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Sunday, January 26, 2003

One Small Step For a Woman, but a Great Leap for Mankind

Women in Afghanistan have started taking driving tests. This may not seem like a big deal, but in a country where women have suffered, and continue to suffer so much, it is a heartening and positive sign. At a time when we seem surrounded by so many large scale problems - Iraq, terrorism, deflation, recession etc - it is sometimes helpful to sit back and look at the little things. Two years ago what is reported below would have been impossible. Right now only a few women are involved, but every day they will be more. The issue: mobility and independence. That once famous city, after all, wasn't built in a day. All this puts me in mind of an old Sean Connery film: "So this is the hill sergeant, and I fear you're going to make me go up it". Well this is the hill, and we're all going up - together. What is it they say: god (or the devil, according to your taste) is in the little things.

Zai Kakal leapt out of the beat-up Toyota flashing a Cadillac-size smile. Under the watchful eyes of a traffic officer, she had just completed her road test, the final step toward earning what few women in Afghanistan have had in more than a decade: a driver's license. ``I feel very great today,'' said Kakal, 48. ``It was like a dream for me, and now my dream has become true.'' Kakal, an accountant at the Women's Affairs Ministry, was the first of 12 women Saturday to take the test. They had to steer a yellow Toyota Corolla about 25 yards along an L-shaped course near Kabul Stadium, then repeat the course in reverse. Those who passed will get their licenses in six days. Women have not been allowed to drive in Afghanistan since 1992, when Islamic groups seized the capital, Kabul, and began to restrict women's public roles. Confinement of women became even more onerous in 1996, when the hard-line Islamic Taliban militia took control and banned women almost entirely from the workplace and classroom.

The driving program is sponsored by the German private aid group Medica Mondiale, dedicated to helping women in war-torn countries. It provided classroom materials and paid the salaries of two Afghan men from the Traffic Authority who taught the classes. Rachel Wareham, a program manager with the group, said several Afghan women first approached her agency in the spring for help learning to drive. Her office now gets 10 requests a day, she said. The effort is well worth it, said one hopeful, Omira. Having a license is a type of liberation, she said. ``We won't have to wait any more for a man to come by,'' said Omira, 20, who goes by just one name.
Source: The Guardian

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