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Voices from behind the veil

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In some places, the departure of the Taliban means a return to freedoms that Afghan women enjoyed before - to work, study, and move at will. In more traditional areas, where most of Afghanistan's 25 million people live, the change is more modest, as ancient customs replace strict Taliban laws.

In the cool shade of a tree, a farmer named Sher Jan and his wife, Rahmona, reflect on their lives since the Taliban's departure. They get sidetracked easily by gentle differences of opinion. She corrects him when he says they have three children. ("Yes, we have three boys, but we also have four girls," she says.) And he corrects her on her age. ("Forty," she says. "Fifty," he says.)

But on one subject, the couple speaks in harmony. The Taliban were enforcing Islamic laws that most Muslims already obeyed. "To wear a burqa, this is the instruction of the holy Prophet Muhammad and they made it obligatory, as if almighty God said it," says Sher Jan. The Taliban had good intentions and made the city safe for women, says Rahmona, but occasionally, out of zealotry, the Taliban themselves became harassers.

"One day, I was forced to get down by the Taliban from a bullock cart," she recalls. Reflexively, she pulls her black scarf across her face in the presence of a male stranger. "They told me, you should wear the burqa. I told them, I'm too old to wear a burqa. Eventually, they let me go."

It is midnight in Jeddah, and in Neda Hariri's plush living room the conversation is just picking up steam. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast all day and socialize late into the night, and Attieh has come to visit her niece and sister-in-law.

Out of her hospital whites, Attieh is coolly elegant in a gray linen suit. Ms. Hariri, newly married and pregnant, is still slender in a silk tank top and skirt. As she hands around cake and sweets, her mother whispers hostessing advice.

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