KABUL, Afghanistan – Waiting for food Thursday in this poor capital of one million people, dozens of burqa-clad women shouted "yes, yes" when asked whether they wanted to shed the all-encompassing garment required by the Taliban.
But from within the crowd a man's voice suddenly shouted: "No. They need food, they don't need to take off their burqas."
The women fell silent.
The Taliban's sudden departure from Kabul on Tuesday seemed to offer new hope and opportunity for repressed Afghan women. But even though some young women have said they'd like to throw the cumbersome head-to-toe covering into the fire, there have been no burqa burnings in the streets.
Many say fear and tradition will delay progress on women's rights in Afghanistan. Others warn that more conservative factions within the Northern Alliance could crack down on women just as the Taliban did.
The burqa has become the best-known symbol of the Taliban's harsh restrictions on women. When the militia was in power, women were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were accompanied by a close male relative. They were banned from working except in the health care field, and schools for girls over the age of 8 were closed.
Those who defied the rules were beaten, sometimes savagely, by the Taliban's police.
At one point, the Taliban closed all hospitals to women who were sick, except for a poorly equipped, 300-bed women's clinic. An outcry from the International Committee of the Red Cross forced them to reconsider. Still, women were allocated fewer beds than male patients, and were allowed only limited access to specialists.
Men had to follow an austere code, as well: they were required to wear long beards, cover their heads with turbans and pray at the mosque. The Taliban's religious council banned most music and dancing, and closed public bath houses, all in the name of Islam.
But those rules were abandoned after the northern alliance swept into Kabul on Tuesday. Music played, men shaved and women were told the burqa was no longer required. Some Alliance officials said schools for girls would be reopened.
Radio Afghanistan — the alliance's broadcast service — hired three women to read the news. Officials also promised to resume television broadcasts, also banned by the Taliban.
But Afghanistan remains a conservative society. With or without a government decree, social pressure is expected to keep many women veiled.
"It's not their decision alone to make. They have their husbands, fathers and brothers to think of," said Mohammed Shah, a resident of Kabul. "In our tradition, a woman can't take her burqa off like that and show her face, while everyone else is covered."
To do so would soil her reputation, he said.
"We are planning to take it off, but not now," said a woman named Shazia, who spoke from within the billowing folds of her burqa, her eyes all but concealed. "We are a little afraid."
Her fears, and those of many women, are based on deep suspicions about the Northern Alliance, which now appears firmly in control of the capital. Despite the statements about respect for women's rights, the alliance includes some factions whose views don't differ much from the Taliban's.
Nilofar Parian, 40, said she will wait a few more days before discarding her burqa. Parian recalled a previous power shift in the capital eight years ago when angry men threw acid in the faces of uncovered women.
"We're afraid there might still be some Taliban around and the policies of the new government aren't clear yet," she said.
The only Afghan women's group, the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association, known as RAWA, says the Northern Alliance also has a poor record when it comes to women's rights.
"In the past they have shown that they are also fundamentalists," said Sehar Saba, a RAWA member based in neighboring Pakistan.
The alliance's deputy prime minister, Abdur Rasool Sayyaf, has publicly opposed allowing women to vote. He also has said that women should remain veiled and strongly condemned public mixing of the sexes.
"They and the Taliban are all alike," Saba said. "We do not expect any changes in the current scenario."
Saba, whose organization worked secretly in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule, said women worry that the hard-line factions in the Alliance will crack down on them just as the deposed militia did.
"They are afraid of these groups," Saba said. "They have just captured these areas. The women really don't know what to do. Today they throw [away] their burqas and tomorrow they will start treating them like Taliban treated them."
Shafika, a middle aged woman struggling down the street with two small children in tow, was elated over the Taliban departure.
"Of course we are happy," she said, throwing back her veil as she spoke. "They were cruel and inhuman to women. I am educated. Look at the children of Afghanistan. No education for boys or for girls."
Still Shafika wasn't ready to remove her burqa. "It's not our tradition to go out openly," she said.