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Afghan Women Prepare to Take Wheel

New Drivers Still Face Cultural Roadblocks

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page A13

HERAT, Afghanistan -- Sima Kazemi smiled proudly as she considered whether she would pass the first driver's license exam to be offered to women in this western city. There was, she said, no doubt.

But the confidence drained from the 20-year-old college student's voice as she acknowledged the harassment that she would probably face as a female driver in Afghanistan.

Asadullah Afzali, an instructor with the Herat traffic department, teaches a driving class for women. He won approval for the class about a month ago. (N.C. Aizenman -- The Washington Post)

"Actually, I've decided to wait at least one year before driving," she said with a resigned sigh. "Maybe by then things will be better. But the atmosphere is just not ready right now."

A new plan in Herat to teach women to drive and give them licenses is at once a symbol of the official rights women continue to win in Afghanistan and a reminder of the difficulties they still confront in exercising those freedoms.

Inaugurated a few weeks ago, the driving program is part of a flowering of liberties here that followed the central government's dismissal in September of the provincial governor, Ismail Khan, a religiously conservative strongman who proved almost as repressive toward women as the Taliban militia he replaced.

Now, for the first time in memory, shops in Herat are hiring women to sell their wares. Women's fitness clubs are popping up along the city's leafy avenues. And ever more women are trading their burqas, the head-to-toe garment worn in public, for an Iranian-style shawl, or chador, which covers the hair and body but not the face.

Yet it remains unclear how much use the new drivers -- a mix of college students and middle-age schoolteachers -- will get out of their licenses and how society will treat them when they are on the road.

For a start, most of the program's nearly 50 participants still come to class in burqas.

"We do realize that we will have to remove them to drive," said Farashte Sadat, 23, an English major at Herat University, giggling at the thought of trying to peer at traffic through the thick, mesh face-screen of her burqa. "But we are used to this, and our family doesn't like us to take it off."

Shaghe Karimi, 29, a law student, said she had driven by herself for the first time a few weeks ago after begging her brother-in-law to lend her his car on a family picnic.

"You feel like you're not dependent on anyone," she said enthusiastically. "Like you can go anywhere!"

But her elation was cut short on a second, similar outing, she said, when she ventured out of her family's sight and passed a group of men washing their car by a stream.

"When did you get your license?" they jeered, she said, and started to give chase.

Burning with humiliation, she raced back to her family and rejoined the picnic without a word about what had happened.

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