- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan 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 Mrs. Kakal, 48. "It was like a dream for me, and now my dream has become true."
Mrs. Kakal, an accountant at the Women's Affairs Ministry, was the first of 12 women yesterday 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. The 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.
Women have enjoyed far more freedoms since the Taliban's fall in late 2001 followed by the installation of an interim government.
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 receives 10 requests a day, she said.
"For some, it's very practical. It's about mobility. It is very difficult for women to move around in Kabul," she said. "For some women, it's about having a skill, and I think, psychologically, it is very important for women to have something for themselves."
The driving program started informally in April, with Miss Wareham's driver taking some applicants out for a spin at night. When they were stopped by disapproving men, the driver lied and said the women in the car were his relatives.
Thirty women began the course, but only 12 made it to the road test. The others failed a two-page written test on car repair and related matters, and an oral exam on traffic signs.
The effort is worth it, said another 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 one name.
A man who stopped his bicycle to watch the road test yesterday said female drivers were a sign of hope for Afghanistan, still trying to get back on its feet after 23 years of almost continuous occupation and warfare.
"We are happy for women to have such progress here. Now we can see it with our own eyes," said Zamari, who also uses one name.


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