By Orooj Hakimi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield
KABUL (Reuters) - Last December, Afghan media worker Shahnaz Mohmand rushed to comfort her female colleagues as they reeled in shock after fellow employee Malala Maiwand was shot dead in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
"Don't lose yourself, you have to be strong," she said as she hugged Nadia Momand, the 21-year-old producer recalled. "There are many things that we have to do for our society, especially for women and girls."
Now the same newsroom is mourning Shahnaz. Aged 20, she was one of three female employees at Enikas TV gunned down on their way home from work on Tuesday.
Authorities believe it was the latest in a series of targeted attacks on female journalists, civil society members and working women.
Some officials and diplomats blame the violence on the Taliban, which, since being ousted in a U.S.-led war in 2001, has fought an insurgency in which thousands of civilians have died.
The hardline Islamist group is involved in U.S.-brokered peace talks which began in Qatar in September, but attacks have continued unabated.
The Taliban denies the charge and said it was not behind Shahnaz's death. An offshoot of Islamic State claimed the attack.
The killings are a stark reminder of how hard-fought gains for women's rights after the fall of the Taliban are under threat, as the country wrestles with lawlessness and militant violence and as foreign troops leave.
Billions of dollars have been poured into the country in the last 20 years to help create a more open and equal society.
But officials fear that, with the Taliban seeking to return to formal power and only a small contingent of foreign troops remaining, conservative elements of society will be emboldened to demand that women stay at home.
"Afghan women working in the media sector are especially targeted," said Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO's Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan, in a statement condemning Tuesday's attack.
"Their voices are more important than ever to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan."
COURAGE IN FACE OF FEAR
Zalmai Latifi, head of Enikas TV, said the station had temporarily closed and would likely give female employees leave. Some may not return, given that four of the 10 female staff have been killed.
Women in public roles have been targeted in the wave of deadly violence concentrated in urban centres, including female judges and a member of the country's independent human rights commission.
Afghan politician and negotiator Fawzia Koofi survived an assassination attempt in August, shortly before she flew to Doha to take part in peace talks.
Also killed on Tuesday were Mursal Wahidi and Sadia Sadat, both in their late teens or early 20s, who worked with Shahnaz in the dubbing department providing voice-overs in Pashto.
Mujib Khalwatgar, head of media advocacy group NAI, said journalists were fleeing the country for fear of attack, and this week's violence could dissuade female media employees in Jalalabad and the surrounding province from working.
Aqela, a 19-year-old student, journalist and activist in the city, said she was scared every time she left the house. Her family has told her to stop working and attending university, but she is carrying on for now.
Momand, from Enikas TV, said her father told her to quit her job, though she is determined to carry on if possible.
"My friends were taken away from me, but after this I will fight not only for myself but also for my friends," she told Reuters. "This incident has left a deep impact on my soul."
Shahnaz's friends and family said she had been acutely aware of the risks women faced and made it her short life's mission to tackle them head on.
As a teenager she taught local women how to read, spoke out fiercely when family members joked about women's rights, and took on a job at Enikas TV while saving to go to law school.
After Maiwand's killing in December, Shahnaz's brother, Haroon Rahimi, said that privately she was afraid. But as soon as she was allowed to go back to the office, she did.
"She knew the consequences," Rahimi explained. "But she still went there and said: 'if I'm not going to risk it, no one is going to risk it'."
(Charlotte Greenfield reported from Islamabad; Additional reporting by Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad; Editing by Mike Collett-White)