'LIVING DEAD' NO MORE

During the reign of the Taliban, when movies, music, television and women's education were banned, Roya Sadat wanted to be a filmmaker. She wrote scripts, and studied books on drama and moviemaking that had been smuggled in from neighboring Iran. "I always had hope that change would come one day," says Sadat, 23. Within a year of the Taliban's collapse in late 2001, she produced a 20-minute movie that showed "how Afghan women were like the living dead." The movie caught the attention of Golden Globe-winning Afghan director Siddiq Barmak, who helped finance Sadat's first feature film, "Three Dots." The film depicts the life of a young widow living in a remote area under the control of a warlord, who forces her to smuggle drugs into Iran. It won top prize at this summer's Afghan Film Festival. "In the past, women couldn't be what they wanted to be, only what men wanted them to be," says the filmmaker.

Sadat's success is just one example of how far Afghan women have come over the past three years. Educated women are flourishing as politicians, social activists, teachers, journalists, artists; there is even a tae kwan do champion. One woman is running for president and another for vice president in this Saturday's presidential election. Although urban Afghan women still wear the all-encompassing burqa when necessary, such as when going into a crowded public place, they are just as likely to be seen on the street wearing a long dress, lipstick, nail polish, high heels and a scarf discreetly covering their heads.

Thirty-eight percent of the country's 5 million school-children are girls. Perhaps more surprisingly, large numbers of Afghan women made sure to get voting cards this summer: 41 percent of the country's 10.5 million registered voters are women. "There's a psychological freedom here that didn't exist before," says Fariba Nawa, a 31-year-old Afghan-American journalist who is training female reporters in Kabul.

What passes for open-mindedness, however, still stops near the borders of the capital. "Warlords don't believe in women's rights," says Horia Mosadiq, a 31-year-old activist. "As long as these guys and their gunmen are ruling, no woman is safe." In the countryside, not only are the militiamen a serious threat, harsh Afghan traditions restrict many women to the home and subject them to the whims of their husbands, fathers and tribal elders. The overwhelming majority of rural Afghan women are illiterate, and have little access to health care. Daughters are still given away or sold to solve disputes between families or tribes. Mosadiq cites dozens of cases of women who set themselves on fire, or jumped into rivers or off cliffs to end abusive or unhappy marriages.

Husbands may hold the key to the number of women who vote in next weekend's election. Many tradition-bound tribal leaders reluctantly allowed their women to get voting cards just so that their tribes wouldn't appear uncooperative. And some men took their wives to register, thinking, wrongly, that voting cards could also be used to get food rations. But a key question remains: will such men allow their wives and daughters to cast ballots? "Not many men will let their women vote," says Haji Hazrat Jan, 48, a tribal elder in Paktia. "No one wants to be the first to bring his wife to vote." Some may be scared. The resurgent Taliban has vowed to disrupt the voting, despite the presence of some 8,000 NATO-led troops from the International Security Assistance Force, 18,000 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghan cops and militiamen. "I'd be surprised if 5 percent of the registered women voted," says Raisa, a female physician at the Paktia provincial hospital.

The educated women of Kabul hope to extend the borders of freedom. Massouda Jalal, a 41-year-old physician whom the Taliban kicked off the faculty of Kabul University's medical school in 1996, is among the more courageous. Energetic and outspoken, she's campaigning for the presidency. "Who would have dreamed three years ago that a women would be running for president?" she told NEWSWEEK. In Afghanistan's ultraconservative, patriarchal society, she doesn't have a prayer to unseat interim President Hamid Karzai. But she and other assertive women already are influencing the national debate, and winning promises of greater freedoms to come.