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Afghan Woman Helps Provide Education, Hope for Destitute Women - 2002-02-06

After years of repression under Afghanistan's extremist Taleban government, young Afghan women are heading back to school. Many in the younger generation are eager to study so they can help their country develop. Older women are helping them catch up.

It has been six years since the sound of girls voices echoed down the hallway of the Zhargona Analisa School in Kandahar.

When it came to power in 1996, Afghanistan's Taleban government banned girls from attending school. Now - open for just one month - this school boasts 1,100 students.

That is partly because of the efforts of this woman. Jamillah Yousafi is the vice principal of Zhargona Analisa. Ms. Yousafi has been involved in education for more than 20 years.

Ms. Yousafi is arguably one of Kandahar's best-known women figures.

Always a conservative city, Kandahar was the headquarters of the Taleban leadership. Even though Afghanistan's new interim administration lifted the law requiring women to cover themselves from head to toe in burqas, most here still wear the garment, out of choice.

However, there are signs times are changing. Local leaders recently staged a rally at the Kandahar soccer stadium - the site of an execution ground, when Taleban was in power.

Leaders took turns speaking, to raise public awareness about Afghanistan's new government. Amid the sea of bearded men on stage, the lone woman speaker was Ms. Yousafi. Dressed in the burqa, she is so small the microphone stands towered more than a foot above her head.

Nonetheless, she addressed the hundreds of people gathered, with poise and style. She says she often spoke at meetings and rallies, during previous governments. Despite her public role, Ms. Yousafi is reluctant to consider herself a "woman leader."

She says she will work hard for these young women. Most of them are very poor and do not even have clothes to wear. She says she thinks of all of them as her own children.

The school offers the girls more freedom than they find elsewhere.

Students and teachers, alike, pile their burqas in a closet and simply cover their heads during classes. When asked, most students say they want to be doctors. Almost all of them say they want to help others.

One student says, "I want to be in the judiciary to give justice to the people of Afghanistan."

Another girl says in Afghanistan now, there are no journalists. She wants to become a journalist to help women and to work for their rights.

Another student says she want to be an engineer, to help build the country.

Although she thinks it is a mistake to attach too much meaning to the question of whether women wear the burqa, Ms. Yousafi thinks fewer will do so in coming years. She says it's up to the students and their parents to decide. But she adds, God willing in 2003 - you'll see every girl without a burqa.

As for the future, Ms. Yousafi says she will continue to work at the Zhargona Analisa School. She says it is up to the women whoi have waited for an education to take advantage of the opportunities and to work hard to promote human rights for Afghanistan.

Whether or not she wants the title of a woman leader, to her students, Ms. Yousafi already is one.