Will Afghan peace deal mean war on women?

Many worry war’s end could erode rights for women.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - NATION & WORLD - Rod Nord­land, Fa­tima Faizi and Fahim Abed

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?”

LYNSEY ADDARIO / THE NEW YORK TIMES 2015

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.”

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