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Afghan women celebrate new freedoms on International Women's Day

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- In a dramatic departure from years of repression under the Taliban regime, Afghan women shed the all-enveloping burqa and publicly recited verses of the Koran on Friday as Afghanistan marked International Women's Day for the first time in 11 years.

In New York, first lady Laura Bush reiterated the U.S. commitment to women's rights at an observation of the day at the United Nations and tied that commitment to the drive for worldwide peace.

"Today on International Women's Day, we affirm our mission to protect human rights for women in Afghanistan and around the world," she said. "We affirm our support of all Afghans as they recover from war and injustice.

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"Our dedication to respect and protect women's rights in all countries must continue if we are to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and stable world."

Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, led the celebration in Kabul, Afghanistan, with Sima Samar, the minister for women's affairs, in the ruins of movie theater destroyed by the fundamentalist Taliban, who objected to film, music and other forms of entertainment.

The theater, named for a local woman, had featured the films of women.

"Today we are happy to celebrate International Women's Day," said a woman named Zarmina, who said she had stayed at home for five years under the Taliban rule. " Before we had no rights, but now we have rights and we're celebrating this fact."

Some women at the movie house still dressed in the burqa, a long, all-enveloping garment that leaves only a small rectangle screened by open mesh cloth for vision. The burqa is traditional for some cultures but required dress for women in public under the Taliban. One woman sang verses of the Koran in the presence of men -- an act barred under conservative Islam.

"During Taliban times, women were kept at home," Samar said. "There was no assistance. It was a great tragedy for women ... it was anti-women."

Karzai said it was the interim government's "duty ... to ensure women's rights according to Islam and the U.N. Convention of Women's Rights."

An international women's day has been marked since 1910, officially named as such in 1911. The March 8 date commemorates the day in 1917 when the Bolshevik Revolution forced the Russian czar to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. The United Nations has been a key proponent of women's rights since its inception in 1945.

The United Nations gave this year's International Women's Day a focus on Afghan women in light of the Taliban's overthrow by a U.S.-led coalition of international forces and the installation of an interim government with less strident views on women. The international agency dispatched U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights Mary Robinson to Kabul for the celebration.

"This is a new beginning, a great beginning for women in Afghanistan, a time of hope," Robinson said.




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