* 'Mini' Taliban oppose women's rights gains, says Seraj
* Takeover seen strengthening conservative attitudes
* Rural women still largely excluded from public life
By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, Aug 27 (Openly) - Veteran women's rights advocate Mahbouba Seraj has fled turmoil in Afghanistan once before. This time, she is determined to stay - fearing the Taliban's return to power could give some men free rein for abuses against women.
Seraj, 73, left for New York when Communists took power in Afghanistan in 1978, but she was horrified by the Taliban's treatment of women during the group's harsh 1996-2001 rule and returned home in 2003 on a mission to fight for women's rights.
She said the militants' takeover earlier this month was not the only threat to women in the socially conservative country, where women are often excluded from public life - from healthcare to school and jobs.
"Men with these ultra-conservative ideas were constantly around and are still around. They are educated, some highly educated ... they are just the worst," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home in the capital, Kabul.
"Maybe one of our biggest struggles and biggest fights is going to be with them," said Seraj, who works to support victims of domestic violence and other forms of gender abuse.
Much has changed for women living in big cities like Kabul since the Taliban was ousted 20 years ago, but in rural areas conservative families and radical Islamists still hold sway.
Most women continue to wear a burqa - a garment covering the face and body - and only leave home for hospital and family visits, and young girls are still sold as brides to older men.
Those accused of so-called moral crimes such as running away from the family home or having sex before marriage are often forced to endure invasive "virginity tests".
Seraj said the Taliban's presence would likely embolden men with conservative attitudes about women's role to "come out soon".
"We have so many (mini) Taliban ... Give them an opportunity, they will use it and abuse women as much as they can," she said.
'I'M NEEDED HERE'
Although she has a U.S. passport and could join the hordes leaving Afghanistan, Seraj said she would stay to support her "sisters and daughters", among them dozens of victims of violence and abuse living in safe houses she has established.
"The Taliban may not know, but I'm needed here. I have to stick around," she said.
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan on Aug. 15, many Afghans have expressed fears of a return to its last rule, when the militants enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that included public flogging and stonings.
Women and girls had to wear a burqa and were barred from school, work or leaving the house without a male relative.
Since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban by U.S.-led troops, women have made significant strides, with growing numbers working in previously male bastions, including politics, media and the judiciary, and 3.5 million girls in school.
In exile for 26 years, Seraj decided to return to Afghanistan after she saw images of the Taliban's first public execution of a woman at Kabul's soccer stadium.
"How long was I going to sit on the sidelines and watch? This was not right. So I came back," said Seraj, who was forced to leave Kabul aged 29 when the Communists took power and targeted people who owned land.
Since coming back, she has traveled across the country to create awareness on everything from health and sanitation to education and women's rights.
She established several charities and organisations to promote peace and women's rights, and started her own radio show in 2007 that focused on welfare programmes for women.
That led to another initiative in which women gathered in villages to listen and discuss topics on previous radio shows.
The Afghan Women Skills Development Center, headed by Seraj, aims to improve the job prospects of gender abuse victims by teaching them new skills - from sewing and cooking to doll-making and mushroom cultivation.
Seraj said that without women in the workforce, especially in health and education, the country would be in a "complete mess", urging the militants to quickly set up a formal government and reopen the economy.
In the face of uncertainty, she said staying hopeful was the only option.
"Otherwise it would be death - a death sentence for women and their families."
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(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji; Editing by Katy Migiro and Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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