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In recent weeks the Bush Administration, in cooperation with the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, has opened a public relations assault to point up the oppression of women under Taliban rule. Two weeks ago, Laura Bush delivered what is ordinarily the President's Saturday radio address to speak about the problem. "What this initiative has done is send a signal," says Jim Wilkinson, director of the Coalition Information Center, the White House office that coordinates the Administration's worldwide anti-Taliban message. "By talking about the problem, we're hopefully able to affect the solution as they set up the new Afghan government," he notes.
In Washington two weeks ago, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the President's Special Counselor, Karen Hughes, met with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, and Mavis Leno, who has long worked to bring attention to the problems of Afghan women. "We asked the Administration to make returning women to equal status under the law a nonnegotiable issue in forming any new government," says Leno, wife of Tonight Show host Jay Leno. "That's pretty much the language Colin Powell used when he spoke at the State Department (last week), so it appears the government is going to do exactly that."
Or try to do. Afghanistan is famously resistant to outside interference. Ask the Russians. "When the Soviets came, they wanted to change the country overnight, abandoning tribal codes that existed for centuries," says Nelofer Pazira, an exiled Afghan journalist and dedicated foe of the Taliban who stars in the film Kandahar (see box). "People were appalled. They went completely in the opposite direction. Even more liberal families became very conservative."
No matter what other nations may think, in the end it will be up to the Afghans to find a new balance of genders in their society. Progress is likely to be slow, particularly outside the educated Elites of Kabul. Even there it will be subject to the complex forces of coercion, family pressure and tradition. Mohammad Halim, who runs one of Kabul's best-known burka shops, says he has no plans to offer a wider variety of clothing. "It will only be in Kabul where women will take off their burkas. Elsewhere women will continue wearing them. This is a very old custom in Afghanistan." That very day, says Halim, more than a week after the Taliban fled the city, he sold 20.
Maybe Halim has not counted on the number of girls who think like Mashal. At 18, she wants to be a doctor. "I want to be freed from Allah," she says. "I don't want to wear a veil at all. I want to wear miniskirts." And he may not be counting on the determination of women like Fakhria, 35, a mother of four in Kabul. After the Taliban forced her from her job at a teacher-training college, she opened a secret beauty salon in her house in Kabul. A high wall shields her customers from prying eyes. Inside are pictures of female models torn from Pakistani magazines. On shelves beside a large mirror, she has a selection of lipsticks, eyeliners and hair sprays. In the West they would be commonplace. In a society that forbids them, they seem weirdly precious.
With the Taliban gone, Fakhria hopes to open a storefront salon. No blackened windows anymore to hide the forbidden faces. She also wants to go back to her teaching job. "I can make more money in a salon," she says. "But I want to pass on knowledge."
There is one kind of knowledge that all Afghan women can pass on now—what it was like to be trapped in a society that, however briefly, perfected their imprisonment.