By Jan Harvey
KABUL (Reuters) - Being a feminist in Afghanistan isn't always easy, even for a man. Kabul university student Ferdous Samim has had trouble persuading even his own mother that the work he does pushing for women's rights is worthwhile.
"Part of the problem in Afghanistan is that most women think like men," said Samim over tea in the garden of a Kabul cafe.
"I don't have a sister, but I'm sure if I did, and she tried to go outside the house, my mother would be asking where she was going, what she was doing, why she was going out."
A member of the male advocacy wing of activist group YoungWomen4Change, he is part of a small but critical group of male activists helping Afghan women fight for a better life.
His modest goal for the next two decades -- that women should be able to walk in Afghanistan's streets and markets without harassment -- is a reminder of the scale of the challenge women still face.
Forced marriage is still rife, rape victims have been jailed for "forced adultery," and a woman is more likely to die in childbirth in Afghanistan than anywhere else on earth.
And many of the men with power to change how women are treated -- from mullahs to tribal elders -- are not willing to listen to female activists.
Men have played an important role in feminist movements around the world, but the segregation of much of Afghan society makes their role particularly important.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) commissioner, said opening doors for female campaigners is one of the most important things he does.
"Once we open the door to the mullahs, we engage them in discussion, we break the ice," he says. "Then our female trainers come and they also speak. But we start first."
CLOSED FAMILIES, HIDDEN PAIN
Afghanistan is still recovering from the strict social conservatism of the Taliban, whose hardline laws during their 1996-2001 rule marginalized women, stripping them of the right to work, study or move freely.
Many independent agencies say women are still subject to widespread discrimination and oppression.
Nadery says powerful men often fail to take into account the impact of their decisions on women's lives.
This is particularly a problem in cases related to forced or abusive marriages, or when women are given in marriage to settle disputes -- a practice known as "baad."
"Families are very closed," Nadery said. "Once a woman enters another family, her story will never get out. Most of those elders, those decision makers, don't know the suffering she goes through."
The AIHRC works with elders, runs workshops, and produces documentaries and dramas to illustrate how damaging baad and other abusive traditions can be. The men they target are often shocked by what they learn, Nadery says.
Nonetheless, changing minds remains an uphill battle. "It is a long process of work with them," says Nadery, who credits his feminism to coming from a family of strong women.
Legislation does exist to protect women but activists say it is often disregarded by courts, and in some areas officials are intimidated or bribed into ignoring women's pleas for help.
Across town from the AIHRC, in a small, busy office filled with teetering piles of paper, veteran civil rights campaigner Lal Gul is another male feminist, working for change through his Afghanistan Human Rights Organization.
He helped build up the number of female lawyers available to defend gender-specific cases; about a quarter of the 1,200 defense lawyers on the independent bar register are now women.
"Through our defense lawyers, we are registering the cases of women, providing legal aid to them, and protecting their rights, especially in human rights abuse cases like rape cases, forced marriage, divorce, domestic violence," Gul says.
The bearded, avuncular Gul became involved in civil rights after an experience more common for women than men -- forced marriage. He was engaged at the age of seven and married, while he was away, a decade later.
Activists admit that despite their work, change will be hard. Conservative values can be so strict that women who fail to conform are persecuted by their own families.
And campaigners struggle against a widely held assumption that those agitating for women's rights are pushing an anti-Islamic, or anti-Afghan, agenda.
Samim says fighting for women's rights is not only compatible with his religion and nationality, but part of it.
"I believe in order for me to be a good Afghan or a good Muslim, I must be a good human and respect everyone's rights," he says.
Working in activists' favor is a widespread hunger for a better life. In rural Herat, a bearded, turbaned elder says he is mobilizing nearby villages to encourage women's education in a bid to cut the western region's abysmal maternal death rate.
In Kabul, the capital's young professionals say they need women's input to rebuild the Afghan economy after three decades of war.
"We can't develop Afghanistan without the participation of women," says Farhad Ahmad of law firm Alexander, Safi & Associates International.
"We should be encouraging women in politics, in social life, in economic life, in every aspect of life."
(Reporting by Jan Harvey; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Paul Tait)