KABUL, Afghanistan – Debbie Rodriguez's "girls" are at the forefront of an Afghan cultural change, one where women play a stronger role in this nation's economic fabric.
This week, as many in the world reflected on the achievements made by women around the globe, Rodriguez's beauty students kept their expectations low.
Tuesday was International Women's Day (search), meant to be "a major day of global celebration for the economic, political and social achievements" of women. Celebrations in Afghanistan were muted.
The beauty profession is one of the best ways for women in Kabul to earn a living. Rodriguez, who came to Afghanistan from Michigan three years ago as an aid worker, is teaching them the trade, as well as and small-business basics.
Most of the women who graduate from her Kabul Beauty School go on to become the main breadwinners of their households.
I recently did a story for FOX News about the school, and this week took my computer to Rodriguez and her students to show it to them.
They watched from swivel salon chairs and giggled when they saw their faces on the screen. There was a feeling of hope, but like the many women I have interviewed, they agree there is still territory to cover.
"The women still have a long, long way to go. It's like every step they take forward, men are pulling them six steps back, " Rodriguez said. "Some of the girls who work here dress modern, but have to cover up when they leave, because they are scared what men will do if they see them. God forbid one of her neighbors sees her."
Over the last year and a half, I have interviewed nearly 50 women in and around Kabul on their lives in this nation struggling to shed the shadow of an abusive Taliban government.
I have talked to housewives, teachers, soldiers, actresses, politicians, TV video jockeys, journalists and road workers. All of them have amazing stories of triumph, some big, some small. Here are just two examples:
— One woman escaped an abusive life from her husband's family. Just after her wedding, they pinned her down to tattoo her face with tribal markings. She was forced into the marriage and is deaf and can't speak, but with the help of her father, she's now fighting for a divorce and against the oppressive social norm of forced marriages.
— One grade-school teacher does not make her four daughters do housework, because she wants them to spend every free moment studying or reading. Two of the four, one an aspiring photojournalist and the other a writer, are trying to go to the West for school.
These are the people who are shifting the paradigm for women in Afghanistan.
As Massuda Jalal (search), a former presidential candidate and the current minister of women's affairs, told me, "There are mountains of duties that still need to be done in the rural areas of this county. Most of the achievements so far have been in urban areas with educated women."
For progress to truly take hold, major change needs to take place.
According to Suraya Parlika, executive director of the All Afghan Women's Union (search), the women of this country are working hard on that change. The high hurdle will be to get Afghan men to see women as active participants in the country.
"Right now we have three women in cabinet positions," Parlika said. "Forty-one percent of those who voted in the in the presidential elections were women, and we only have three women in the cabinet representing them. But these appointments were just symbolic and not based on a systematic selection."
Women here have to worry about both young men acting with blind bravado, swerving on the road to hit puddles and splash girls for kicks, and ancient cultural norms, such as honor killing and forced marriage.
A milestone was reached this week as the first-ever woman provincial governor took her post. Habiba Sorabi (search), a former Minister of Women's Affairs, was appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be the governor of the central province of Bamiyan.
Sorabi admits that in Afghan society, implementing change is the big task at hand.
"There are equal rights for women on paper. The challenge is to put those into action," she said.
For women of Afghanistan to rise above second-class status, experts and average women agree that education will be the key.
It's a two-step process: first, teaching women of this country about their rights in the new constitution, and second, educating Afghan men that if they continue to prevent women from becoming a true part of society, they are cutting the potential of this country in half.