Diva Haque (22) eagerly awaits the daily extended lunch hour in her NGO office. After a quick bite, she rushes out of her well-guarded office in Kabul's posh Sher-e-Now area and walks to an institute where she teaches English language to school students. This walk is special to Diva, for it symbolizes freedom. It's the only time when no male member of the family - brother, father, cousin - escorts her.
"When I was in Peshawar, where my family had taken refuge, I used to go to work alone. But since we returned to Kabul 18 months ago, life has changed. It is not considered safe to venture out alone," she says.
Diva considers herself lucky. For most women in Afghanistan, life after the ultra-conservative Taliban rule ended is still full of restrictions - on movements, expressions, clothes, education and employment opportunities.
In many areas, fundamentalist groups continue to impose supposedly Islamic rules on women and girls. Local warlords, who still wield considerable clout in the north and western part of the country, issue repressive diktats reminiscent of the Taliban era.
One such diktat forbids women from working for NGOs and foreign organizations. In Herat province, women have been forced to wear the burqa (veil). Girls seen with strange men are severely reprimanded.
The situation is relatively better in Kabul, where the presence of the International Peace-Keeping Force (ISAF) offers some security. But elsewhere, local warlords control daily life.
"Some international funding agencies suggested we start projects on women's empowerment in Herat and Ghazni provinces. But we don't feel safe outside Kabul and would rather work here," says Miriam Zada, whose NGO runs health, nutrition and income generation projects in the outskirts of Kabul.
On a recent visit to their project site, unidentified men chased the vehicle carrying Miriam and her NGO staff and attacked the driver. "We managed to reach a police picket and were saved," she recounts. In other provinces, there is no security system in place and they cannot take such risks, she asserts.
Despite such challenges, in the past two years, over 30 NGOs working on women's issues have come up in Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, not more than five women's groups were allowed to operate. "This is indicative of the strong desire among women to assert themselves," says Shukriaya Haikal Kazimi of the Afghan Women's Network (AWN), an umbrella organization for women's groups in Afghanistan.
Post-Taliban, women have attempted to make a clean break from the past. "Earlier, there was no question of us attending schools or colleges. If we stepped out wearing a burqa which was not long enough or a head gear that was not conservative enough, we were stopped on the road, bullied and punished by Taliban men," recalls Husnia Narez, who works for an NGO in Kabul. Narez is one of the few women who continued to struggle even during the repressive years. "We would conduct classes at home for women and girls. If anyone came to inquire, we claimed we were giving religious education. "
Naudia, who assists her husband run an NGO helping destitute women in Kabul, says post-Taliban she has found a new meaning in life. Trained as a journalist, Naudia's forced confinement at home during the Taliban regime made her lose confidence in her own abilities. But today she has found a new focus in helping educate and empower other women. Her NGO reaches out to nearly 750 destitute and beggar women, helping them learn to read and write. It also gives training for income generation.
In fact, once the Taliban regime fell, women and girls returned to schools and universities across the country. "Education is the only way women can be aware of their rights and seek employment and a better life for themselves and their families," says Heba Tarzi, program coordinator for AWN's radio unit.
Awareness about their rights has also encouraged women to pursue a more active role in the country's political process. In the Afghan Interim Government, out of a total of 30 members, two are women - heading the ministries of women affairs and public health. The UN-appointed 21-member special independent commission for the convening of the emergency Loya Jirga has three women members.
"But representation by itself is not enough. The Constitution must reflect women's needs," says Kazimi, whose network recommends women-friendly changes to the new Constitution.
Several women's organizations have urgently demanded the establishment of a legal marriage age for girls. Often, families marry off their girls before they reach the age of nine. Similarly, the current Constitution allows the in-laws of a widow to marry her off to her husband's brother. AWN has proposed that such a marriage should be sanctioned only if the woman is willing, and that she is not forced to do so.
For Afghan women it is a long road to empowerment. But they seem determined to walk till the very end.