And there were no scarves on the heads of the women who sat under the trees in the old Kabul Women’s Garden.
That was all something remarkable once upon a time, as it is even now. Screened from male scrutiny by the leafy canopies of almond or apricot trees, women could go outside as they pleased, dare to wriggle naked toes in fountain water or just gossip without the veil.
Now this oasis of freedom for women, surrounded by the misogynist desert of the capital city, is undergoing a rebirth.
As with so much happening today in Afghanistan, the midwives are foreigners, the gestation is troubled and the parents are hopeful.
Some say this fabled eight-acre enclosure in the Shahrara neighborhood of Kabul goes back to the days of Babur the Conqueror, in the 1500s. More reliably it is dated to the 1940s or ’50s, when King Zahir Shah was said to have bequeathed it to the state.
Karima Salik tells the story of the Kabul Women’s Garden she remembers as a girl in the 1970s, a halcyon age for Afghanistan and its women, before the present 32 years of unbroken war began.
“The trees covered everything,” she recalled. “There was laughter and chatter and music.”
For the past three years, Ms. Salik has managed the garden, which is now in the midst of a $500,000 face-lift supported by the United States Agency for International Development and CARE International. Most of the money pays laborers who are landscaping, planting trees, rebuilding footpaths and raising the walls still higher. Women on construction projects are almost unheard of in Afghanistan, but the United States Agency for International Development program requires that at least 25 percent of the work force be female. Here they are 50 percent of it.
Ms. Salik’s childhood witnessed one of the most liberated periods for women in Afghan history, when the communist government took over in 1978 and enforced equality, banned the burqa and mandated education for girls.
The revolt of the mujahedeen, led by conservative, rural warlords, wiped that all out in a few years’ time.
People desperate for fuel felled the garden’s trees for firewood. Militiamen held cockfights within the walls. Women dared not go near the place.
In the Taliban era, the city was more peaceful but women were confined to their homes. The northeast end of the garden was appropriated by the mosque next door. A warlord who came over to the Taliban was rewarded with the southwest corner for a construction project. The rest, renamed the Springtime Garden, became a public dump.
When Ms. Salik and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs took over three years ago, “We hauled 45 truckloads of trash out.”
Now male police officers outside the tall steel gates open them only for women, or for male children if they are under 9. Inside the gates are those rarest of public employees: female police officers, two of them. They are reinforced by five female intelligence officers, whose main job is to look for suicide bombers who might hide explosives under the capaciousness of the burqa.
Mostly the burqas come off once inside the gate, and there are dressing rooms where many of the women change into normal clothes, putting on makeup and high heels.
Then, unheard-of things happen here. The women themselves have raised funds for a tiny mosque, with religious instruction given by a woman — one of only a handful of such places in a city where at least 1.5 million female Muslims live.
A consortium of European Union aid groups built a spacious gym, and women in tights take fitness classes there or play badminton. The Italians started the Always Spring Restaurant, featuring something else unknown in Kabul, female pizza chefs.
Between the compound’s outer and inner walls, a shopping arcade of little, female-run businesses grew up, many of them financed with microgrants: hairdressing, embroidery, children’s clothing, ladies lingerie.
There are other such businesses in Kabul, but none are run by women, to whom the busy bazaars are off limits not by law but by hard custom.
Some come here for opportunity, many for refuge of one sort or another. Fairly often, women who have run away from abusive husbands, or from fathers who threaten to commit a so-called honor killing, wind up here, and the staff members find them a place in one of the city’s secret women’s shelters.
Arezo Ghafori, 22, has a talent for hairdressing and a family of eight for whom she is the sole breadwinner, but the men in the family refused to allow her to work, even if they starved, until she started a salon inside the garden.
Leila Husseini, Afghanistan’s 25-year-old Asian tae kwon do champion in the women’s under-95-pound class, came here to train and also to lead courses for other women.
All of this did not happen without a fight. Ms. Salik called in the police over the mosque’s encroachment, and the mullah led a noisy demonstration of male neighbors in protest. “I used religious arguments against him,” she said, “and pointed out it was a sin to use stolen land for prayers.”
They compromised on a new wall, but the mullah, Abdul Rahim, is still seething. He says that a police officer was caught inside the garden in an improper assignation with a woman, but that the incident was hushed up.
“I don’t care what the hell they do,” he said. “But inside the garden they get all dressed up and do their makeup and they have other intentions.”
A politically well-connected former warlord named Amanullah Guzar had gained control of the Taliban warlord’s old building site, and a 13-story building began rising there, overlooking their walls and, worse, providing vantage points into the gym’s windows. Construction workers leered and jeered, and Ms. Salik went to court to stop the building, which she claims is actually on land belonging to the garden.
“Women need to have privacy here or it does not work,” she said.
Efforts to reach Mr. Guzar for comment were unsuccessful.
“It is women against men,” she said afterward, uncharacteristically discouraged. “Our action will never succeed.”
A few weeks later, she was hopeful again. She had found powerful allies who promised to intercede. In the meantime, work on the building was suspended and the aerobics classes resumed.
The face-lift is due to finish July 5. Every 40 days a new crew of female laborers is brought in, giving new people an opportunity to earn money and learn skills.
Some are jobless poor, like Zehia and Hassina, two 19-year-olds pushing wheelbarrows, who had baseball caps on over their headscarves and black veils across their faces — more out of shame than modesty.
“We are like men here,” Zehia said. “It is an embarrassment for educated girls like us to work like this.”
Both are English-speaking high school graduates who have rejected all offers of marriage, hoping to get into a university.
“What would I do with a husband, especially an uneducated husband?” Zehia asked. “A job is much better.”
In a broad sense, the success of the Kabul Women’s Garden is an admission of failure. Women simply cannot go to other parks in Kabul unless chaperoned by male relatives, and often not even then; most parks, like most public spaces, are overwhelmingly male.
“You can’t change people’s ideas overnight,” Ms. Salik said. “So we need to address the immediate needs.”
Ms. Salik has other projects in mind for the Kabul Women’s Garden.
There is an unused parking lot beside the garden where women could learn how to drive, something almost unheard of here — not because it is illegal, just because it is not done.
Most of all, Ms. Salik would like to see a program that would take women on brief trips to other countries, perhaps for job training, but really, she said, just to see how women live in lands where there are no women’s gardens.