I've just spent a week in a deeply conservative Islamic culture – always wearing a headscarf and always covering my body in the loosest of clothing – for the first time in my life. I thought appropriate dress and hidden fair hair would protect me, and on my first day in Kabul, one of the most liberal cities in Afghanistan, I walked to a meeting 40 yards from my hotel, by myself.
Stepping through the metal, guarded, hotel door was like stepping into a water cannon of aghast male attention, with all eyes swivelled towards me, and staring faces pressed up to the windows of kerb-crawling cars. I scandalised the street, and it was overwhelming. It wasn't because I was Western – though that didn't help. It was because I was a lone woman. After that, I went nowhere without a male escort.
I can't say I felt much resentment. It was just what had to be done, under the circumstances, in order to get on with my work. On the contrary, I was unreservedly grateful to the men who gave up their own time to facilitate my freedom of movement, whenever I asked them to, without a hint of complaint.
As for the dress restrictions – leaving aside, for the moment, the burqa – they didn't seem as oppressive of women as they do in Britain, because they applied equally to both genders. Afghan men also dressed modestly, in loose traditional clothing, with their heads and arms covered. There is equality in that, at least.
It was the women, far more, in Kabul who pushed at those boundaries. An Afghan actress, with her eyes outlined in black kohl, had piled her hair high, and covered it in a chiffon, polka-dotted scarf to match her stylish pink jacket. She looked like a classy Islamic Amy Winehouse.
An Afghan entrepreneur had dyed her hair magenta, swathed her body in hot cerise, vivid orange, and zippy purple, thrust her feet into four-inch heels, and perched punky orange sunglasses on her nose. She travelled out to the villages as a volunteer, this fabulous woman, to teach her receptive rural sisters there that they should love their bodies, and love themselves.
Clothing, generally, wasn't seen as a pressing concern for the progressive Afghan women. What irked them, among other things, was Mehran culture, which decreed that wives had to travel with their husbands, or with men they could not marry – fathers or brothers.
One of the women I spoke to was working with an Arab organisation that campaigned to challenge this. "We try to get people to understand that it is not good for the men any more than it is for the women," she said, "because they have to leave their work too if they are to travel with the women." Which was exactly the difficulty that I was most acutely aware of myself.
It is Mehran culture that fosters the burqa, because it offers women the opportunity to travel outside their own small localities alone. Barbara Bush and Cherie Blair, when they suggested in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan that the removal of the Taliban would bring the removal of the burqa, were talking out of sheer ignorance. Mehran culture is older than the Taliban, older than Islam, and it won't disappear in a hurry, even though it must if the country is to get back on its feet.
All of the women working in advocacy organisations said the same thing: that the big issues for women were safety and security, access to work, access to education, and access to the political process. "There is no problem, culturally, with women working in Kabul," said one woman, a lawyer. "But there isn't so much work. We tried to make women owners of businesses, but it is difficult. Before the war, in Kabul, they had access to education. Now, they cannot write, they cannot count, they cannot keep records."
Another woman, an adviser in a government ministry, was more blunt. "People are fond of saying that before the war the government was 40 per cent women, and that even now it is more than a quarter women. But that's because they count the cleaners. Although I know my work is important, I think about leaving the ministry all the time. I feel so isolated because the men don't listen to me, or allow me to take part in making the decisions."
The Afghan women I spoke to felt that nothing that might liberate women could be achieved if it could not be squared with Islam, and much work is being done on teaching women what their true rights are, according to the Koran. But it was a Muslim New Yorker who really summed it up: "It helps in my work that I am a Muslim, and can hug the women, and talk to them as my Muslim sisters. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, though, because being a Muslim woman is quite different for me than it is for them."
My visit to Afghanistan was organised by the Birmingham-based international aid agency Islamic Relief. The man who runs the operation out there, Engr Dastagir, is committed to women's rights in Afghanistan, and describes his wife, who herself is deputy director of a women's organisation, as "a hero". For a Pashtun – a member of Afghanistan's most populous, most politically influential ethnic group – his position is highly unusual.
Changing the attitudes of the men is every bit as crucial to the women's and the country's future, as is changing those of the women, who themselves cling to the traditional ways. The emphasis in reconstruction concentrates almost exclusively on challenging the assumptions of the women, and hardly at all on doing the same to those of the men. Yet, the two tasks, like happy couples, go hand in hand.
For more information on Islamic Relief visit www.islamic-relief.com or call 0121-622 0663
A city of music, roses and ice cream
It's not all doom and gloom in Kabul. There's fun to be had, and relaxation. One afternoon, I bunked off with my Pakistani friend Niyaz, and we visited the Bagh-e Babur gardens, shot to hell in the war, plundered and mined, now beautifully restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, and the Germans.
There, amid the fragrant roses – the Afghans love their roses – lies the grave of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. He died in Agra, having conquered India in 1526. But it was his wish to be returned after death to this garden, the loveliest of 10 he had made in the city. It is lovely again, and an astonishingly peaceful oasis in that nutty, tumultuous place.
Next, we met up with Shqipe, an impossibly vivacious Kosovan I'd made friends with at our hotel. She had invited us to join her at a late-afternoon concert of traditional Afghan music at the French Institute, and six of us squashed into her car. The grand, shabby theatre, built by the Russians, was packed. ("Say what you like about the Russians," an American remarked, disarmingly. "But at least they could do infrastructure.")
The music, led by the celebrated vocalist Ghazal Shakil, performing in his homeland for the first time in 17 years, was wonderful. The sight of so many people, Western and Afghan, gathered in one place, defying the security situation, even though there had been a suicide bombing two evenings before, was the finest, most hopeful thing I saw in my time in Afghanistan.
On our way back in the dark – every visitor is told that it's mad to go out after nightfall – we stopped and bought aromatic Afghan ice cream, Sheer Yakh, and ate it in the car, feeling naughty. An old man loomed out of the manic masculine street life thrumming around us, hawking two highly realistic doll babies. Niyaz, for a moment, thought they were babies, and was shocked senseless. Cue loon-laughter all round. It was great to know that, even in Kabul, some sights are much too awful to be true.
* The occasional similarities between British and Afghan socio-political preoccupations were quite arresting. A big story for the Afghanistan Times last week was the one-day teachers' strike – with further action threatened – over salaries. Teachers in the state system get 3,000 Afghanis a month, which doesn't even keep them in flour. But instead of offering a pay hike, the government is launching a key workers' accommodation deal. Theoretically, in both countries, everyone is in agreement: Education! Education! Education!