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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 January 2006, 15:40 GMT
Afghan women in the driving seat
By Sean Langan, Kabul
Director, BBC Four's Afghan Ladies' Driving School

Mukadas and instructor Gulkhan
Mukadas receives tuition from her instructor (Pictures: Kate Brook)

"I'm a broad-minded person," declared the Afghan driving instructor. "But I was shocked by her behaviour."

"Really?" I asked. His female student had laughed. Was that really so bad?

"It was shameful and embarrassing," he replied. "Her character is no better than that of an animal."

Afghanistan has changed a lot since the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001.

The first democratic parliamentary elections in more than 30 years were held last September. And women - in some areas - have come out from beneath the burqa after years of being held virtual prisoners in their own homes.

They are now free to walk in public, without a male relative by their side, and can work, vote and even learn how to drive.

'Satanic' drivers

Girls can go to school, at least in the big cities like Herat and Kabul, and a fragile peace now exists in a war-torn country that has known only brutality and chaos since 1979. But some things, it seems, have not really changed at all.

Mamozai's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Driving School was one of the first driving schools in Afghanistan to allow women to enrol. The Taleban thought the idea of teaching women how to drive was "satanic", but Mr Mamozai's school now has more than 200 female graduates.

Even so, the women are often told to "sit up like a man" by their male instructors as they navigate the precarious back-roads of Kabul, and to "stop driving like a woman."

But then that is hardly surprising. Most of the instructors are ex-Taleban and they do not really think women should drive at all. They certainly would not allow their own wives to drive.

Mukadas used to help teach girls during the Taleban's rule

And yet that was not about to stop women like Roya, a young English teacher I met on the course, or Mukadas, an Afghan aid-worker and university student, from signing up.

They had experienced far worse in their lives, and nothing, it seems, was about to stop them from taking every opportunity now open to women in Afghanistan - however begrudgingly.

Roya had fled to Pakistan with her family during the Taleban regime, but many of the women on the course had been forced to abandon their studies, or jobs, and remain at home. And all of them had a horrific tale to tell.

One of the women who was learning to drive had been beaten by the Taleban for removing her burqa in a shop, even though the only male present at the time was a twelve-year-old boy.

But despite the fear of constant harassment, beatings and even arrest, many of the women I talked to had found the courage to defy the Taleban.

Mukadas, who had been forced to give up her place at Kabul University under the Taleban, risked her life by teaching at one of Kabul's many underground girls' schools at the time.

"We had a bell," she explained. "It would ring just in time to allow us to hide the books when the Taleban came." She laughed when I asked her whether she had been scared. "Never," she replied.

Old habits

"But I became ill, because of the constant pressure, and because I was forced to remain indoors for almost four years."

Mukadas has now completed her studies at Kabul University, voted in the recent elections, and harangued any driving instructor who dared tell her how to drive.

Afghan driving instructor
Some of Afghanistan's instructors have taken teaching women in their stride

In fairness, many of the male instructors I met took it all in their stride, and one in particular, Muhhamad Dowoud, even spoke with pride about the courage and abilities of his female students.

In many respects, the instructors were doing their best to come to terms with the new freedoms in Afghanistan. They too had suffered, but old habits die hard.

I accompanied Roya on her driving test. It appeared to be quite simple, and I was sure she would pass. All she had to do was reverse the car round a white line painted on the road.

But then I had overlooked how nothing is ever easy for women in Afghanistan. Even something so simple as taking a test.

I watched as Roya walked towards the test car. A long line of men had gathered by the side of the road. As she walked slowly along the line, her head bowed down, she heard the whispers of invective and abuse.

She refused to tell me exactly what they had said, but I later found out she had been called a "prostitute", a "bitch" and an "un-Islamic whore." She failed the test. "We have freedom now," she said. "But we are not free to enjoy it."

  • Afghan Ladies' Driving School is shown on Monday 23 January at 2100GMT on BBC Four.

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