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In Afghanistan

An Afghan joke: A father asks his daughter what kind of husband she would like. She replies, "one who can sing, play music, tell stories, talk about politics and who will be quiet when I want him to." The father says, "you're not looking for a husband, you're looking for a TV set."

An Afghan woman: Aqila Asdaqe, 27, who gets into the car in her sky-blue burqa and says, "Hello! Who am I?" and laughs. I expected many things when I went to Kabul. Dust and devastation, begging children and roofless houses. But not a fully functioning sense of humour.

Five minutes later, Aqila leans over and whispers in embarrassment that she was imprisoned for four days by the Taliban for working for a foreign organisation, and that on the way to jail, she had to scrape off her nail polish (also illegal) to prevent more punishment. "There were 25 women in prison with me," she whispers. "And every single one was there for stupid things." Five minutes between positive and negative: Afghanistan is a country in massive mood-swing, and Aqila is typical.

It's not surprising. If you're a 23 year-old Afghan woman, you'll have grown up knowing nothing but war. You will be able to tick off on both hands, and then some more, all the factions that have fought, wrecked and bombed your country. Communists, mullahs, Russians, Americans. Najibullah, Dostum, Shah Masoud, Gulbuddin, Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden. Men with guns, men with beards. You will be used to waking up and not being sure who's controlling the country that morning, and not just on September 26, 1996, when a group of well-organised religious students called the Taliban took Kabul, and the world decided to notice Afghanistan again.

The wholesale destruction of a beautiful country has been a collective effort. Everyone in the collective has been a man, and almost everyone holding the country together has been a woman. "If we had given in completely to the Taliban," says Shukria Dawi, a journalist and activist, "There would be nothing left now. No music, no schools, no nothing."

Shukria is six months pregnant and a force of nature. She never stops smiling. We first meet in London, where she has come to visit Glamour. In February this year, Shukria launched the Women's Mirror, a four-page newspaper, and she's checking out the competition. She looks shocked at our offices: "So many people! And you have men working on a women's magazine? And a woman is in charge?" But she's being modest: Two weeks and 3554 miles away later, I repay her visit. In her house in Kabul, she introduces Akmal, the only man amongst the the Women's Mirror's 16 journalists, translators and photographers. And Shukria is definitely in charge.

The Women's Mirror began with 1000 copies; now it's up to 3000, and still Kabul's women can't get enough. It is printed in Dari and Pashto, two of the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, with one article in English, and it's free. It's quite a change from Glamour's offices — features meetings are at Shukria's dinner table, and her two domestic staff wander in and out occasionally — but there's no less determination. There are money problems, (Shukria is funding the weekly $600 costs out of her own pocket), electricity problems ("sometimes it is light, sometimes it is heavy"), and technological problems. The newspaper's one Pentium computer was donated by the British Embassy, along with scanner and printer, but it doesn't have an Arabic script, and a new Macintosh would cost $5000. But all these are surmountable. "Before I couldn't do this," says Shukria, happily. "All our newspapers were run by the government. I'm happy this is the first. And people like it, because every article is true. We look through people's eyes, not the government's."

For the latest issue, she added a new strapline: "Independent and Impartial" which she shows me, saying "what do you think?" I think it has a lot of catching up to do, and it's doing it fast. Under the Taliban regime, only a few government-controlled newspapers were permitted. Women were allowed nowhere near offices. Like most women I meet, Shukria worked in secret, running a clandestine infants school in her home. It was obviously effective: Her daughter Fatima, a black-haired five year-old, can recite "twinkle twinkle little star" and "baa baa black sheep," count to ten in English, French, Dari and Pashto, and occasionally says the word "shit!", quite charmingly. (I wonder where she got her cursing from, till Shukria mentions that she used to keep a satellite dish hidden inside her living room during Taliban times. American TV: mystery solved.)

In 1992, when fighting began between mujaheddin - warlords, fighters, monsters, according to your preference - and Kabul was bombed to bits, 65% of Afghanistan's teachers were women. When the Taliban came, and imposed the strictest interpretation of Islamic law in the world — women weren't permitted to teach, learn, see clearly — many fled to Pakistan and Iran. But many kept on teaching, only in "special courses," as Afghans call their secret schools. At Ariana Women's Vocational Centre, down the street from Shukria's house, director Shafiqa Moaber also kept her centre's classes going, though she risked six months in jail and severe beatings. She introduces a beautiful girl, Marina, who is teaching English downstairs to women, girls and young boys. "A egg? AN egg!" Marina was caught by Taliban officials. "She cut the textbooks into shreds and pretended they were patterns, and that it was a tailoring class!" laughs Shafiqa. But she was beaten up anyway.

A page of the newspaper — "For you, from you" — is dedicated to readers' contributions. A poem in one issue asks "if there were no women, who would rock the cradle of the world? who would teach the Platos to speak?" There are jokes ("how did you get the stains out of your carpet?" asks a woman. "I used my husband," replies her friend); opinion pieces, diaries. A long article explains how, in 1920, Afghanistan's Queen Soraya promoted women's rights, opened a girls' school, campaigned for women to be unveiled. "Afghan women haven't realised their place in society," explains Shukria, forcefully. "They have to be mentally empowered." They're doing OK, if the readers' page is anything to go by: It reads like women breathing fresh air again: After six years of being under effective house arrest, Kabul's women have plenty of venting to do.

And so does their city. On the drive into Kabul, I expect the apocalyptic gloom of a tired town. I am wrong, as I realise as soon as I spot the roadside vendor selling french fries. There is bustle and noise, and the streets are jammed with hooting cars. Music has come back to Kabul — in the sound of tinny Bollywood theme songs — but it has a hard time competing with the symphony of klaxons. Such is the traffic here, one of the poorest countries on the planet has installed uniformed traffic wardens on roundabouts, complete with white gloves and whistles. They almost make you forget that driving licences and road safety are unimportant concepts in a country that's been fighting for 23 years. On the corner of many streets are brand new "Houses to Let" signs: Rents have gone from $100 a month to $5000 to cater for Kabul's new international community (NGOs, embassies, the International Security Assistance Force). This is a city that has learned to be resilient.

In the busy shops, I glimpse splashes of blue moving amongst the brown salwaar-kameez almost universally worn by men: These are Afghanistan's liberated women, still in their tents, or chadori, as Afghans call the burqa. The tents are the colour of Kabul's famous sky, though the women inside them must squint to see it. "You'll see a couple of unveiled women at most," says a political officer at the British High Commission. In fact, I see half a dozen in half an hour, and not just the young and old who are exempt from veiling (they're not sexual targets, so they don't need to be covered, according to modesty rules). There are women in their twenties, their heads covered in scarves, but their faces are free. I begin to think that hysterical media coverage - Afghanistan's women throw off their burqas! - might be true after all.

In a newly-opened girls' high school, 21 year-old Marida Habibi tells how she's been at school for two months, but how her father insisted she go to special courses. "We would turn up at the house at five minute intervals," she explains, careful to get the English right. "I wore a heavy overcoat under my chadori, even in the hottest weather, and I took one textbook and one notebook and put them up my sleeves. The Taliban made us like robbers!"

Shukria has brought us to the school. She knows everyone in Kabul, it seems, including the headteacher here. She is friends with the two most important women in Afghanistan, both ministers in the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai, appointed in January. The powerful new health minister, General Suhaila Siddiqi - "my best friend!" — and Women's Affairs Minister Sima Samar — "my close friend!". She knows everyone, and they know her, including all the girls in the history class we interrupt, in a building which needs glass in its windows, where children sit three to a desk (if they have a desk), unable to believe their luck that they're in school. Marida's classmates give Shukria a pile of articles for publication in the Women's Mirror. "I am glad for these stories," says Shukria. "For every single one of them. But I go into a school like that, and I see what they are lacking, and I am smiling, but I am crying inside."

Because Queen Soraya's Women's Lib must seem like ancient history to schoolgirl Marida, who was born into war, and for whom basic women's rights — not to be raped, for example — aren't even living memories. She has seen her city fought over by communists and Russians. She might remember the Communist president Najibullah castrated and hung from a lamp-post. She might remember the mujaheddin time in Kabul, when there was massive rape of women, murder, anarchy, and women still talk of how fighters nailed peoples' foreheads, stoned women to death, abducted young girls. Some of the commanders of these men are now in the interim government, and the memory of the commanders of these men is why the word on most women's lips, even today, is "security."

"Kabul is the shakiest of urban centres," says a military man at the British High Commission. "It has been secured, but it's not secure. Be on your guard." During the time we're there, a rocket is fired at ISAF headquarters. Fighting breaks out in the suburbs. About 600 men are detained on suspicion of planning a coup to overthrow the interim administration. And a car-bomb blows up in Jalalabad, aimed at defence minister General Fehim. "That's strange," says Shukria. "Usually they don't bomb, they shoot." As has always been the case in Afghanistan, it's not immediately clear who's doing what. A country with ethnic majorities and minorities has ready-made cracking points, and Afghanistan's fault lines are deep. The Pashto are the majority, but the people in power in Kabul are mostly Tajik. ISAF's influence doesn't reach much beyond Kabul, and the only certainty is that someone somewhere will always be doing something nasty.

I ask Marida if she feels excited about the future. She smiles, but it's a Mona Lisa version: mostly sadness. "I would say I am 10% excited about the future. That's it. The rest is hope."

The 90% gap is the reason so many women are still choosing to stumble, not stride. Because despite those half-dozen women in headscarves, the overwhelming majority of women are still in their blue tents. In a jewellery shop near our hotel Spinzar (ratio: five floors of curious men; two female journalists), a bunch of burqas are buying gold jewellery with their harvest income. An older woman has just said she doesn't mind the chadori, when another burqa interrupts. "I do! I hate it!" Zarghona Jabari is a professor of journalism at Kabul University, where over half the professors were women in pre-war times. "There are many ethnic groups in town. It's safer to wear it. I've been beaten by the Taliban, for wearing the wrong socks. I have cried too much." Then, suddenly, shockingly, she lifts up her burqa. She is beautiful.

Of course there have been changes: over 1000 women now work in government ministries. They've gone back to work in hospitals, schools, in non-governmental organisations. As we wait for Aqila one morning outside the World Food Programme, taxi after taxi draws up and dispels another woman on her way to work, an unthinkable event six months ago, before the Twin Towers fell, and the Taliban with them. But almost all these educated, working women are wearing their blue shrouds, like Aqila, like Zarghona. Because their intelligence tells them that six months of freedom isn't very long.

I ask so often about the burqa, Shukria eventually takes pity and buys me one. I get the modern, more user-friendly version: the front stops above the wrists, leaving the hands free, though the back still flows to the feet in its cheap pleats (most are made from South Korean polyester), and the cap is still tight, and the mesh still cruel. Aqila says her eyes are damaged from straining to see. I bet men have bad eyesight too: It's disconcerting trying to have a conversation with cloth, and it's hard to stop yourself peering.

It is like being stuck in a sauna. Even on a mild spring day, your breath constantly heats the cap. The grill sticks to your eyelashes. It is horrible. Why are you still wearing it? I ask women, again and again, and though they are too polite to say so, their expression says they have more important things to worry about. "It is habit," says Aqila, on the way to show us a women's bakery in Dehmazang, where outerwear is the least of women's problems.

I had been thinking that Kabul didn't look too badly damaged. You could almost think it was a normal city, though the grass in the parks is brown, and the embassies are sandbagged. There's not much evidence of the 4.500 ISAF troops on the streets, either, though we are stopped by some lost Spaniards one day, who are looking for milk (after directing them to a well-stocked shop, our translator Siar mutters, "I think they lost their mother.") But Dehmazang is different. This was the mujaheddin playground, bombed to bits by their in-fighting between 1992-6. Destroyed masonry, crumpled buildings sagging in despair. Ruins that people still live in. You see little blue dots at the end of dusty streets that are the women in their tents, against a backdrop of mountains. Majesty and misery, horrible and harmonious.

Behind a tarpaulin curtain, in a street of ruined buildings, the bakery is in full flow. There are half a dozen women working, flattening dough, pressing patterns into it with their nails, shoving it into the oven. All are widows; all got the job through a lottery, and all, it turns out, are waiting for Aqila to take off her burqa before they remove theirs. Aqila looks surprised. "I didn't know. Now I really feel under pressure!" She'd already told me that she's waiting for her friend to buy a headscarf that weekend, then they will take them off together. But she didn't look too convinced. In the girls' school, Madiba says she's waiting for her friends to bin theirs, before she does the same. One big waiting game, which would be funny if it weren't so serious.

But perhaps it isn't. Tajwar Kakar is deputy Minister of Women's Affairs. "We don't want to pressure women to take off the burqa," says Tajwar. "We respect it. We don't yet have facilities for women like separate buses and cars, so they don't want to take them off. Also some women are ashamed of the state of their clothes, so they prefer to hide them." Tajwar has more crucial things to worry about in her new office, such as the fact that 60% of Afghan women are widows, and most of these widows were thrown into poverty when the Taliban stopped them working. Or the fact that half of Afghanistan's 21 million-strong population is displaced, or that 100 women a day turn up at the ministry, asking for a job, money, anything.

"I know one woman who lost four sons and four sons-in-law," Tajwar tells me. "How can she support all the children? Women ask us to give them houses, but our ministry doesn't have any money." The Ministry of Women's Affairs has yet to received $50 million in promised aid. Until two months ago, the Minister worked from a rented living room. No wonder there have been whispers that the interim administration is paying lip-service to women's rights, under pressure from powerful international donors. But Tajwar doesn't agree. "Listen to Hamid Karzai. For years, every leader would say "Dear brothers." Now he always says, "Dear sisters and brothers." And she is hardly a woman to be duped. Under the Russian occupation, she was a mujaheddin commander. She returned from exile to force the Taliban to let her open a school, then spent two years refusing to wear the tent. She's fabulous. But solving the problems of Afghanistan's women - most of whom are statistically likely to die before the age of 45 - is probably the hardest thing she's ever faced. "People have made a lot of promises, " concludes Tajwar, sternly. " You media have a lot of power. If you write just one line, every day - don't forget Afghanistan - maybe they will keep them."

Afghanistan is due to have a general assembly in June, called a loya jirga. This assembly will elect a transitional government, and it has been decided that 11% of candidates will be women (though there are reports that only 1% of women have ID cards, and they need ID cards to vote)."We want 50%, of course," says Tajwar. "But we don't want to scare the men. If we go too fast, we will crash." Anyway, says Shukria, over a swiftly cooked dinner at her home that evening - a feast of roast turkey, chicken soup, salad and Coke - "the US Senate only has 13% women!"

Shukria has been approached to be a candidate. Later, when we are sitting in Maria's Beauty Parlour, she says she's not sure if she'll agree to do it. "I don't want anything to do with politics. I want to do social politics. I'm still deciding what the best way is, to show women that they can be powerful." We've gatecrashed Maria's Beauty Parlour - actually run by a Fasila Samadi - hoping to find a blushing bride. And it worked: In the chair is 18-year old Basira, who will be officially engaged to her cousin today. In Afghanistan there are four ceremonies - acceptance, engagement, religious and the wedding proper - and each one requires a special dress and hours sitting in Fasila's chair. The result is stunning, in a way: Basira's face is caked in exuberant colour; her hair stiff with glitter and hairspray. Even if she was blushing, we wouldn't be able to see it. "She's been here since 8am," says her sister, who's acting as bridesmaid and interpreter - Basira doesn't speak once, either because she's trembling with nerves, or she doesn't want to crack her makeup. She's not allowed to smile, anyway - despite the Western style pink crinoline dress she's wearing (hired from a wedding boutique down the street for $30) - she's still a good Islamic bride, and is supposed to look glum because she's leaving her parents. Or perhaps it's because of three hours of waxing, eyebrow-plucking, make-up: A glance at the pile of garish Iranian-made cosmetics, wooden hair-rollers and tubs of glitter that wouldn't go amiss in a circus, and you realise why she looks glazed, in more ways than one. Still, if you'd been hiding under a burqa after six years, you'd probably go mad with the make-up, too.

"Women spent a lot of time making up their faces, even under the burqa," says Fasila. "There was nothing else to do." Maria's Beauty Parlour, which re-opened after the Taliban left, now brings her $70 a day. She also works part-time at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, "to do my people some good." "Look at her," says Shukria. "She runs a beauty parlour, she works in the ministry, she looks after her disabled daughter. And she is just one woman."

There must be lots of women like Fasila in Kabul. Strong women breathing a little more easily, even if they're choosing to greet peace cautiously, through a material mesh. And Shukria is a pretty good champion for them. We visit a wedding dress shop nearby, where Afghan women rent their bridal gowns and engagement dresses for $30 a shot. There are no women working here, admits the owner, though he can't explain why. "Women always work better than men!" exclaims Shukria, before she sweeps out of the shop. "All over the world!"

Recently, there have been reports of ethnic Tajik fighters cleansing Pashtuns from their homes in northern Afghanistan. Despite the bombs and the millions of dollars in aid, the international community is a thin patch on a very deeply cracked country. For Basira, with her wedding jitters, and her unemployed husband, for Shukria and her readers, for Aqila and her headscarf, I hope the patch holds.

A version of this story was published in Glamour in 2003