The ubiquitous feeling of oppression returned in 2012, when the "double whammy" of the 2014 troop withdrawal and presidential election reduced the ability of politicians and activists to fight for women's rights, says Erica Gaston of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "It is not surprising that given this shrinking political space on all progressive issues, women activists are the first to feel it."
Last year proved exceptionally violent for women, including a wave of high-profile killings, such as the car bomb attack on Hanifa Safi, head of women's affairs in eastern Laghman province. Months later, her successor Nadia Sediqqi was shot dead. According to the United Nations, 301 women and girls were killed last year, a 20 percent increase from 2011, with deliberate targeting by insurgents rising threefold.
In January, the head of women's affairs in northern Balkh province, Fariba Majid, fled to Finland, where she reportedly claimed asylum. "They wanted to kill her," the department's caretaker Miriam Muradi whispered down a crackly phone line.
Koofi says the damaging effects of targeting high-profile women are far-reaching: "This can silence the whole women's movement, leading sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to think twice before they allow women out of their homes."
Educated Afghan women often evoke history when evaluating their status, capturing the tug of war between urban female emancipators and the rural conservatives. One of the first orders the illiterate bandit Habibullah Kalakani gave after deposing Amanullah in 1929 was to shut girls' schools. In the early 1930s, after Kalakani was deposed, his successor reopened them. Afghanistan's gender policy continued to swing like a pendulum for the rest of the twentieth century. The 1950s saw the arrival of female doctors; a decade later women joined government for the first time, followed by years of mass literacy campaigns. The Soviet war of the 1980s, and the civil war that began in 1992 increasingly excluded women from the public. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they banned women from talking to men who were not a relative or husband, and ordered the windows of homes be painted so that women could not be seen inside.
At the back of a shoddily painted police station in Kabul, 47-year-old First Lieutenant Zakiya Mohammadi is unwavering in her assessment of the future. "Once the Americans go we'll have to sit at home again, bored," she told me in the office where she has intermittingly worked for decades-depending on who was running the country.