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Afghan Women Prepare to Take Wheel

To buck up his students, the traffic department's driving instructor, Asadullah Afzali, has taken to interspersing his lectures on driving rules with "You go, girl!"-style pep talks.

"I tell them that you must not be afraid," Afzali said. "That it's up to you to take the lead or things will never change.

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)

Afzali, a gruff 48-year-old who struts before his class in epaulets and black boots like a drill sergeant, seems an unlikely champion of women's liberation.

Like many Herat residents, Afzali sought refuge from Taliban rule in neighboring Iran, where women, though still restricted, enjoy more freedoms than those permitted under the customs now prevalent in Herat.

While in exile, Afzali's teenage daughter, Homaira, got a driver's license.

Shortly after the Taliban was defeated by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, Afzali and his family returned to Herat. He thought it was only natural that women in Herat should be able to receive a license.

Technically, no law prohibits women from driving in Afghanistan. But in addition to passing a practical test, all license applicants in Herat must take a two-week course on traffic regulations. Teaching women alongside men is unthinkable here, and a separate class did not exist for women.

Afzali said his first proposal to offer such a course was quickly quashed by Khan, the governor.

"He convened a . . . council of religious leaders, and he asked them, 'Is this okay?' " Afzali recalled. "They said . . . it would cause problems."

But after Khan was removed from office, Afzali was suddenly deluged with requests from women seeking a license, he said.

Some said they simply wanted to be able to get to a doctor in case of an emergency.

Others said they needed to commute to university classes or jobs.

Sadat, the English major, said she was looking to restore some sanity to her marriage. "Right now, I'm calling my husband four times a day to give me a lift," she said.

About a month ago, Afzali resubmitted his proposal for the class. The new governor, an urbane former aide to President Hamid Karzai, did not object.

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