There is a long way to go. A bare room serves as the reception area in the women's center. In stark contrast to the rooms warlords use when they hold court, this one had no rug or cushions, just flimsy plastic chairs, three scarred desks and a few torn fliers pinned to the walls.
There were no tea and biscuits, no plates of fruit. But the women's voices rose and fell as if they were at a feast. They recounted their latest trials and small victories: the difficulty of getting a job as a midwife, recent cases of child brides abused by men, the challenge of teaching science to students when there is not a single Bunsen burner in all of Khowst.
Sharif listened closely, nodding, occasionally asking a question or jotting something in a small notebook.
She believes in personal persuasion to bring about change. She knows that without female teachers, many families will not send their daughters to school. So she goes to the homes of women who have a university education and asks why they are not teaching. If they say their families will not allow it, she meets with their husbands, uncles, fathers and brothers, until she gets their agreement.
"I do not accept 'no,' " she said. "Usually, the men have not thought so hard about it, they have not thought that their wife will be earning money, that the family will be richer if the wife works. When they understand this and they understand that she will be with women, most of them accept it."
An influential man
Sharif's journey to her legislative district could not be more different than such a trip by Almas, the former commander of the Northern Alliance's 5th Corps.
Almas conveys his status with every gesture. He is so well known in Parwan province that when he stops his car to point out the location of a strategic battle, half a dozen vehicles pull off the road so their drivers can greet him.
Thickset, he wears a spotless white \o7shalwar kameez \f7and, even in the hot Afghan summer, the brown wool hat favored by Northern Alliance leaders. He moves with a determined stride.
His tone with subordinates is often peremptory; with supplicants, impatient. With those who consider themselves equals, he listens, then issues orders.
Westerners and some Afghan police officials describe him privately as a bully and a criminal who is active on the periphery of the lucrative narcotics trade, complicit in kidnappings and enriched by corrupt business deals. Some election officials attempted to prevent him from running, but failed, said a senior Western diplomat.
"Almas is one of the former commanders who has really cemented his power since he came into government," the official said.
Nasreen Gross, a sociology lecturer at Kabul University, said the international community must make an effort to win over men such as Almas. These former commanders influence many Afghans, and without their support, democracy could well fail, she said.
"They desire so much to be accepted by the West," Gross said. "Before, they had to do things illegally. No one helped them when they were fighting the Taliban. When you get involved in illegal activities, it's a cycle, it's self-perpetuating and insidious.
"We have to find an opening for those who want to gain respectability.... They can help us."
A trip home with Almas indicates that he is still divided between his warlord past and his emerging identity as a member of parliament, as though he has yet to decide whether the legitimacy of being in government is worth the payoff. So he veers wildly, dispensing tribal justice and bullying government officials, even while espousing education and adherence to the rule of law.
A man of limited education, Almas started fighting in his early teens. Now he is a fanatic about schooling.
In the early 1990s, when little education was available for girls, he built two schools in his district, one for boys and one for girls. His daughters are in high school, and he says he will allow them to attend university. He has two wives and is proud that the second is a university graduate.
When he arrived in his home village of Rabat to eat lunch at the funeral of a village elder, scores of men gathered around him, a mirror image of Sharif's experience with women.
A privileged few ate with him in a small room and pressed their demands. Chief among them was jobs. They wanted the government to start a long-promised water project. Almas listened as he gnawed on a mutton bone and scooped up saffron rice with his fingers in the traditional Afghan style.
A little later an elder cornered him as he walked to the mosque for Friday prayers and asked for help. There had been trouble the night before, a knife fight between two boys. Both were wounded.
At the mosque, Almas spoke after the imam finished. "Don't behave in ways that make people call us the thieves of Rabat," he admonished the villagers.