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Violence against women surges

In Afghanistan, gains threatened

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Farida Nekzad began receiving menacing calls on her cellphone a half hour after arriving at the funeral of a fellow female journalist assassinated by gunmen.

" 'Daughter of America! We will kill you, just like we killed her,' " she quoted the man on the phone as saying as she stood near the maimed body of Zakia Zaki, the owner of a radio station north of Kabul.

Part of Zaki's face was blown away by three attackers who entered her home and shot her seven times with pistol and automatic rifle fire in front of her 8-year-old son this month.

" 'At least people can recognize her from one side of her face. We will shoot your face, and nobody will recognize you,' " Nekzad quoted the caller as saying before she hung up on him.

The lives of Afghan women and girls have improved vastly since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, who stripped women of most rights and made them virtual prisoners in their own houses.

In cities and some rural areas, women can now go to school and work outside the home. But this month has seen a rising number of attempts to quash these advances with threats and violence.

Manizha Naderi, director of the rights group Women for Afghan Women, believes the recent attacks reflect a Taliban resurgence and spike in militant violence across the country. Afghan women in general, and journalists in particular, are being targeted because of their high profiles.

"They want to make news, and targeting the journalists is a way to make news," Naderi said. "They're showing the world, 'We're here and we're still in charge of this country."'

Women have played a large role in the country's media advances the past six years, and several women work on television news programs as reporters and newscasters. They are typically modestly dressed, with their hair and necklines carefully hidden under scarves.

Still, some Afghans think it is inappropriate for women to appear before the public.

When Afghans talk about Shaima Rezayee, a popular music video show host shot to death in 2005, they speak in hushed tones -- about the racy, un-Islamic way she dressed and behaved on television, as if this justified her death.

Zaki, a radio host, had been critical of warlords who warned her to change the programming on her station. Two suspects being held for her slaying are connected with the militant group Hezb-e- Islami, officials said.

In a second killing of a female journalist this month, Shokiba Sanga Amaaj, a newscaster for private Shamshad TV, was shot in her home in Kabul on June 1. Two family friends have been detained in the case.

Authorities say they do not know the motive for the killings of Zaki or Amaaj.

Threats in this war-torn and corrupt country are not uncommon. Nekzad, 29, who works for the news agency Pajhwok Afghan News, forwarded an e-mail to an Associated Press journalist that warned her, "We will kill you as soon as possible, INSHA ALLAH" -- if God wills it. The message, dated June 8, accused her of sexual impropriety and of working for NATO. It was signed "Habib from Hezb-e-Islami." The authenticity of the e-mail could not be verified.

Nekzad said Afghans began paying attention to her fears only after she told foreign journalists, who took the dangers seriously.

A year ago, Nekzad assigned a reporter to interview Zaki about death threats she had received. Zaki later decided against airing the story, so the reporter erased the videotape. "If it were published, maybe the international community would have taken it more seriously, but after her death, it has no meaning," Nekzad said. "Nobody paid attention, not even the international community or the government."