In Mazar-e Sharif in recent weeks, several women have begun operating their own shops and selling handicrafts, cosmetics, and clothing.
A New Beginning
It is an unusual sight for Afghanistan -- where for years women were barred from public life -- and it is also a small step in bringing them into spheres previously considered to be reserved for men.
Among the new shopkeepers is Bibi Roghya, who has a small stall at a busy market. She sells traditional clothing that has been made by other Afghan women.
She says while there is some disapproval of her and her fellow women's work, most people hail the new trend.
"Maybe 10 percent of people don't agree with women being shopkeepers but the rest of the people, 90 percent, welcome us," she said. "A lot of women have expressed their happiness, they say they want a big market for women selling stuff."
Some women have said that they feel more comfortable buying from a woman rather than from a male shopkeeper.
The move has also been welcomed by men, including this Mazar-e Sharif resident, Wakeel Ahmad, who says he's thrilled to see women run their own shops.
"I saw these two women's shops here and it makes me very happy to see women doing business," he said. "I'm very happy -- it's a good move. We hope to have more and more women's shops here, it will make life easier for women."
There has been also some criticism but not enough to stop the project.
Ahmad Shah Ansari, who leads prayers at the town's main mosque, says it is inappropriate for women to sell in public without proper Islamic dress.
"At this moment women should not open shops," he said. "Shari'a [law] lets men and women do business on the condition that they wear an Islamic veil. But under the conditions we have here, women [cannot have shops]."
Concept To Spread?
But officials at Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs say they are determined to help more women operate their own businesses and become economically self-sufficient.
Karimeh Salek is a senior public relations official at Afghanistan's Women's Affairs Ministry. She tells RFE/RL that the ministry will help set up more shops for women in the coming weeks and months.
"Women have the permission to do so in Mazar," she said. "But In Bamyan women [also] run their own shops. Women come from all over Bamyan and are excited to buy what they need from other women; we want to apply [this practice] in 34 provinces, of course in provinces that enjoy better security. We want women to have their own shops, like they do in Kabul, in the women's garden (a Kabul market where there are women shopkeepers) we have about 20 shops."
Salek said the move is part of the ministry's efforts to break free from the last remnants of the Taliban regime -- which had banned women from schools and the workplace -- and to change the society's attitude and views toward women.
She believes that the project could also lead to a reduction in domestic violence against women.
"The better the [financial situation] of a family gets, you see that there is less violence," she said. "If a family has a bad economic situation there are tensions, fights, and violence, and the rights of women get violated."
Women in Mazar-e Sharif enjoy relatively more freedom than women living in the southern parts of Afghanistan.
Yet Zohreh Safi, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Mazar-e Sharif, says the project has given women courage and hope for a better future.
"There is great interest and a happiness among women [knowing] that they can work as shopkeepers or that women can do what men can do," Safi said. "It's a very good move [and] has lifted women's morale."
Salek from the Women's Affairs Ministry said she hopes the project will have an impact on women's situation in other parts of the country as well.
"Since the establishment of the interim government the ground for women has been made step by step -- we can't make people accept things by force," she said. "When they will see that in one province women make good achievements, slowly the situation will change in other provinces."
Most observers believe the future of women's rights in Afghanistan depends very much on improved security.
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