PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN -- Hamida sits quietly on the floor of the simple mud hut, far from the Panjsher Valley of her native Afghanistan. That was home until she was forced to flee because of the civil war that has uprooted almost half the population of her country.

She cradles two of her six children as she talks of the changes that have compressed her life into a small compound behind high mud walls at Khorasan camp about 30 miles from this frontier city.

"We never leave the compound, and that is difficult for us. But what makes it harder is that we want to sew and do embroidery but cannot get the materials we need. We want to work, but we have so little -- nothing to cook, nothing to sew with," she said. She spoke with the sense of fatalism that pervades life in the camps that dot the barren countryside of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

More than 800,000 women are among the 3 million Afghans who have sought refuge in Pakistan, according to official estimates. Life for them has become symbolized by the walls that surround many of their mud houses and tent compounds.

A small mud hut or a tent is home for most. Some have a few items of furniture; some have no more than a small mat, a blanket and a few rudimentary cooking and eating utensils. Complaints of food shortages are common. Some who have been unable to register as refugees say a little bread and tea is all that makes up a day's sustenance.

Life for the majority of Afghan women has never been free in the western sense. But the turmoil and disruption of war have strengthened tribal and Islamic strictures, limiting sharply the little outside contact that was allowed. It is, in many ways, a natural reaction to a culture under attack.

The combined impact of war trauma and the isolation of refugee life, according to aid experts and Afghan intellectuals and professionals here, has been devastating for many women. Illnesses, many of them psychosomatic, have proliferated.

"We may register 100 to 150 women a day and the doctors will see just 40 or so," said the director of one Peshawar-based aid organization, referring to a clinic for women that his group runs in a camp outside the city. "The others just wanted a place where they could sit and socialize."

On the streets of Peshawar and other Pakistani frontier cities, few women are seen without their heads and faces covered by a burqa, a garment that cloaks the body like a tent, leaving only a mesh-like covering over the eyes. In the refugee camps, it is possible for a male visitor to stay for days without ever seeing a woman.

This isolation of women -- a point of honor for Islamic males and females alike in Afghan society -- is an accepted fact of life. But even Afghans notice when the strictures become tighter.

Farukhtaj, a widow, is homeless. She moves every few days to share a place with a different friend in one of the area's many refugee camps. During the day, she works in the nursery of a women's self-help center run by a Danish committee. She thinks back fondly to life in her village near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

"We lived in large forts and there were six or seven families in each fort, so the women had many others they were with during the days.

"We could not go out very much, but the older women could work in the fields with the men and every morning we all could go out for water or wood. On special occasions, like marriages, we would put on the burqa and go to visit," she said, describing typical family life.

Now, life is different, more restricted.

"Here we live in different camps, far from each other," she says. "It is difficult to visit each other. There we were all together. For the young ladies, it is especially hard. They must stay in their houses even if they don't have food. If they can, they have sewing or embroidery brought in. They get food brought in, but that is all."

Islamic and tribal tradition long have dictated a fairly strict purdah system in Afghanistan, especially outside Kabul, the capital. Under this system of restraints, a woman is not supposed to be seen by males other than close family members.

It is a religious injunction stemming from a principle of modesty that has combined, especially among the Pathans -- the main tribal ethnic group in northwestern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan -- with strongly held concepts of individual and family honor. The burqa, covering the female form from head to toe, was commonly seen in Afghanistan as it is in the Arabian Peninsula. The system is accepted as an integral part of life among a people deeply religious, highly traditional and 95 percent illiterate.

Yet, according to many Afghans, purdah was more relaxed in the villages and valleys of Afghanistan than in the camps and cities and towns of Pakistan where refugees live.

"In Afghanistan, people often lived in isolated valleys or villages made up mostly of family members or at least the same sub-tribe," said one aid expert. "There was land and women would work it. Or within the village, since everyone was known to each other, there was trust and women would be allowed to go out.

"Here, they don't have land or animals and villages. Tribes and even people from different provinces are mixed together. . . . For the women, it means isolation because everyone is a stranger.

"The men are led to believe that people from other provinces are very 'loose.' The clearest evidence of this is that they let their women do anything. This, of course, means that to protect their reputations, they must be extra cautious about what the women can be seen doing outside the compound."

In effect, when all other measures are stripped away, social standing and worth become measured by religious tradition.

In the politically charged atmosphere of Peshawar, where the war against Soviet troops is supported by Islamic fervor, traditionalist and fundamentalist political parties and leaders also have accentuated influence.

To register as a refugee and qualify to receive food and other assistance, it is necessary to have a voucher letter from one of the seven main Peshawar-based political parties, all of which are religious in character and monitor behavior.

Well before the communist coups of the late 1970s, life in Kabul was more open for women, reflecting the westernizing influence of national leaders. For women who come to the Peshawar area and to the camps from the Afghan capital, the contrast in life styles is even more wrenching.

"When I was in Kabul, I could go out, I could dress as I pleased, I could see friends," said one young doctor. "Here, I can come only to the clinic and then I have to go home. I always cover my face but sometimes if my hand slips a bit and the cloth falls, the men will curse me," she said.

"Still, I have my work. Imagine what happens to those who just have to stay in the camps."

Compounding the stress of isolation and wartime ravages is the uncertainty connected with raising children in the camps, often in the absence of men. In a society where much is passed on from father to son, and where men are expected to be breadwinners while women handle chores inside the home, many women are bewildered by the new circumstances, according to aid experts.

For those without sons, however, the fears are greater.

"I know one young widow with three children, all girls, she must provide for," said the director of an aid program designed to help women. "There was no one to get ration cards, no one to get food. The mother is paralyzed, afraid to go out into the world of men."

For the oldest girl, this situation has meant a revolution of a different sort.

The girl, who was six when she came six years ago, has become a family provider. "She has learned, she has no fears," the aid expert said. "She is a producer, earning 150 to 300 rupees a month {$9 to $18}. She is open to any kind of learning. She is a new generation."

A number of organizations, such as Save the Children, the Austrian and Danish relief committees, have started work projects designed to draw on women's traditional sewing and embroidery skills.

Dr. Mohammad Dadfar has thought long and hard about the impact of war and exile on Afghan society. The German-trained psychiatrist is head of the Psychiatry Center for Afghans in Peshawar, and his clinic has seen nearly 15,000 people in the two years it has been open.

"In Afghanistan, the woman had a place in life," he said. "Both the man and the woman could produce something, giving their lives meaning. The hierarchy of society was strong. Now it is all gone. The fear of the future is great.

"Many have lost family members," he continued. "If a male is lost, it is the figure of family -- the protector, the provider. . . . But the men can compensate. They can go to fight, to work, to talk to each other, to join a party. The woman remains isolated. The feeling of grief and loss is not resolved. The impact is catastrophic.

"We came from Afghanistan and had to organize a new life, a refugee life, a society without production. We had to ask for help and help came from different sides with different interests. It can lead a society to disintegration -- politically, culturally, socially.

"All are victims, but especially the women. They are victims of the victims."

Alison Weintraub contributed to this report.