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Assignment Afghanistan

From keeping tabs on the Taliban to saving puppies, a reporter looks back on her three years covering a nation's struggle to be reborn

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Once voter registration began, the Taliban shifted targets, attacking and killing half a dozen Afghan registration workers. But the extremists miscalculated badly. Afghans were determined to vote, and even in the conservative Pashtun belt of the southeast, tribal elders cooperated with U.N. teams to find culturally acceptable ways for women to cast their ballots.

One June day, driving through the hills of KhostProvince in search of registration stories, I came upon a highway gas station with a line of men outside, waiting to have their voter ID photos taken. When I asked politely about the arrangements for women, I was led to a farmhouse filled with giggling women. None could read or write, but a high-school girl filled out each voting card, guessing at their ages, and an elderly man carried them to the gas station. “We want our women to vote, so we have made this special arrangement,” a village leader explained to me proudly. “If they cross the road and some strange driver sees them, people would talk.”

Ballrooms twinkled with fairy lights, amplified music pulsed and pounded, young women in slinky sequined dresses twirled across the floor. Kabul was in a post-Taliban wedding frenzy; a society re-knitting itself and reestablishing its rituals after years of repression and flight. Ornate salons were booked around the clock, and beauty parlors were crammed with brides being made up like geishas.

But despite the go-go glitter, each wedding—like everything related to romance and marriage—was conducted by traditional Afghan rules. Salons were divided by walls or curtains into separate women’s and men’s sections. The newlyweds were virtual strangers, their match arranged between families and their courtship limited to tightly chaperoned visits. After the ceremony, the bride was expected to move in with her husband’s family, for life. By religious law, he could divorce her at will, or marry up to three additional women. She had almost no rights at all. Even if she were abused or abandoned, it was considered a deep family shame if she sought a divorce, and a judge would admonish her to be more dutiful and reconcile.

On some levels, the departure of the Taliban brought new freedom and opportunity to women. Teachers and secretaries and hairdressers could return to work, girls could enroll in school again, and housewives could shop unveiled without risk of a beating from the religious police. In cities, fashionable women began wearing loose but smart black outfits with chic pumps. Women served as delegates to both Loya Jerga assemblies, the new constitution set aside parliamentary seats for women, and a female pediatrician in Kabul announced her candidacy for president.

But when it came to personal and sexual matters, political emancipation had no impact on a conservative Muslim society, where even educated urban girls did not expect to date or choose their mates. In Kabul, I became close friends with three women—a doctor, a teacher and a nurse—all articulate professionals who earned a good portion of their families’ income. Over three years, I knew them first as single, then engaged and finally married to grooms chosen by their families.

My three friends, chatty and opinionated about politics, were far too shy and embarrassed to talk with me about sex and marriage. When I delicately tried to ask how they felt about having someone else choose their spouse, or if they had any questions about their wedding night—I was 100 percent certain none had ever kissed a man—they blushed and shook their heads. “I don’t want to choose. That is not our tradition,” the nurse told me firmly.

Village life was even more impervious to change, with women rarely allowed to leave their family compounds. Many communities forced girls to leave school once they reached puberty, after which all contact with unrelated males was prohibited. During one visit to a village in the Shomali Plain, I met a woman with two daughters who had spent the Taliban years as refugees in Pakistan and recently moved home. The older girl, a bright 14-year-old, had completed sixth grade in Kabul, but now her world had shrunk to a farmyard with chickens to feed. I asked her if she missed class, and she nodded miserably. “If we left her in school, it would bring shame on us,” the mother said with a sigh.

For a western woman like me, life in Kabul grew increasingly comfortable. As the number of foreigners increased, I drew fewer stares and began to wear jeans with my blousy tunics. There were invitations to diplomatic and social functions, and for the first time since the end of Communist rule in 1992, liquor became easily available.

Yet despite the more relaxed atmosphere, Kabul was still no place for the pampered or faint of heart. My house was in an affluent district, but often there was no hot water, and sometimes no water at all; I took countless bucket baths on shivering mornings with tepid water from the city tap. Urban dust entered every crack, covered every surface with a fine gritty layer, turned my hair to straw and my skin to parchment. Just outside my door was a fetid obstacle course of drainage ditches and rarely collected garbage, which made walking a hazard and jogging out of the question.

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