KABUL -- Dozens of women flock each day through the discreetly marked doors of Kabul's Sahar Gul Cafe, Afghanistan's first all-female Internet cafe.
Equipped with more than a dozen laptops, a library, and stocked with comfortable cushions, the modest cafe has given Afghan women the opportunity to study and socialize free from the scrutiny of men.
That's important in a country where women continue to face enormous obstacles in securing their rights nearly 11 years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime from Kabul.
Standing outside the cafe, Homiyra Bakhshi, project manager and a member of the Afghan activist group YoungWomen4Change, which created the cafe, says it has become a refuge.
"We have created this Internet cafe in a way that ensures young Afghan girls and women who come to use our facilities here feel safe and relaxed," she says. "We ensure they can do their work, be happy, and don't encounter any problems."
Bakhshi says fund-raising and donations from local and foreign charities have been crucial in running and maintaining the cafe, which charges visitors a fee of 50 afghanis ($1) an hour, significantly less than other Internet cafes in Kabul.
With Facebook and Yahoo logos painted on the wall, the cafe is named after the 15-year-old Afghan bride who was imprisoned and brutally abused last year at the hands of her husband and in-laws after she refused to become a prostitute.
Mariam Noorani is a student at Kabul University and a frequent visitor to the cafe, which opened in March to correspond with International Women's Day. Noorani says the significance of the name is not lost on those visiting the cafe, which she says pays tribute to the resilience and bravery of Sahar Gul.
"Sahar Gul was a girl who suffered. She went through a lot of bad things and we would like to support her. That's why I always come to the Sahar Gul Cafe. I'm looking forward to other Internet cafes being opened in other neighborhoods," Noorani says.
Routine Domestic Abuse
Noorani says that while some women can enjoy the freedom inside the exclusive all-female cafe, many others continue to live a life fraught with hardship in a country where domestic abuse is routine, forced marriages are the norm, and female suicide rates are among the highest in the world.
In the past decade, women have made significant inroads in Afghan society. The end of Taliban rule coincided with greater opportunities for women. Millions of girls are now back in school. Women are working, particularly in the major cities, as professionals in various fields. The country has a female provincial governor, while dozens of women serve as members of parliament and the Senate.
But as the United States and its NATO allies prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, women fear that their newfound rights may be undermined in peace talks with the Taliban, the militia that denied women the right to work, receive an education, or even leave their homes during its five-year rule.
Farida, a student at the nearby Rabia Balkhi high school, believes the situation for Afghan women will deteriorate considerably after 2014. She predicts that women will face renewed restrictions on their freedom of movement, while their access to work and rights will be steadily tightened and violence against them will soar.
"In my opinion, a lot of harm will come to women. Right now, international forces are here and women's rights are protected and talked about. But in 2014, when they leave, women will lose everything. Perhaps those who will go backward the most are women," Farida says.
Despite widespread fear about the future, Noorani says the opening of the cafe has offered hope to many women. She sees the cafe as a sign that the inroads made by women will not only be preserved but will be further bolstered in the near future.
"There's a chance that there will be Internet cafes and the situation will be even better. We can predict that there will be stability. And the inroads that women have made will be further consolidated. We can protect and preserve the progress that we have made after 2014," Noorani says.
Written and reported by Frud Bezhan in Kabul, with additional reporting by Fareba Wahidi