Bent over rows of carrots and okra, plucking weeds with callused hands while protectively clutching at their head scarves, the sunburned farm women of this central highlands village hardly seem like subversive figures.
Yet they are cutting a small, revolutionary swath through the deeply traditional and long-isolated region that is the homeland of Afghanistan's Hazara population, an ethnic minority that historically has suffered more hardship and persecution than any other group in the country.
Rural Hazara women have borne a double burden, largely confined to fieldwork and child-rearing in a population that is already relegated to the lowest rung of Afghan society. In some districts of Hazarajat, as the central highlands are informally known, the female literacy rate has traditionally been near zero, and more than 6 percent of pregnant women die during childbirth -- a level higher than in sub-Saharan Africa.
Another casualty of the region's remoteness and chronic deprivation is nutrition. The picturesque river valleys meandering through Hazarajat are blanketed with wheat and potato fields, but farmers grow virtually no other crops. The daily diet of most families consists of bread, potatoes and tea, and U.N. studies have found that nearly one-third of Hazarajat's children suffer from stunted growth.
But Sabera Sakhi, who runs a small social welfare program in Bamian, the region's capital, is trying to promote several changes at once: the economic emancipation of Hazara women, the cultivation of crops no one has grown here before, and the benefits of vegetarian cuisine to a population that survives on starch.
"Traditions here are strong and hard to change, but growing vegetables seemed like a good place to start," said Sakhi, who rented three acres of farmland in April and obtained seeds and financing from a New Zealand military unit that operates a provincial development outpost in Bamian.
To gain local support, Sakhi approached village elders and said she wanted to help women whose husbands had been killed or disabled in fighting during the late 1990s, when Islamic Taliban forces overran Hazarajat, burning houses and destroying fields. She sweetened the proposal by offering each of 20 participants $50 a month to tend plots of cabbage, radishes, squash and other vegetables.
Within months, the women in Fuladi went from being the neediest members of their community to being among the top income earners. They developed farming skills unknown to local men, learned how to prepare and cook vegetables for their children, and discovered their own stamina improving in the process. The changes were radical and, perhaps unavoidably, suspect.
"At first people laughed at us, not to our faces but among themselves when we were gone," said Seema Gul, 27, a mother of six with a shy giggle and a face roughened by hardship. "They saw us bending over and taking stones from the fields. They saw us growing things that were not in our tradition. They said it was shameful for us to register with a [foreign charity]."
The women persevered, grateful for the money and gradually convinced that vegetables were beneficial to their health. One participant said she noticed her blood pressure decreasing; another said she had fewer headaches and felt stronger in the mornings.
Next, Sakhi plans to break another cultural taboo by opening a women's vegetable stall in the Bamian market. The Fuladi women appeared uneasy but excited about the plan, and they laughed nervously when asked to pose for photographs with their produce.
"You can send my picture to the world, but please don't show it in my neighborhood. That would be too shameful," Gul requested, proudly opening her apron full of newly picked cucumbers.
At the national level, Hazaras have tended to be more progressive about women's rights to pursue education and public activities than other, larger Afghan ethnic groups. In Kabul, the capital, and other urban districts, educated Hazara women -- particularly those who have returned from wartime exile in Iran -- are as active as men in civic and political affairs.
Even in the tradition-bound central highlands, Hazara families appear eager to have their daughters become educated, and U.N. officials in Bamian, 20 miles to the east, said that since the collapse of Taliban rule in late 2001, aid agencies have scrambled to build schools and attract qualified female teachers to meet the demand.
"The Hazaras are unusually open-minded about the participation of women. This has emerged because of the community's exclusion from economic and political processes in the past," said Peter Maxwell, the senior U.N. official for the region. "They realize that women and girls are a resource in themselves. You see lots and lots of girls in school, some of them walking one or two hours a day to get there."
But conservative custom and years of warfare -- during which many families fled Hazarajat and schools shut down -- have conspired to keep older girls from higher education. Four months ago, a new university built by the U.S. military opened in Bamian, but officials there said that of 165 initial students, only six were women, because so few girls in the area had been able to complete high school.
Statistics from the recently completed national voter registration drive would appear to suggest that women in the central highlands are also more politically engaged than those of other ethnic groups. Of 528,000 voters who registered in the region, more than half -- 280,000 -- were women, whereas in some southern, ethnic Pashtun areas, as little as 20 percent of registrants were women.
But the numbers turned out to be deceptive. In interviews last week, many Hazara farm women said they had dutifully obtained their new identification cards as their community elders urged, but few understood that they would be voting for a new president in an election, and some did not know that Hamid Karzai is the current president of Afghanistan.
Sakhi, who heads a nonprofit agency called Save the Women and Children of Afghanistan, has also been trying to expose Hazara women to such concepts as human rights, civic association and constitutional law. Last spring she offered a free class in legal and civic issues for 50 women, and she hopes to repeat it in the fall.
"There is no lack of interest, but there are almost no facilities for women," she said. "I have 1,600 women registered for literacy classes but no books. Women are still not allowed to choose their husbands, and there is no place for them to turn when they have problems in their marriages. When we get complaints, all we can do is listen."
Aid experts predict it will take years before Hazara women -- like the region as a whole -- can make up for the entrenched poverty and recent violent predations that have kept Hazarajat in a state of suspended isolation.
But in Fuladi, there are already signs that the pioneering vegetable program is changing timeless community attitudes toward women, agriculture and eating habits. The salaries, and the hard toil of tending delicate crops, have earned the participants respect among village men, a few of whom acknowledged they had come to like eating the newfangled vegetables.
"They give you more energy," said Raja Wali, 30, a man covered in mud from digging a well in the village. Vast fields of potato and wheat stretched up into the hills, with the women's tiny plots of green scattered among them. "I wish we had known about this years ago. I'll see how the women do this year," he added thoughtfully. "If they make money, maybe I'll plant some myself next season."