Participants in a State Department forum on women's rights in the Muslim world say there are encouraging signs of change, but many challenges ahead as well.

Some of the most dramatic change can be seen in Afghanistan, since the fall of the Taleban regime.

One of the women participating in the forum to mark International Women's Day this week was Dr. Massouda Jalal, a former physician and presidential candidate who is Afghanistan's Minister for Women's Affairs.

Dr. Jalal said Afghan women are playing an important role in the formation of civil society and are participating in the country's political and cultural life. But she said more needs to be done.

"While we are celebrating the achievements that have taken place in Afghan women's lives over the past three years, we have to mention that there is still a long way to go," Dr. Jalal said.  "There are still challenges to face. The Constitution of Afghanistan needs to be translated into action. It needs to come to the reality of life. Equality is guaranteed in the constitution but not in real life."

Afghanistan's new constitution is one of the most advanced in the Muslim world in terms of guaranteeing women's rights. But Dr. Jalal says simply re-writing laws cannot change paternalistic traditions.

Iraqi Minister of State for Women's' Affairs Narmin Othman told the forum the next major challenge facing her country will be the drafting of a new constitution that respects women's rights.

"The next step in this historic process will be writing the constitution," she says. "This will be a huge challenge. We need to guarantee women's rights in our constitution. And I will be honest with you, I'm aware that there are some in Iraq who would like to limit women's rights."

Ms. Othman said education is the key to changing Iraqis' views toward women.

Women from 15 countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa were in Washington for the forum hosted by the president's wife, Laura Bush, and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Secretary Rice said Tuesday's conference was an opportunity to generate new ideas to help women in the Muslim world accomplish their goals of freedom and equality.

"Throughout this region a growing chorus of voices is demanding freedom and democracy. Many of these voices belong to women," Ms. rice says. "And we meet here today to send a clear message to the women of the world who are not yet free: As you stand for your rights and for your liberty, America stands with you."

President Bush has made the promotion of democracy and freedom around the world a cornerstone of his second term. Mrs. Bush said no country can have a successful democracy without the contribution of its entire population, including women.

"Democratic societies welcome the free exchange of ideas and information," Mrs. Bush says. "They encourage vigorous debate. They foster education and exploration and they allow people to grow intellectually and professionally without limits."

Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky added progress is slowly being made as more women get involved in politics and civil society.

"Women have been recently elected to parliaments in Iraq, Morocco, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. However, challenges still remain in areas of citizenship, property rights, family law, education and literacy, access to the judiciary and employment," Ms. Dobriansky says.

Ms. Dobriansky emphasized some Muslim countries have made more progress than others in terms of women's rights. She said the forum had given the women an opportunity to share their experiences and learn from each other.