Women's precarious rights in Afghanistan have begun seeping away. Girls' schools are closing; working women are threatened; advocates are attacked; and terrified families are increasingly confining their daughters to home.
For women, instability, as much as the Taliban themselves, is the enemy. Women are casualties of the fighting, not only in the already conservative and embattled Pashtun south and east, but also in districts in the north and center of the country where other armed groups have sprung up.
As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.
“Women do not want war, but none of them want the Taliban of 1996 again; no one wants to be imprisoned in the yards of their houses,” said Rahima Zarifi, the Women's Ministry representative from the northern Baghlan Province.
Interviews around the country with at least two dozen female members of Parliament, government officials, activists, teachers and young girls suggest a nuanced reality — fighting constricts women's freedoms nearly as much as a Taliban government, and conservative traditions already limit women's rights in many places.
Women, however, express a range of fears about a Taliban return, from political to domestic — that they will be shut out of negotiations about any deals with the insurgents and that the Taliban's return would drive up bride prices, making it more profitable for a family to force girls into marriage earlier.
For many women, the prospect of a resurgence of the Taliban or other conservative groups is stark. “It will ruin our life,” said Shougoufa, 40, as she sorted through sequins and gold sparkles at the bazaar in the city of Pul-i-Khumri in Afghanistan's north.
“I am a tailor and I need to come to the bazaar to buy these things,” she said. “But if the Taliban come, I will not be able to come. Already we are hearing some girls cannot go to their work anymore.”
In teachers' tea-break rooms, beauty shop training sessions, bazaars and the privacy of their homes, young women worry that their parents will marry them off early, so they will not be forced to marry Taliban.
In the Pashtun-dominated district of Taghob, east of Kabul, girls' schools have been closed and any teaching is done at home, the provincial education director said.
That does not trouble some local officials.
“Look, our main priority is to feed our people, to provide rest and to protect their lives,” said Haji Farid, a local member of Parliament. “Why are people focusing on education and sending girls to school? Boys walk three, four, five kilometers to their school. How can a girl walk two, three, four kilometers? During a war you cannot send a girl beyond her door. No one can guarantee her honor. So it is hard to send your daughter to school.”
In Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul, all unstable southern provinces, there are girls' schools open in the provincial capitals, but in outlying districts there are few, if any. In Zabul Province, there are just six schools for girls, four in the capital and two outside, but few families send their girls to school because of the fighting, said Muhammad Alam, the acting head of the provincial education department.
In Baghlan Province, in northern Afghanistan, the situation for women has steadily worsened over the past year. Ms. Zarifi, the Women's Ministry representative, has endured assassination attempts and demonstrations against her work. Three months ago, a female member of the provincial council was paralyzed in an attack, and a woman was stabbed to death in the daytime in the middle of the provincial capital earlier in July.
By contrast, most of Kapisa Province, which lies northeast of Kabul, is peaceful. There is a mediation program in the capital to help women and girls when they face domestic violence. In the predominantly ethnically Tajik north there are large, lively schools for girls, where families even allow those who are married to complete high school.
Women's advocates are concerned that they are increasingly being shut out of political decisions. At an international conference in Kabul on July 20, which was meant to showcase the country's plans for the future, President Hamid Karzai said nothing about how women's rights might be protected in negotiations.
The very first meeting on negotiations, held by Mr. Karzai on July 22 with former leaders who had fought the Taliban, did not include a single woman, despite government pledges. When asked, government officials said that women would be included in later sessions.
Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also pledged that she will not desert Afghan women and that any deal with the Taliban that traded peace for women's rights was “a red line,” women remain wary.
“Right now it's a big challenge for women to go to school and work, but at least according to our Constitution and laws they have the right to do so,” said Nargis Nehan, 31, an Afghan women's advocate.
“If the Taliban come back, by law women will be restricted and not allowed to leave their homes,” she said, adding, “Maybe not everywhere, but in those districts where they are in power.”
There is also the real possibility that a deal with the Taliban could stoke the anger of non-Pashtuns who once fought and still fear them, raising the prospect of renewed fighting.
Afghanistan's women have long led exceptionally constrained lives. The combination of a male-dominated tribal culture in which women have been often treated as little more than chattel, combined with a conservative practice of Islam and a nationwide lack of education, meant that long before the Taliban arrived in the mid-1990s, women had few opportunities beyond the home.
The mujahedeen leaders who forced out the Soviets in the late 1980s were as conservative as the Taliban in many places, keeping women at home in order to preserve family honor instead of educating them or integrating them into the government.
“Families want to send their daughters to school, but it is hard for them to decide to do so because of the fighting and insecurity,” said Mr. Alam, the head of provincial education in Zabul Province.
The families of women who work in offices are threatened, said Rahima Jana, who heads the province's Department of Women's Affairs. And the group Human Rights Watch documented instances of night letters meant to scare women into staying at home.
“Security is a big challenge, and we cannot work when there is bad security,” Ms. Jana said. “Last year was much better than this year.”
In Mahmud-e Raqi, 12 teenage girls sat around a small trunk filled with beauticians' tools — combs, boxes of hair dye, scissors, nail polish, hair spray — and watched closely as the instructor sat one of the girls in a desk chair and demonstrated how to cut off split ends evenly.
In most places in the world this scene would hardly be a sign of women's liberation, but in this corner of Afghanistan, it meant a great deal. The girls, ages 15 to 17, had been allowed to come from their villages to the provincial capital; they will take home a trunk of beauty goods and can earn their own money in their homes by offering beauty services to women in their village.
This chance at determining a little of their future is what they fear will be threatened if the Taliban return through a negotiated peace settlement.
“They will beat us and forbid us from this freedom, the freedom to come here, to this class; they will stop us from doing things,” said Biboli, 16, a girl with long brown hair barely covered by a thin white veil.
The greatest fear is that no one is really listening, said Habiba Shamim, one of the instructors.
“Please,” she pleaded. “Carry our words to people.”