The first official delegation of American women to visit the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban arrived today, offering more than $3.5 million in aid and other assistance to women across the country.
Under tight, heavily armed security at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the Americans met to discuss women's rights, education and business opportunities and, in the words of former White House counselor Karen P. Hughes, "provide some small sense of encouragement to the women of Afghanistan."
Hughes, who left her job in April but still advises President Bush, was part of the group visiting Kabul under the auspices of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, founded last year with the encouragement of Bush and Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. The delegation is being led by Paula J. Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for global affairs.
Though the issues that were discussed and the plans that were made wouldn't be considered controversial almost anywhere else in the world, they are in Kabul. When Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban Islamic movement, from 1996 through 2001, women generally were not allowed to work, go to school or even leave their homes unless fully covered in the head-to-toe veil called a burqa.
Though the Taliban's rigid interpretation of Islam was extreme by Afghan standards, deep-rooted traditions continue to impose restrictions on women and girls, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the country's population after decades of war. More than a year after the Taliban fled Kabul under attack by Afghan rebels and U.S. air power, most women on the streets of the capital still wear burqas. In many sections of the country, few women are seen outdoors.
At a news conference in front of the women's ministry, Hughes said she was "a little surprised to see so many women still in burqas. . . . I hope it is a choice and not out of fear, but I think we heard in the meeting that there is still a substantial amount of fear."
Hughes said Bush encouraged her to come "as a symbol of his personal commitment to the people of Afghanistan."
The new American assistance will include a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to open women's centers in 14 provinces to offer help with literacy, health, education and starting small businesses. Soraya Rahim Sobhrang, deputy director of the women's ministry, said her office hoped the centers eventually could help with legal and family planning needs as well.
Dobriansky said another $1 million will go to relief groups for programs related to the issues discussed at the meeting. In addition, DaimlerChrysler AG and AOL Time Warner Inc. have given money to help Afghan women's projects.
In a reminder of how controversial women's issues can still be in Afghanistan, a group of female government officials and judges who visited the United States last fall came under harsh criticism at home after they were seen on television without head scarves meeting Bush. Islamic parties condemned the women for being "immodest" and bringing "dishonor" to Afghanistan. One of the women -- Marzia Basel, a judge in Kabul -- said she was afraid to return to her office because of the backlash, and soon after her return, she gave up her job.
That trip to the United States was also organized under the auspices of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council.
Despite the continuing resistance by some Afghans, Foreign Minister Abdullah said the Karzai government was committed to promoting women's rights and issues. He said the fact that the U.S.-Afghan women's meeting could be held in Kabul represented "one of the major turnarounds in the history of mankind."