for National Geographic News
The curtain of invisibility is finally lifting for the women of
They have been subject to Soviet occupation, civil war, severe drought, and government that limits opportunities for women.
Under the rule of the Taliban, beginning in 1995, they could not work, go to school, or leave their homes without being accompanied by a male relative. They had to keep themselves entirely covered. The windows to their homes had to be painted lest some passerby look upon them.
With the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, change is coming, albeit slowly. Violence remains a constant threat.
In Kabul, "women are still not visible," said Carol Yost, director of women's programs for The Asia Foundation. "They don't feel safe, and they shouldn't. It's largely a city of men. The country is still at war."
Most women continue to wear the burqa, the voluminous garment that covers them from head to toe, which many non-Islamic women around the world view as a symbol of oppression.
But rebuilding Afghanistan after 23 years of conflict is not about shedding burqasit's about revitalizing education, providing livelihood skills, and improving health care, said Betsy White, a scholar of Islam who has worked extensively in Afghanistan.
"Westerners need to get over their obsession with the burqa," she said. "In a place where there is no assured sense of law and order, being completely covered can be very useful."
In a country devastated by war, she explained, survival and earning a living are the highest priorities. And that means providing educational opportunities and skills-training.
International aid agencies are focusing an enormous amount of resources on re-opening the country's primary schools on March 26, the traditional start of the school year. To address the needs of young women and girls from the age of 12 to 20 who have suffered so much already, the National Geographic Society, in partnership with The Asia Foundation, is creating the Afghan Girls Fund.
Afghanistan is an extremely entrepreneurial culture, and a combination of services that teaches both livelihood skills and literacy is needed for this age group, experts say.
Nation of Widows
White said a "catch-up" education program for girls from 10 to 20 years old is badly needed. "There's a huge group of young people who have had no education at all," she said.