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by Steven Erlanger Sima Wali left Afghanistan 23 years ago when the Soviet Army swept into her country. Afghanistan was thrown into a downward spiral of violence, rivalry, civil war and harsh religious rule that finally forced Afghan women out of public life, jobs and education. "In these 23 years, Afghan women have had to fight their own jihad for peace and equality," Ms. Wali said. "It was a jihad, really. But it has also politicized Afghan women, even from behind the veil." Ms. Wali, who settled in the United States and has worked to better the lives of Afghan women, is one of three women taking part as delegates in the United Nations talks here on a provisional government for post-Taliban Afghanistan. She and Rona Mansuri, who came to Germany in the 1960's when her father was Afghanistan's ambassador here, are delegates from the so- called Rome group, loyal to Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. Before he was deposed by a cousin in 1973 and moved to Rome, the king, now 87, ruled an Afghanistan in which women had important public roles as legislators and ambassadors. Under a 1964 Constitution, women were granted the right to work. Four then served as cabinet ministers and two others were members of the National Assembly - a move into public life that accelerated during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, when many women wore Western dress. Under Burhanuddin Rabbani, the titular head of the Northern Alliance who was president before the Taliban took over, women had to be accompanied by male relatives in public under restored old laws enforced by the new Islamic police. But under the Taliban, who took power in 1996, the status of women plunged. Education for those over 8 was banned and women were forced out of public life and jobs. Many were beaten for exposing their faces and some were publicly executed after accusations of sexual misconduct. The popularity of the former king now is partly the sense of a lost idyll, before Afghanistan spun apart. But Ms. Mansuri and Ms. Wali are using their positions to go beyond a return to the past. They are here to argue for women to take full and responsible roles in any future Afghan government - and for the reaffirmation and protection of women's rights to equality. "We are not waiting any longer to be invited to sit at these tables where peace is being discussed and the reconstruction of our economy," Ms. Wali said. "We are the silent voices that need to be heard." Pressure from the United Nations and the West, including the United States, was vital to get women as delegates here, Ms. Wali said. But now that she is in the room where the decisions are being made, she said, "I'm a constant presence to raise the issue of women." A third woman, Amena Safi Afzali, an exile now living in Iran, represents the Northern Alliance. Requests to interview her were not answered. Another exile, Fatima Gailani, is an adviser to the Peshawar group, who are mostly Pashtun. She comes from a prominent Afghan family, is the sister of the delegation's head, Sayed Hamed Gailani, and is married to another member of the delegation. She has studied Islamic law to better defend the rights of women, she says. She is articulate and open and not shy about her interest in a serious job in a new government. But she is realistic as well. "If I go to Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on the promise to bring them secularism, they are going to tell me to go to hell," she said. "So I will not say that. I will tell them that I would work for equal rights with men under an Islamic constitution. We can work from there." Ms. Wali, the director of Refugee Women in Development, based in Washington, is also a founder of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute based in Montreal. She is an organizer of a conference on Afghan women scheduled to open in Brussels on Dec. 4. Ms. Wali persuaded both King Zahir and Mr. Rabbani to sign statements two weeks ago supporting the right of women to a full role in Afghanistan's political future. The most egregious restrictions on women are being relaxed in Kabul. Still, Ms. Wali is cautious about Mr. Rabbani's commitment to defend the rights of women "within the context of Islam," she said. The statements must be backed by action, she said. She also appealed to Western women to understand that the real problems of Afghan women are "extreme poverty and the number of widows who have no means to sustain themselves," cautioning that Afghans would not immediately strip off their veils and take full roles in public life. It is also important, she said, that "Western women respect the right of Afghan women to choice, including the choice of keeping their chadors and burkas." The Afghan women here got support today from some European Union legislators, who talked to the delegates about the importance of women's rights and called on their own governments to ensure a new Afghanistan that is open to everyone. "Let us hope to see each member of the military forces followed by a teacher and a health worker," they said in a "European women's declaration" on these talks. When one of the legislators, Britt Theorin of Sweden, who heads the Equality Commission of the European Parliament, told the Afghan delegations that 40 percent of the seats in government should be held by women, she said, "the women smiled, but the men said nothing." Another European legislator, Emma Bonino of Italy, announced a one-day fast on Dec. 1 to support women in Afghanistan, and said that over 5,000 people from more than 100 countries had already agreed to take part. As for Ms. Wali, she said she intended to take part fully in Afghan political life. "I've been working for the rights of Afghan women for 22 years," she said, "and I do not intend to stop the struggle now."

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