By Jessica Donati
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Framed by her blue shawl, the solemn, bespectacled face of Serena Faizi peers out from an election campaign poster at a Kandahar city roundabout, while Afghanistan approaches its own crossroads as Western troops prepare to go home.
When the United States first deployed forces in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and hunt Osama bin Laden, Faizi was barely a teenager.
Having grown up in a city on the front line of the insurgency, she has entered politics, the most dangerous arena of all for a woman in Afghanistan. She is beginning political life just as the West, which has championed women's rights, has begun to disengage.
While the country awaits the outcome of the larger contest to see who succeeds Hamid Karzai as president after 12 years in power, Faizi is awaiting results of the April 5 election to find out whether she has won a seat in Kandahar's provincial council.
Contesting meant becoming a potential target for the Taliban. Police insisted on giving her an armed escort home on the night of the ballot as the risk became more real.
"I was scared," admitted Faizi, a former media relations officer in the provincial governor's administration.
"We are like a challenge. They tell me: 'Serena, you can't do that'. "I say: 'I can," she told Reuters in rapid-fire English perfected through lessons taken over Skype.
"If men can do it, women can also do the same thing."
Named "New Generation" and campaigning for equal rights for women, Faizi says her political movement has only a few hundred followers, but they are determined to take on reactionary Afghan attitudes to women by seeking to be both seen and heard.
Some of credit for that sense of empowerment must go to the promotion of democracy and education for girls, which became hallmarks of U.S. policy in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
But rest of the credit would go an unusually enlightened family. Her father, Fazal Mohammad, ran a car dealership, and raised six daughters and a son after his wife, a doctor, died when the children were young.
"I know that Islam gave rights equal to male and female," Mohammad said. "Islam gave women rights to go outside, get an education, even work. I am going with Islam and with the choice of my daughters."
Traditionalists, however, even criticize Faizi's choice of the niqab, a veil that provides a slit for the eyes, for daily wear outside the home and office.
They would prefer to see her completely hidden, like most Afghan women, under a burqa, which forces the wearer to view the world through a grill woven into the head-to-toe gown.
"They say, 'You are bad girl'," Faizi said. "But some people are saying, 'No, you are a good girl, because you have a new thinking'."
She knows that wearing a shawl, or hijab, showing her full face, as she did for the campaign poster, would be a step too far in conservative Kandahar.
Even in the capital Kabul, where the sight of working women out and about has become more common, persuading men to accept the same freedoms for women in their own family is a challenge.
"They don't want the same thing for their wife," said Zakia Wardak, a woman running for election to a council in Wardak province, just west of Kabul. "If it's another woman they see, so bright and strong, then they like it."
The candidacy of women like Faizi and Wardak - more than 300 contested the council elections making up about 10 percent of the field - is in a sense a product of the West's intervention in Afghanistan.
The Taliban would never have let it happen.
Its hardline Islamist government wouldn't even let girls go to school when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, and during the insurgency its militants have regularly bombed girls' schools built with U.S. money.
Even today, just a little over a third of Afghan girls go to school, and education beyond the primary grade is still unavailable to girls in some provinces.
Most girls in the provinces are married off young, often in exchange for money, to men they have never met and who forbid them access to education or work outside the home. At 14 percent, Afghanistan's female literacy is one of the lowest in the world.
Critics say women's presence in Karzai's government has been largely window-dressing, but their place on provincial councils gives more say in decision-making on crucial gender issues, notably forced and early marriage, informal justice, delivery of health services, and education.
The impending departure of Western forces, and a dwindling flow of donor funds spell danger for Afghan women fighting for rights to better health, education, justice and jobs.
"We are seeing in fact a waning commitment from the West, from the foreign donors and it's such a critical time," said Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch in Kabul.
"We've seen such a push back in the last year in critical women's rights issues … due in a large part to the retreat of the foreign presence giving space to those in society and government who want to close down these opportunities for women."
The plight of Afghan women first caught the attention of the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s, leading to U.N. sanctions against the Taliban regime even before alarm bells sounded over its guests from al Qaeda.
But as the West pulls out, the focus is on whether the Afghan army is strong enough to stop the Taliban making a comeback and whether a democratically elected central government can prevent a repeat of the slide into chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
If violence against women is any bellwether, insecurity is rising. Last year was the worst on record for women, according to the human rights commission for Afghanistan.
Several senior female police officers in Helmand, another front-line province west of Kandahar, were gunned down in the space of a few months. A female parliamentarian and her children were kidnapped, while gunmen ambushed a woman senator's car, killing a daughter sitting beside her.
Women in outlying provinces are particularly vulnerable.
"The withdrawal of international forces has increased concerns about insecurity, because of the increase of anti-government groups, militias, local commanders and other strongmen," Wazhma Samandary, a researcher at Afghanistan Analysts Network, said. "It has a negative impact on women's rights … they threaten women (to stay at home)."
The lines of women, cloaked in burqas, photographed outside polling stations this month showed their votes count, but their voices are still weak.
There is little faith that whoever follows Karzai will be able to build on the incremental progress made during his presidency.
Unsavory alliances go with the territory in Afghan politics, and Wardak bemoaned the presence of too many old reactionaries in the leading contenders' camps.
"The power they have should be taken away," said Wardak. "Either they are warlords or very rich."
A year ago, conservatives in parliament quietly amended a law to reduce the quota for seats reserved for women in provincial councils to 20 percent from 25 percent. Parliamentary elections take place next year, and currently 27 percent of seats in the lower house are reserved for women.
Without the West there to firmly prod Afghanistan's next set of leaders there is a strong risk that they will let women's rights slide further down the agenda.
Gossman of Human Rights Watch reckons Western donor governments have a duty to see through what they started when they reluctantly took on the task of rebuilding Afghanistan a dozen years ago.
"The donors could say: 'Well we are not needed any more clearly things are improving and stable enough to hold a very positive election'," Gossman said. "That would be the wrong signal. This is a very critical time ... particularly for women."
(Additional reporting by Sarwar Amani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)