By Orooj Hakimi
KABUL (Reuters) - Businesswomen in Afghanistan are adamant that there will be no going back to the days of repression under the Taliban, and the progress women have made over the past 18 years will not be reversed.
Talks between the hardline Islamists and the United States to end the war make it likely that any pact would allow the Taliban to return to some role in government.
But the women who have blazed a trail in business since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 say they have come too far to be robbed of their achievements.
"I don't think Afghan women will ever go back," Kamila Seddiqi, 41, said an entrepreneur involved in businesses that include Afghanistan's first taxi app, Kaweyan Cabs.
Seddiqi, who was 18 when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, knows all too well how ambition can be smothered.
"It was a time when we all thought of studying and learning, and education was the most important thing for us, but our lives changed," she said.
The Taliban banned women from education and work and only let them leave their homes in the company of a male relative. Overnight, women disappeared behind the all-enveloping burqa, their activities restricted to their homes.
Seddiqi and her sisters started a small tailoring business that thrived. After the Taliban were ousted, she worked with international organisations before launching her own businesses.
The international aid effort that arrived with foreign forces put girls' education and the empowering of women at its core but there are fears a final withdrawal of U.S. troops, the winding down of international engagement and the re-emergence of the Taliban in politics will see the progress snuffed out.
But women's strides in business will not be reversed, Seddiqi said. "These are not women who will go back."
The Taliban have recently been projecting themselves as more moderate, saying Islam gives women rights in areas such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, the choice of a husband, security and well-being.
At the same time, they have warned against the mingling of men and women and have denounced those they saw as encouraging women to defy Afghan customs.
Entrepreneur Narges Aziz Shahi, 29, said there was a chance the Taliban would not restrict women in business, but she would fight it if they tried.
One of her projects is the iCafe opened in 2017, one of an handful of Kabul businesses offering a taste of cafe culture where young men and women can gather to chat and study.
"If the Taliban come with their old ideas, clearly permission wouldn't be given for women to work and that would be unacceptable," she said.
"I won't let my cafe be blocked and my achievements over two years ignored. I'd fight that."
Shahi added, "We want peace, provided women's rights are preserved."
Manizha Wafiq, vice president of Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the business group has 12,000 members, who are involved in areas from media and information technology to private schools, clinics and handicrafts.
They had made investments of more than $70 million and their exports earned up to $800 million a year, she said.
Wafiq said she had been raising the issue of women's rights at every opportunity as the prospect of political change looms, and she was hopeful.
"We're optimistic that the issues of women's rights and the economic system as a whole will be preserved by the Taliban," she said.
"Women always struggle and try to find a way forward."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)