girls from the country's education system. Today, some 5 million children, including nearly 40 percent of young girls, take part.

During her visit, Bush announced multimillion-dollar US grants to help build an American University of Afghanistan, and an International School of Afghanistan that would educate children from K-12.

"To change the situation of women throughout Afghanistan, we need to change the minds of the men," says Arifa Shalizi, who runs a small embroidery business from her home in Kabul. "We can only do that through good role models of change."

One such model is Bakhtnazer Niaza, who owns Khobareh Khosh, a clothing design company in central Kabul.

Niaza employs 30 Afghan widows who have been trained by CARE International's widows program.

"The widows are usually the sole income providers for their families, so in my company I make an effort to train and hire widows for tailoring and embroidery jobs," Niazi says.

But she is not in business just for charity's sake. Niazi's 14-hour work days include visiting the city's handful of other boutiques and comparing her designs and prices to her competitors.

"My business is important. I know that fashion is a form of self-expression for women and they want it now. For a long time Afghan women were denied this right," says Niazi who has never traveled outside of Afghanistan.

When asked about the secret to her success, Niazi looks across the room to her husband.

"Afghan women cannot be successful without the support of their husbands," she says. "My husband goes everywhere with me."

Niazi explains the reality for women trying to work in a male-dominated environment, where women engaging in business affairs is still somewhat of a taboo.

"Women are not taken seriously when trying to negotiate a contract or bargaining for bulk materials. You need a man by your side," says Shalizi.

Niazi's husband, Khan Agha, agrees.

Reflecting on Afghanistan's tribal society, where community perceptions dictate lifestyles and traditions, he admits that Afghan men often mock him when he enters a business meeting with his wife.

"They tell me that she belongs at home and not at the meeting," he says. "They are shocked when I tell them that my wife owns the company and I work for her."

Many Afghans say that moments like these are slowly changing the role of women in Afghanistan.

But it is a different story when the Niazi couple ventures east of Kabul to their native province of Laghman, where the prospects of opening up shop seems millions of miles away.

"Laghman is still very conservative; I wear a burqa when I go," says Bakhtnazer. "I don't dare encourage women to work outside of the home there. It is enough that I tell them that I have my own business."

Bakhtnazer says she hopes that her story will spark curiosity in the women of her native village to start imagining themselves running a business and the men to start talking about it.

"It all starts with just one thought," she says. "Nine years ago, under the Taliban, I had a thought that I would own a clothing boutique and make new styles of clothes for Afghan women. Today that is happening."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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