The first sign of change is a sign, posted on the brown mud exterior wall of Soheila Helal's house and garden to announce her private courses. When the Taliban controlled this western city, Helal had to teach in secret. Now she is free to advertise. \nNearly three years ago, days after the Taliban left the city ending almost six years of repressive rule, Helal was one of a host of women interviewed by The New York Times. They recounted lives cloistered and hopes curtailed through days that blurred to months, then years. \nIn late summer, Helal and one other woman, Kobra Zeithi -- the two who could be traced -- were interviewed again, as the country prepared for its first presidential election. Zeithi works for Habitat, the United Nations Center for Human Settlement. Helal, in addition to her home courses, has returned to teaching at a government school, and to pursuing a university degree, activities that were forbidden for women under the Taliban. \nThey are just two women among millions, illustrative of the resurrection of the urban, educated women who were most oppressed by the Taliban. Their stories are perhaps typical of those found in Herat, a prosperous city with a culture of literature and learning that extends back centuries, but much less so of the rest of Afghanistan, where 80 percent of women cannot read and do not work outside the home. \nThey represent perhaps the best hope for women who remain bound by illiteracy, tradition and religion. \nChange will come as a result of the education transmitted to the girls and women who walk through Helal's front door to learn. It will come through the metaphorical back door that Zeithi sees as essential even in a post-Taliban society: development programs that empower women without uttering a word about women's empowerment. \n"It is difficult to bring change immediately, to change the Afghan people suddenly," Zeithi said. "But it is possible to bring change gradually and slowly, by keeping traditions, by keeping religion." \nThe first glimpse of Zeithi speaks of change: She sits in mixed company, at a coeducational workshop in the Habitat garden where the women are boldly challenging the man ostensibly running things. The Taliban had allowed Habitat to function, but forced the women to move to a separate office. Now they again work together. \nZeithi brims with confidence, health and strength, much as she did almost three years ago. She is now Habitat's Herat district manager and an adviser on women's issues. \n"We can work freely, comfortably now" with men, she said. \nHer 18-year-old daughter, who had been sent to nursing school against her will under the Taliban because that was the only educational opportunity available for girls, is studying economics at a university. \nZeithi said she could go anywhere provided she wore the Islamic veil, or hijab. This is her duty under Islam, she said. \n"Maybe others think freedom means wearing pants, but I think women can participate in every aspect of social work," she said. "If I can go with others and give my views, that's what matters. That's freedom -- if I can participate in the political, economic and social life." \nShe is well aware of how much has not changed for most Afghan women. Every day illiterate women come to her house seeking help finding jobs. Most of her work involves the National Solidarity Program, a World Bank-backed project that provides US$20,000 grants to villages for projects they identify. \nVillages are supposed to hold elections for men's and women's councils to decide how to use the money, but sometimes, Zeithi said, "we cannot find any literate woman." \nBut she has become a fervent believer in the program, less for the monetary benefits it bestows than for the social transformation she sees it creating. She has watched women who once would not leave their homes sit in meetings and discuss their district's problems. \n"Nothing will be done by force -- by pushing. If we go to a village and discuss what their rights are with the women, it will have a bad effect, especially with the men." \nIn villages, men and women are clamoring for schools and better-educated teachers, Zeithi said. Across Afghanistan, the level of education is gradually rising. There are facilities for studying and training, and chances to study abroad. \n"These make me optimistic," she said. \nHelal is optimistic, too, not least because of the older women who show up at her door -- having been transported by obliging, even eager husbands and brothers -- to learn to read. \nGirls as well as boys crowd into her basement classroom, and she no longer needs to school them in how to lie to the Taliban about it. \nHelal's husband died as the Taliban came to power, so the family lost its male breadwinner just as women were prohibited from being breadwinners. The secret teaching helped her support her three children. It also helped, she said in an interview days after the Taliban left Herat in 2001, to keep her sane. \nNow, Helal seems a woman making up for lost years. Back at the government school, she starts each morning at 7, then heads home to teach private courses. After that, she is off to the university, where she is in the third year of earning her bachelor's degree, under a government program created to send teachers back to college. \n"Knowledge is a river," she said. "Whatever you take is not enough." Her school had nominated her to be deputy director, but she turned it down. "I am sure if I get my degree they will offer me director." \nBack home, at 4pm, some 100 students wait for her extra instruction. After 5, the professional work is done, and the housework begins. \n"She's very tired," said her son, Haris, 19. \nShe must earn enough to keep Haris, an engineering student, in college. She wants her daughter, Ghazal, 16, who helps with the home school, to attend a university as well. \n"My son is studying," she said with pride. "If I do not work like this, how can we eat? How can we survive?" She dreams that he will be able to go abroad. \nThe Taliban have been banished from her memory as determinedly as they were cleansed from the city. \n"Nothing remained," she said. "We have completely forgotten it."
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