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Turning back the Afghan clock

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Sima Samar's vision for Afghanistan seems ambitious.

"I want rights for women on all levels, in the political and social sectors, in everything - right to vote, right to be elected, right to work everywhere," Afghanistan's new minister for women's affairs said last week on a speaking tour in Canada.

But Dr. Samar says she's really just describing the country she grew up in.

In the 1960s, Afghan women could go to school, hold jobs, dress how they liked, and earn wages equal to men's. They voted and held political office, she says. But after 23 years of war, including five years of radical Islamist rule, she says that her country is now starting from scratch.

On Dec. 22, Samar begins a six-month term as one of two women to serve in the 30-member transitional government. Before Samar can help restore women's rights, she says that the streets must be made safe. "We should disarm all these warlords who use Islam against women. That will give women confidence," she says. "It's a culture of Kalashnikov. Whoever has a Kalashnikov, they're ruling the country."

For years, the soft-spoken medical doctor and human rights activist has defied the Taliban, ignoring death threats and opening schools and hospitals in Afghanistan for girls and women.

In 1989, she opened her first hospital for women, staffed by women in Quetta, Pakistan, where she has been living in exile. Now, through her nonprofit Shuhada Organization (www.shuhada.org), Samar runs an additional four hospitals and 10 clinics in Afghanistan, and rural schools for 22,000 girls and boys. Another 1,000 child-ren attend her school in Quetta.

"It's clearly in Islam that all women and men should be educated," she says.

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