KABUL, Afghanistan — Ghazalan Koofi loves her mother but not the life her mother has been compelled to live.

The older woman, her face cloaked in a shawl, had an arranged marriage at age 11. She didn't go to school and spent her life raising seven children with little help from her husband.

Today, at 50, Shahgol Shah still obeys mahram, the Afghan custom that forbids women to leave home without a male relative. She wears a burka in public. "That's our tradition," Shah says.

PHOTOS: Changing times for Afghan women

Koofi, 26, lives a life her mother could never have imagined. She leaves home unescorted every day, working at a government ministry and attending university classes at night. She speaks fluent English and has never worn a burka. She dresses stylishly but modestly, her wavy black hair peeking from a head scarf.

She chastises sexist male colleagues and demands their respect. She insisted on a seat at a recent tribal gathering dominated by white-bearded men in turbans. She treasures her "love marriage" with Shoaib Azizi, 27, a police department employee who calls his wife "a very brave woman." He helps with housework and caring for their infant son, a radical act that some male friends consider weak and shameful.

Koofi came of age after the U.S.-led military invasion toppled the repressive Taliban government in 2001. She has benefited from 12 years of slow, fitful gains for Afghan women. But with U.S. combat troops leaving Afghanistan next year, Koofi and other Afghan women worry that their freedoms will begin to erode.

"We are entering a very dangerous period for women," Koofi says. "I'm very worried that we will return to those terrible days when the only place for a woman was in the home, doing housework and serving the men."

Koofi and her mother play with her 11-month-old son, Ahmad, inside the family's tidy concrete home on a hillside overlooking smoggy west Kabul, two generations filled with equal parts hope and fear about the future of the next one.

**

Across Kabul, Shukriya Matin also belongs to that vulnerable generation of women who have become adults in a world of new freedoms — and fear a future without them.

Matin was in grade school when her family fled the Taliban in 1996; she was twice beaten on the street for not properly covering her hair. For six long years, she was a low-paid child carpet weaver in Pakistan after her family fled the Taliban.

She returned to Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion and earned a high school degree and a midwife's certificate. Now, at 28, she directs a private hospital program in Kabul that provides maternal care to illiterate villagers.

Inside the neat, sparsely decorated home she shares with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Sitayesh, Matin describes her sense of dread about the future.

"Only God knows what will happen to women after 2014," she says in lightly accented English as her daughter plays on the floor, watched over by her parents.

The arc of Afghanistan's recent history can be traced through the three generations of Matin's family.

Her mother, Zahra Matin, 52, was engaged at 9 and married at 13. She is illiterate; she spent her life working at home so that her children could attend school. Now she dreams of her granddaughter attending college.

The older woman dreads the departure of foreign troops and worries that the Taliban — "They are criminals," she says harshly — will quash her dreams, and the dreams of her daughter.

But she also has faith that Afghanistan will continue to allow women to break free of the past. "For myself," she says, "I'm still hoping to take literacy classes and finally become an educated woman."

Her daughter sits on the floor and cradles young Sitayesh. She plans to send the girl to school and ultimately to college, but she fears she may have to go abroad to do so.