KABUL — Riahana and Farida Kawoon grew up under the shadow of the Taliban, schooled at home in constant fear of being caught and beaten for defying the severe restrictions placed on Afghan women.
This week, both young women will vote in their country's second presidential election, 18-year-old Farida for the first time casting a vote for what she says is a stake in Afghanistan's future.
"There is a big difference between my mother's generation and mine," said the first-year student at Kabul Business Administration University.
"I will vote and was very happy to be able to register as a voter. I want to participate in the election and have a say in the fate of my country and select a candidate who has the best interests of the country at heart."
In the eight years since the Taliban regime was toppled in a US-led invasion -- punishment for harbouring Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington -- millions of Afghan women have registered to vote.
Women's groups, which have mushroomed in recent years, have launched a campaign to get five million women -- of a total of 17 million registered voters -- out to polling booths on August 20.
Of the 41 candidates for president, two are women; eight of the 82 vice-presidential candidates are women; and 328, or more than 10 percent, of the 3,196 candidates for provincial seats are women.
The main presidential contenders, too, have courted the female vote, with incumbent Hamid Karzai last week inviting thousands of women from across the country to tea in a tent in Kabul.
From the outside, life for Afghan women can seem harsh -- limited opportunities for education and employment for the vast majority living in rural areas, lack of access to good quality health care, and little control over their fertility.
But progress since the end of the Taliban era has been monumental, said Riahana, 23, who will vote for the second time on Thursday.
"Our mother did not dream of this opportunity," said Riahana, who is studying Arabic at Kabul University.
"Under the Taliban, she was housebound," as were all women during the 1996-2001 rule of the Islamist fanatics, she said of her 45-year-old mother Farima.
Desperate to ensure her four daughters were educated, Farima risked a Taliban caning by inviting a teacher to educate the girls.
"Sometimes the teacher would disappear for days at a time, afraid that the Taliban would find out what she was doing," Riahana said, describing the lives of thousands of women who taught and studied in home schools at that time.
Now Farima has two daughters at university, and another two eager to join the 20 percent of all tertiary students in Afghanistan who are now women.
"There has been a lot of progress and development for Afghan women, as well as the men, and political rights for women, and the fact that they can vote, is one of the biggest changes," said Arezo Qanih, who helps run a small NGO called the Educational and Training Centre for Poor Women and Girls of Afghanistan.
"But we want more women in key positions of decision-making so that the progress can continue, and we have lobbied the key candidates in this election on this point," she said.
"Changes to date are not enough. The criticism doesn't mean we are complaining that we have nothing. We do. But it's not enough," Qanih said.
While urban women are likely to vote with enthusiasm, the same cannot be said for women in the vast and impoverished countryside, as they feel particularly vulnerable to Taliban threats to prevent people from getting to polling stations.
Women who have chosen public life have been targeted by Taliban rebels, who are involved in an escalating insurgency concentrated mainly in southern and eastern regions.
Some candidates for provincial councils have reportedly received death threats, and in April provincial legislator Sitara Achikzai, who was a high school teacher and women's rights campaigner, was murdered by the Taliban.
Her death came after the killing last year of the country's highest profile female police officer in Kandahar, and suspected Taliban involvement in the 2006 death of the head of the Kandahar provincial women's affairs department.
Even schools teaching girls have been hit, with schoolgirls in Kandahar, the Taliban's base while in power, sprayed with acid last November.
Aware that ravines of extreme conservatism exist across Afghanistan and are embedded in Islamic culture, Riahana said wholesale change "cannot come all of a sudden, it needs time, through public awareness campaigns, to be built in gradually".
Now, though, she said, "it's a very happy situation for us. We can participate in politics".
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