KABUL, Afghanistan — When Marzia Basel, one of Afghanistan's few female judges, recently spent several weeks in the United States, she met with President Bush, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other dignitaries to appeal for more assistance for her homeland.
Returning home, she was greeted by derogatory headlines and sneers because, while in the U.S., she hadn't always worn her chador, the scarf used by many Muslim women to cover their hair.
The controversy began when the television station in Kabul, the Afghan capital, broadcast footage of her and 13 other Afghan women in a vaunted U.S. State Department international leadership-training program. The private weekly Thubat, or Proof, criticized their behavior. "These women had gone as modest women but dishonored the people of Afghanistan," the paper wrote. "Afghan government officials made a big mistake sending them to the U.S."
Several publications reported that the Afghan government had fired Basel, one of 32 female judges among several hundred jurists. A senior court official dismissed that suggestion, and Basel herself says she quit the judgeship, which pays $54 a month, to join UNICEF, where she is building a juvenile-justice program.
She said she's angry, hurt and depressed about the criticism and fears for her safety. "I did a lot for my country there," she said. "Today I want to cry, hearing these things."
Basel blames the media, not the government, for creating the furor. "Afghan media don't want to learn and be educated. If women are strong and educated, it will be a problem for them."
As for the chador, she says, "we are Muslims. It's good if we wear it, but if we don't, it's all right. Lots of Muslim women don't wear it."
The chador issue has been a lightning rod for controversy centering on the role of women in Afghan society. Unlike under the Taliban, which forbade women from going out without their burkas, today there are no legal restrictions on what women can wear. Still, social and religious dictates hold powerful sway.
The majority of Afghan women still wear their burkas on the street, fearing harassment from men if they do not. In recent weeks, however, many have been pulling them back to expose their faces or taking them off altogether. Those who don't wear burkas usually wear a chador, which most keep on inside the workplace.
Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fazal Ahmad Manawi says that, legally, women should have a choice about what to wear. "But personally," he adds, "we advise our people to observe our culture wherever they are."
Safia Siddiqi, 38, president of planning and international relations at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, never wore a chador when she lived in Canada, where she spent several years as a refugee before returning to Afghanistan recently. During an interview at her office, she wore a skirt and blazer with a chador. "So many issues are more important than whether women wear a chador," she said, citing security and health.
"We've just gone through 23 years of problems, especially the last six years under the Taliban," she said. "It's our idea that it's not difficult to put a piece of cloth on your head. It's respectful and at least we should wear it. If we remove it, it means the future is a problem" for this society.
Basel, too, wears the chador in Kabul. During a recent interview at the office of the Women Justices Assn., black fishnet stockings peeked out from beneath her long black wool skirt. Inside, she let her black veil drop to her shoulders, but pulled it up when she went outdoors.
"While we're inside Afghanistan, we have to observe the customs of Afghanistan," she said. "But not while I'm outside." She no longer wears a burka, as she did under the Taliban.
Basel, 35, is single -- unusual for women in Afghanistan, where marriages are almost always arranged between families. She grew up in a liberal family: Her father was a judge, and her two sisters also became attorneys.
Basel said she liked the "feeling of women in America," which she got from the five weeks she spent traveling across the U.S. as part of the State Department program. "They were really impressed with the situation of women in Afghanistan. Some of them really cried with us."
While walking through Hollywood, an American woman proselytizing on a street corner admonished a translator with the group that she shouldn't be wearing such a short skirt. The proselytizer teasingly turned to a man walking by and said, "Do you think women should wear such short skirts?" The man jokingly retorted, "I like women wearing nothing."
All of them "laughed and laughed," recalled Basel, completely defusing any tension.
That's the way it should be, she says. "People should be free to do what they want as long as they don't bother others."
The Koran, she said, exhorts women to cover "their beautiful parts, such as their breasts, hips and legs, but doesn't say they should hide their faces or cover themselves with burkas."
"Real Islam is not the Islam [they] are expressing," she said of her critics. "It is such a great religion that gave women rights and equality. But people are illiterate, and they don't know what real Islam is."