The 17-year-old works part-time in Afshar Fashion clothes store, in the affluent Kabul district of Shar-e-Nau, and admits to being into make-up and the latest Bollywood film releases.

Since the US-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women are free to move around, work and get an education, and they are not legally required to wear the burqa.

But many believe these are only superficial changes.

"Now things are not right. Too many women [still] stay at home and don't study, even now. They need to be encouraged more to go out," says Azimi, a 12th-grade student who hopes to become a television journalist. "The Afghan government is not doing enough."

For 18-year-old Naseem Gul, nothing has changed since the Taliban were overthrown.

Cosmetic changes

"There are no big changes [from] when the Taliban were here – it's all the same," says the teenager from the Tajik village of Dolona in Char-e-Kar, a 30-minute drive from Bagram, home to the largest US military base in the country.

Najiyat Emamdat says, "We do
not have a good life."

"My brother does not allow me to go outside the house. We don't have a chance to go to school. It's important for women to go to school and study."

Gul, like an overwhelming majority of Afghan women, is illiterate.

Her brother Atta Mohammed, a 22-year-old university student, won't let her or his four other sisters to go to school for fears over their safety.

Such concern is more the rule than the exception in present day Afghanistan. Lawlessness and crime have risen, particularly in provinces outside President Hamid Karzai's control in Kabul.

"Because there is bad security, we do not allow the girls. We love education [but] because of the security problems, we are frightened to let them go," Mohammed explains.

Government drive

The government says it is doing its best to educate and offer healthcare to women. A spokeswoman says women's departments have been set up in all 34 of the country's provinces. 

"We give guidance to make women aware of these programmes and encourage them to participate and [show them] how to access health facilities," said Karima Salik.

Saforaia Walid (R) says few
women have access to healthcare

"We [also] conduct seminars in the provinces. In this way, we can convince the men to allow their daughters to go to school and [health] clinics. This will work, I am confident. Sometimes men come to my offices and [are] asking to send their daughters to school."

In the build-up to the US-led invasion in October 2001, the Taliban's record of human rights abuses was touted as a rationale to invade Afghanistan.

Leaders inside and outside Afghanistan were quick to announce that the country's 30 million people, including 18 million women, would be freed from years of oppression.

But the changes are hard to see in farming communities in the eastern district of rural Char-e-Kar.

Little change

Grape and wheat farms dot the rugged landscape. Rusting Soviet tanks and martyrs' graves are reminders of the nation's conflicts.

In the Tajik village of Dhemulayasuf in Char-e-Kar, life for Najiya Emamdat continues much the same as it always has. The 30-year-old mother of four lives with her husband in a three-room mud-brick home without electricity or running water.

Rural Char-e-Kar is a half-hour
drive from Bagram

They are tenant farmers, earning about 20,000 afghanis [$400] each season, relying on three hectares of land and the rains.

"We do not have a good life. The international community gives Afghanistan lots of money, but it all goes into the pockets of government officials," Emamdat says.

The average life expectancy of women in the nation is 44, according to the World Resources Institute.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), an underground women's rights organisation, says 95% of Afghan women continue to be forced into marriages, many routinely suffer from domestic violence and more than 25,000 women have taken to prostitution because of poverty.

Saforaia Walid, a spokeswoman for the group, rejects the idea that Afghan women are free. Only a small proportion of women in the nation's cities have access to education and healthcare and have freedom of movement, she points out.

"Now it's a bit better, but you can see the [religious] fundamentalists are still in power. They are taking their role in the government of the country," she said.

"Our society is a patriarchal system where a man will never allow his daughter, wife or sister to go out and be equal. It's regarded as shameful for them."

"We hope, and we can never lose hope, in the belief that this society will change because the world is in the process of progressing and changing day-by-day," Walid said.

Her hopes are surely shared by Afghan women, still suffering in silence.