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Afghan Women Leaders Face Growing Taliban Threats

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The women gave a news conference but requested that no one take pictures of their faces. The office of one of them asked reporters not to publish her name.

It was a lot of secrecy for a media event, but it is a dangerous time to be a powerful woman in Afghanistan.

Police Maj. Colonel Sediqa Rasekh and a number of high-profile women spoke Thursday at the event to highlight the continuing threat of violence against females in Afghanistan eight years after the hardline Taliban regime was ousted.

Taliban assassins gunned down a senior policewoman in southern Afghanistan in September, and female government officials regularly report receiving threats from the hard-line Islamists.

So a photo in a newspaper can make a woman a target.

"At some point, we can become the target of an enemy attack, whether it is shooting, or spraying acid, kidnapping or anything. If they don't have pictures of us, they will not be able to pick us out," said Rasekh, who gave express permission for her name to appear in print after her office requested anonymity.

Rasekh said the Taliban have re-emerged as a threat in several parts of Afghanistan.

"The danger has increased significantly," she said.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they ordered women to stay home and tend to their families. Girls were banned from schools and women could only leave the house wearing a burqa covering their body and accompanied by a male family member.

The Afghan government and Western donors have made a major push to increase opportunities for women in recent years, but those females who buck tradition to join the government or the military or just speak out about women's rights put their lives on the line.

"If a woman doing that is taken by the Taliban, of course her head will be taken off," said Massouda Jalal, whose Jalal Foundation works for women's rights in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Jalal agreed to speak publicly and allowed her photograph to be taken.

"My philosophy is that you are born, and one day you will be dying. So why not die while being an ideal for others?" she said.

The September assassination of the policewoman in Kandahar followed the 2006 killing of a women's affairs official in the same province. The Taliban claimed responsibility in both attacks.

Women who take prominent positions have to take extreme security measures. Marya Bashir, the country's only provincial female chief prosecutor, has an armored car and six bodyguards provided by the United States. She said she feels much more in danger than she did when she was appointed about two and a half years ago when she had a more standard setup _ an unarmored vehicle and three policemen as bodyguards.

"From the time that I was appointed to now, the situation has completely changed. Every day is getting worse" with death threats and attacks, she said. About a year ago, an explosion outside Bashir's house injured two of her bodyguards.

"My children cannot go to school because I have got this position," Bashir said. She has kept them home for the past 18 months out of fear they will be attacked.

Women's activists say the Taliban target girls' schools as part of a campaign to show that programs supported by the West are failing.

Last month, militants riding motorbikes squirted acid from water bottles onto female students and teachers walking to school in the southern city of Kandahar. Several girls suffered burned faces and were hospitalized and one teenager couldn't open her eyes for days after the attack.

There are signs of hope. Central Bamiyan province, one of the more peaceful regions, has a female governor. And a few women in parliament regularly appear on television campaigning for women's rights, despite threats.

Rasekh said many of Afghanistan's female police officers see their uniforms as a public statement against the type of passive protection offered by a burqa. A woman under one of the flowing blue robes is rendered anonymous, even her eyes hidden by a fabric mesh.

"The uniform itself is a sign of courage for women. It shows that we are not afraid," Rasekh said.

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Associated Press reporter Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.