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Sole Female Afghan General Prevails

By TODD PITMAN, Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) When the only female general in Afghanistan browses the ancient bazaars of the capital, she usually does so hidden under a flowing blue burqa that covers her head to toe. "I get a lot of attention when I go to crowded markets in my uniform. People stare and sometimes I hear them laugh," Gen. Khatol Mohammad Zai said. "But I've heard them whispering too. They say they're very proud."

Female soldiers are rare in Afghanistan. And female generals? Even rarer. Only one other woman in the country has ever held the rank Health Minister Suhaila Siddiqi but she no longer serves in the military. Zai's drive to join the air force grew out of a childhood dream to become a parachutist. Today, she's the only Afghan parachutist in the country male or female.

Afghanistan has changed dramatically since Zai joined the armed forces with hundreds of other women in the early 1980s to prop up the pro-Moscow regime. During that earlier war, entire villages were flattened to stop civilian support for U.S.-backed Muslim insurgents who eventually forced Soviet troops to withdraw. As a woman, Zai was not allowed to fight.

Women's Affairs Minister Habiba Surabi said Kabul was mostly peaceful back then, and women in the capital enjoyed basic freedoms. The burqa was not yet ubiquitous though it was omnipresent outside the capital. "When we were going to the university, we used to wear jeans with blouses, or even the skirts short skirts," Surabi said of her 1980s education in Kabul. "At that time, it was accepted. Now ... it's not possible."

After Islamic conservatives seized power in 1992, women had to wear headscarves and attend single-sex schools. The ruling Islamic factions then turned their guns on each other, killing 50,000 people the majority civilians. This paved the way for the takeover by the hardline Taliban. In 1996, the Taliban seized the capital and imposed harsher restrictions on women. Adhering to their own strict version of Islam, the Taliban banned girls from attending school and most women from working.

"There was an announcement on the radio telling women not to come to work," Zai recalled. "They said they would call us back, but they never did." As a widow and the only breadwinner in a family of six, Zai was obligated to find another way to make a living, albeit surreptitiously. The woman soldier who had studied law at Kabul University was relegated to selling blankets and handicrafts at home to get by. All that changed last year when the Taliban were ousted in a U.S.-led war, ushering in the current government.

Some of the same conservatives who ruled in 1992 returned to power. But the presence of international peacekeepers and moderate President Hamid Karzai have secured a more tolerant attitude toward women. Girls have returned to school and thousands of women have gone back to work. Zai took up her former job as physical trainer for the air force, and in March she made her first parachute jump in six years.

In April, Karzai promoted her from colonel to general after she parachuted into Kabul during a festival commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the end of communist rule. Despite the progress, Afghan women one million of them widows still face enormous challenges. Girls' schools have been fired on by rockets and burned. Maternal mortality rates are among the highest on earth.

Many women have chosen to keep wearing their burqas some because it's traditional and others because they fear retaliation from religious hard-liners. And, while many in Kabul are impressed with Zai, it's not hard to find men who take offense at her military status. "It's shameful. A woman's place is at home," said Abdul Satar, a 42-year-old tailor incensed by the image of a female officer parachuting from a helicopter in black boots and military fatigues. "It's wrong. A woman should not be seen without a burqa. How can she jump without wearing one? Everybody can see her face, the outline of her body."

Evidence of Zai's double life permeates her cold, tiny fifth floor apartment. The living room, overrun with artificial flowers and dolls, has a decidedly feminine touch, while Zai, ever the soldier, wears an outfit few in this male-dominated country have seen on a woman: A maroon beret, an olive-colored shirt and tie, and a camouflage uniform full of medals. Asked if she does much cooking for her family, Zai flashed a beaming smile. "I can do anything," she asserted. "Inside the house, I'm a woman. Outside the house, I'm a man."
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