By Amie Ferris-Rotman
KABUL (Reuters) - The gaggles of giggling schoolgirls in their black uniforms and flowing white hijabs seen across Afghanistan's cities have become symbolic of how far women's rights have come since the austere rule of the Taliban was toppled a decade ago.
While women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work, considered un-Islamic by the Taliban, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks.
The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan's constitution, which says the two sexes are equal.
But President Hamid Karzai's reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects of equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.
"I am not optimistic at all," said Suraya Parlika, 66, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament. "We do not know the agenda of the talks and this worries all women in Afghanistan."
"Women are at risk of losing everything they have regained," she told Reuters in her office at the All Afghan Women's Union, the country's most prominent women's rights group that she set up 20 years ago.
The dangerous business of fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan highlights just how precarious their situation is.
Parlika said Taliban militants have tried to kill her eight times. In the latest attempt, gunmen tried to shoot her through a window at her home but missed and blew a hole in the wall.
Others, such as the headmaster of a girls' school near Kabul, are not so lucky. He was gunned down by the Taliban last month for educating girls.
Washington and NATO have backed Karzai's peace plan, which includes reintegrating mid-level Taliban fighters and reconciling with some leaders as well as talks.
One of the main conditions in the talks is that insurgents renounce al Qaeda. The Taliban have rejected any talks until all foreign troops have left the country.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said U.S. troops, who make up 100,000 out of around 150,000 foreign forces, will begin to come home gradually from July, with NATO eyeing a full handover of security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
"What they (women) fear is a power-sharing agreement between leaders that does not take their interests into account," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
"At the moment there is no one standing up as a guarantor of the process, no one who says it's really important this is done well. There are a lot of mixed messages," she told Reuters.
Some have accused Karzai of holding back on women's rights to curry political support in the more conservative sections of society. One example is his passing of a family law in 2009 that legalized marital rape for Shi'ites, who make up 15 percent of the population.
In March, Karzai sacked the deputy governor of southern Helmand province after two women performed without headscarves at a high-profile concert.
Parlika said physical attacks on female lawmakers, and internal pressure from their male counterparts not to press women's issues, mean their presence in government is more about symbolism than actual change.
"The situation surrounding women can get very dark indeed," said one Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"There are lots of challenges that need to be overcome and the international community must stay focused to make sure women are protected," said the official, an adviser in the talks.
RURAL VS. URBAN
Underlying the rights women have regained on paper since U.S.-backed forces overthrew the Taliban are the enormous social and economic hurdles they face in a country where more than 40 percent live below the poverty line.
Rights groups and Western officials warn of a "rural versus urban" split, saying the vast economic and religious divide means women in the countryside have not benefited from the end of Taliban rule and continue to live much as they did before.
Some warn this paves the way for women's rights being forgotten in the event of Taliban peace talks.
"Afghanistan is totally male-dominated, women suffer terribly, and this is worse in rural areas where they are economically dependent on men and where they cannot express their own will," Parlika said.
Ancient traditions such as 'baad', when a woman is given as compensation for crimes, are common in the countryside, where female illiteracy is over 90 percent and child marriages are still widespread despite being illegal.
In the Taliban strongholds of the south and east, many women still seek permission from a male relative to leave their homes, and the rule of law is upheld either by Taliban "courts" or by tribal elders, which almost always favor men.
For Hasina Aimaq, the manager of an eponymous fashion house sponsored by a non-governmental organization for women, finding seamstresses for her business in northern Baghlan province is a constant struggle.
"There are always problems with the father, always. They would even prefer them to beg than earn money from work as they think learning a skill is bad," Aimaq told Reuters next to a collection of high-heeled shoes with geometric silk patterns.
Aimaq said her 75 teenage female workers, who make velveteen purple jackets and delicate floral scarves, regularly receive written threats from the Taliban, urging them to quit working.
"They tell us to stay at home, but we will keep coming to work and keep sewing," she said, adjusting her navy blue hijab.
(Editing by Paul Tait and Miral Fahmy)