By Amie Ferris-Rotman
KABUL, March 8 (Reuters) - Afghanistan opened its first female-only internet cafe on Thursday, hoping to give women a chance to connect to the world without verbal and sexual harassment and free from the unwanted gazes of their countrymen.
Swarms of hijab-wearing young visitors poured into the small cafe on a quiet street in central Kabul on International Women's Day in a country where women still face enormous struggles even though the Taliban were toppled over a decade ago.
"We wanted women to not be afraid, to create a safe place for women to use the internet," said Aqlima Moradi, a 25-year-old medical student and member of Afghan activist group YoungWomen4Change, which set up the cafe.
Spray-prainted in bright colours with smilies, birds and Facebook and Yahoo logos, the modest cafe was named after Sahar Gul, a 15-year-old Afghan girl who was brutally tortured last year by her in-laws for refusing to become a prostitute.
"There are a lot of Sahar Guls in Afghanistan. There are women every day facing violence," said Mohammad Jawad Alizada, 29, who oversaw the cafe's creation and is a volunteer from the male advocacy wing of the group.
"For as long as I can remember, Afghan women have had no rights. She (Gul) is a brave girl who stood up for herself. It is her bravery and her courage that we want to honour here," Alizada, who also works as a social research analyst at a U.S. company in Kabul, told Reuters.
While Afghan women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, their future remains highly uncertain as Afghan and U.S. officials seek to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure stability after foreign combat troops leave by end-2014.
At the net cafe's opening, high school student Sana Seerat bemoaned the lack of attention given to women: "We never have things that are just for women, everything in Afghanistan is always for men. But we are the same, equal".
Project manager Zainab Paiman applauded the cafe initiative, but said dividing the sexes could lead to further oppression of women. "We should work on harassment together. If we do things separately then we will have to continue this in future," she said, sporting a polka dot headscarf and long floral skirt.
Organisers said a British charity donated the cafe's 15 used laptops, which sit on low wooden tables surrounded by cushions where women can sit and work for the reduced fee of 50 Afghanis ($1) an hour, much less than the rates in other net cafes.
Fundraising both at home and abroad secured the approximate $1,000 a month needed for the near future to run the cafe, purposely situated near a girls' high school, although it hopes to become self-sustaining in the future.
Like other projects designed to help women in Afghanistan, from business to culture and education, there is fear of threats and violence from the Taliban, who banned women from most work and forbade them to leave their homes without a male relative.
"There will always be threats. We're not going to say we are not worried. But we can't stop because of that," Alizada said of the cafe, which has painted windows and is discreetly marked.
There is now concern among some Western officials, activists and female Afghan lawmakers that women's rights in Afghanistan could be compromised under any power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Activists were outraged this week when President Hamid Karzai backed recommendations from his powerful clerics, the Ulema Council, to segregate the sexes and allow husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances, reminiscent of Taliban rule.
"We were so shocked by this. Karzai is an educated man, he should know that men and women are equal," said teenager Seerat.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Michael Georgy and Paul Casciato)