Will Afghan peace deal mean war on women?
Many worry war’s end could erode rights for women.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN— When Rahima Jami heard that the Americans and the Taliban were close to a peace deal, she thought about her feet.
Jami is now a lawmaker in the Afghan Parliament, but in 1996, when Taliban insurgents took power, she was a headmistress — until she was forced out of her job and told she could leave her home only in an anklelength burqa.
One hot day at the market, her feet were showing, so the religious police beat them with a horse whip until she could barely stand.
Horror stories at the hands of enforcers from the Taliban’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are a staple for any educated Afghan woman older than 25 or so. Now those women have a new horror story: the possibility that U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan as part of a peace deal with the Taliban.
Six days of talks ended Feb. 2 with a promise they would soon resume, bringing the parties closer to a deal than at any time in the 17 years since the Taliban were ousted from power. The mere possibility of concrete progress on peace inspired a wave of enthusiasm and hope among many Afghans on all sides that four decades of nearly continuous war could actually end.
Among many women, though, the hopes raised by a possible end to the fighting are mixed with an undeniable feeling of dread.
“We don’t want a peace that will make the situation worse for women’s rights compared to now,” Robina Hamdard, head of the legal department for the Afghan Women’s Network, said. The organization is a foreign-funded coalition of prominent women’s organizations.
No one needs to sell Afghan women on the need to bring an end to the bloodshed. They have buried far too many husbands and sons and brothers. But they fear that a peace that empowers the Taliban may herald a new war on women, and they want negotiators not to forget them.
“Afghan women want peace too,” Jami said. “But not at any cost.”
When she thinks of that time she was beaten, she said, “I remember it, and I actually feel faint.”
And like many women, Jami is convinced that any peace deal that gives the Taliban a share of power will come at the expense of freedom for Afghan women. “Come that time, they will complete their incomplete dreams and they will be crueler than in the past,” Jami said.
Compounding that concern is a fear among women that they have been sidelined in the peace process, and that when Afghans finally sit down at a peace table together, there will be no women present.
“We don’t want to be the victims of the peace process with the Taliban,” said Laila Haidari, a businesswoman who also works with drug addicts.
Haidari’s work would not have been allowed under the Taliban regime, when she lived in exile in Iran. “But the Afghan government totally ignores Afghan women on the peace process,” she said.
Shukria Paykan, another female member of Parliament, recalls spending the Taliban years “forced to be inside a dark cage when out of our houses — I mean the burqa.”
Paykan was forced from her university professorship and her daughter’s school was closed, like all girls’ schools under the Taliban. She opened a clandestine school at home, pretending to teach girls the Quran and dressmaking, among the only subjects allowed for them. The only women allowed to work then were doctors, and even they had to have a close male relative as a chaperone at work.
Paykan, who is from Kundiz, said she felt shut out of the Afghan peace process.
“I have been an MP twice and a university professor, but no one has ever asked me about peace talks with the Taliban, or even told me that my rights will be secure,” she said. “We have had 40 years of war, and everybody is tired of fighting, but that peace should not be at the price of losing our rights and freedom as women.”
It is still early days in this stage of the peace process, and the recent talks in Doha, Qatar, did not include any Afghan government officials, men or women.
U.S. officials hope to persuade the Taliban at a later stage to sit down with Afghan officials, which they have refused to do, and issues like the constitution, which guarantees women’s rights, would be on the table then.
Some women in government expressed satisfaction that talks had at least begun.
“Women need to raise their voices so they are not forgotten,” said Habiba Sarabi, deputy of the High Peace Council in Kabul, and one of 15 women on the 75-member council, which is appointed by the government. “Without women it will be a broken peace. But we are optimistic about the peace talks.”
Everyone involved in peace negotiations agrees that the war could end only with a power-sharing deal. That might mean sharing government ministries or territory around the country, or some combination of the two. It might even mean Taliban officials standing for national office — and possibly winning.
“We want the Taliban to accept women’s rights and publish a statement where they guarantee women’s rights,” Paykan said. So far, though, no one is even talking about that, she said.
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was a key diplomat in Kabul in January 2002 and helped establish the first post-Taliban government. “We put a big premium on women right from the beginning,” he said. “One of the very first things we did was to get girls schools up and running.”
Crocker said he was worried that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would have consequences beyond whatever future role the Taliban have.
“What really bothers me is, what is going to happen to Afghan women and girls?” he said. “Acute misogyny in Afghanistan goes way beyond the Taliban. Without a strong U.S. hand there, it is not looking very good for Afghan women. They can do as they like to them after we leave.”
Indeed, many Afghan women have a hard enough time without the Taliban around. The president of the national soccer federation, and three other top officials of the organization, are under suspension over accusations that female players were sexually and physically abused; an investigation has been underway for nearly two months, with no arrests so far.
Women are still reeling from the 2015 murder of a female Islamic scholar, Farkhunda Malikzada, by a mob of men as police officers stood idly by. Shelters set up to protect women from abusive husbands and families have been under growing pressure from government and society.
Haidari’s restaurant in Kabul, Taj-Begum, has been raided by the police repeatedly. She said she was being harassed because she allows men and women to dine together, doesn’t always wear a head scarf and is a woman in business.
Her drug rehabilitation center was closed down, too, amid unfounded accusations that it was a front for prostitution. “It is a democratic government, but still women face many problems in this country,” Haidari said.
Qadria Azarnoosh is a Hazara dancer, whose traditional art has been suppressed by cultural conservatives in recent years — or as she puts it, by “Taliban mentality people who are not Taliban members.”
Last week she and a group of female friends staged a public performance of the colorful dance, knowing many of their parents would disapprove and possibly confine them to their homes afterward. That same day came news of the peace talks in Doha.
“When we heard that U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan in 18 months, we girls were asking each other, ‘Now what will become of us?’” Azarnoosh said. “People already think we are bad girls for dancing. What will happen to us if the Taliban become part of the government?”
Afghan women pray at the shrine where female Islamic scholar Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death in 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said, “Acute misogyny in Afghanistan goes way beyond the Taliban.”