Confident and attractive, Nilab Sadat is the Director of the Bagh-e-Zenana (Women's Garden) in Kabul, Afghanistan. The garden, built in the early 20th century by King Habibullah for his queens, and then thrown open to all women, is a symbol of the slow albeit steady emancipation of women in Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban, this became an arid, treeless space, used as a garbage dump. An impoverished populace cut down the beautiful trees in the garden for fuel. Like the spirit of the Afghan women, the garden is beginning to flourish once again. Since Sadat began working here in 2003, about 800 trees have been planted and gardeners employed to look after them, many of them women. Sadat tells us - a group of visitors from India - with a hint of pride that the women gardeners receive wages equal to their male counterparts.
Sadat, a lawyer's daughter, had fled to Peshawar in Pakistan during the Taliban years and studied there. She returned towards the end of 2001, when the Taliban regime fell, and resumed her studies at Kabul's University of Information and Technology. Then the Director of a French NGO (Action Development Solidarity International) that was involved in rebuilding the park asked Sadat whether she would work on the project.
The project, initiated by Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs, has half a million dollars allotted by the French and Japanese governments, the European Union and German Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The aim was to create a space where Afghan women could just be themselves.
Sadat was hooked to idea. She visited Kabul University to ask young women what they wanted for themselves; after all, the park was meant for their use. The women wanted many things - an Internet café, a market, a community center, a counselling center, a space for English classes and a gymnasium. I remembered an anecdote where female Afghan students in France had explained their desire for a gym: "Under the Taliban, we had forgotten that we had a body."
Some of the older women remembered using the park when they were young; Sadat said they cried when they discussed their desires. They wanted a space for music concerts like the ones they used to have, when musicians would play the daira and women would gather to listen in the evenings. And they wanted swings - a simple pleasure that is a strong throwback to their own childhood.
Sadat had a vision, but the implementation was not all smooth sailing. There were threats. This was not, in any case, an easy idea to sell to the deeply patriarchal Afghan society. But Sadat overcame opposition and also encouraged the active participation of women in rebuilding the garden.
Today, the garden hums with activity. The gym is under construction and will have facilities for tennis, bodybuilding, volleyball, basketball, badminton and football. There are English and sewing classes. The shops selling products, the counselling center, the classes etc are all run by women.
Sadat is passionate about the need for Afghan women to get an education. After all, Afghanistan has lost two generations of professionals due to the three decades of turmoil in the country; many among them were women.
The Bagh-e-Zenana also employs a clinical psychologist, who says that women sometimes visit just to vent their emotions without fear. Many, however, suffer from post-war trauma, domestic violence and depression.
And this is why Friday afternoons are precious days in the garden; days when the only males allowed entry are boys under 12 years. Visiting the garden on a Friday, one saw that the women and girls had thrown off their burqas and veils. They were all having a good time - playing on the swings, feeling the air and the sun on their faces, picnicking on the grass.
When they threw off their veils, we saw the kohl, lipstick, rouge and nail polish that the women wore. Many wore shalwar-kurtis (long shirt and trouser-like garment) in dazzling colors with short sleeves. It was easy to imagine that this was their protest against the repressive social order they live in.
They regarded us with a curiosity and affection, which were touching. They were starved of outside contact and asked us innumerable questions about India: Could we wear nail polish? Had we studied up to the university level? Did we know of "medicines for not having babies"? (Many women had six or seven children in a desire for more sons. If they could not produce a son, why, the husband would just take another wife!) Did we know film stars? (Many seemed well-acquainted with the private lives of Bollywood stars.)
The fascination with Bollywood was disconcerting. And actor Shah Rukh 'King' Khan - rules supreme.
What, I ask Sadat, is your dream for Afghanistan? She dreams of an independent Afghanistan, where women can hold their heads up, educate themselves and do what they want to. And what can India do for Afghanistan? India can help by creating scholarships for women to study, she says readily.
Do the women have any fear, we ask? Yes, they say. We always fear. We fear the return of the Taliban. But we hope God will not permit that.