Aged just 17, Roya Shams cannot leave home in the Afghan city of Kandahar because she fears the Taliban will kill her. “If I do, they will shoot me,” she said. “I’m a problem for them.”
Young, educated and speaking good English, Roya is one of thousands of women across Afghanistan who still lives in terror of the militant Islamists, 10 years after the start of the U.S.-led war on October 7, 2001.
Women’s rights have undoubtedly improved in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted. Under them, girls’ schools had been closed, and women banned from working outside the home and forced to wear the burqa.
But the Taliban still intimidate women, as Roya’s story shows. Her family started receiving threats saying she should not study or go to work teaching English after the Taliban killed her policeman father in July.
“My family is saying ‘Look what they did to your father, they will do it to you.’ But actually, I am happy to lose myself for my country,” she told AFP by telephone.
Some female politicians argue that former mujahedeen warlords who now form part of President Hamid Karzai’s government are just as bad as the Taliban when it comes to women’s rights.
Malalai Joya, a former lawmaker kicked out of parliament in 2007 for denouncing warlords and now a political activist, called them “wolves in the skin of lambs.”
Joya, 33, travels with armed guards and said she moves between safe houses in Kabul because she fears for her life after five assassination attempts.
The international presence in Afghanistan “pushed us from the frying pan into the fire because they replaced the terrorist, fundamentalist, misogynist Taliban with warlords who are mentally the same as the Taliban,” she said.
Restoring rights for women was touted as a major aim of the U.S.-led invasion 10 years ago.
Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator but now secretary of state, wrote in Time magazine in November 2001 that the Taliban’s mistreatment of women “was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11.
“Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future,” Clinton added.
There have been clear gains in the last 10 years, experts say, particularly in education for women.
British charity Oxfam says there are now 2.7 million girls in school in Afghanistan compared to only a few thousand who received religious education under the Taliban.
Girls walking to school and smartly-dressed women going to work are a common sight on the streets of Kabul, although the picture is often different in rural areas, where illiteracy is widespread and the Taliban can be stronger.
Another study from ActionAid found that 72 percent of Afghan women believe their lives are better now than they were 10 years ago.
But practices such as child marriage, honor killings, giving away girls to settle disputes and self-immolation by women are still widespread in Afghanistan, according to a U.N. report last December.
ActionAid also found that 86 percent of women worry about a possible return to Taliban-style government.
The future of efforts to talk peace with the Taliban looks highly uncertain after last month's assassination of Karzai’s peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Many women are, though, deeply concerned what will happen if the Taliban return to power when Western combat forces leave the country after 2014.
“We have made incredible gains in the last 10 years. Women are working as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen and girls are at school,” said Orzala Ashraf Nemat, co-author of Oxfam’s report.
“But what is life going to be like for us in the next 10 years? Already life is getting tougher for Afghan women. Afghan women want peace − not a stitch-up deal that will confine us to our homes again.”