Afghanistan’s first lady is a pow­er­ful voice for women amid Tal­iban-U.S. peace talks

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Amie Fer­ris-Rot­man and Sayed Salahud­din

KABUL, Afghanistan – For many women in Afghanistan, peace talks be­tween the United States and the Tal­iban are evok­ing the dark­est days of their lives, when the group stripped women of their most ba­sic rights.

The Tal­iban regime banned girls from go­ing to school. Women were for­bid­den from work­ing. They had to be cov­ered head to toe when ven­tur­ing out­side and ac­com­pa­nied by a male rel­a­tive, even if that meant their baby boy. Show­ing a wisp of hair would get them whipped by vig­i­lantes.

The peace talks could re­turn the Tal­iban to power, and Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s govern­ment so far has been ex­cluded from the di­a­logue. But his wife, first lady Rula Ghani, has emerged as a pow­er­ful voice on the talks and women’s role in them. She is work­ing to be­come, as she says, “the lit­tle stone you put un­der the urn so it will not fall. This is what I do for Afghan women.”

Her in­volve­ment has bol­stered grass-roots move­ments around the coun­try of women who in­sist, in the words of one pop­u­lar hash­tag, that Afghan women will not go back.

“I re­al­ized that, as first lady, I do have some priv­i­leges,” Rula Ghani said in an in­ter­view in her chambers within the sprawl­ing pres­i­den­tial palace in the cen­ter of Kabul, where se­cu­rity con­cerns have largely con­fined the 70-year-old to its scented gar­dens and cherry blos­som-lined paths.

With women in govern­ment, women at uni­ver­si­ties, thriv­ing rights groups and a cap­i­tal city abuzz with young men and women in its cafes, the coun­try has dra­mat­i­cally changed from the time of the Tal­iban in the late 1990s.

The first lady wants women’s voices in the peace process to be heard, push­ing the di­a­logue be­yond the un­heeded calls by the United States and NATO for women to be at the ta­ble.

“We were not see­ing any kind of real work be­ing done to un­der­stand what women re­ally want. What are their thoughts? What are their pri­or­i­ties? What do they see as ob­sta­cles to peace?” Ghani asked with a faint but rec­og­niz­able French lilt, a nod to her up­bring­ing in Le­banon and stud­ies in Paris.

Afghan women ac­tivists say the stated fo­cus of the U.S. peace talks – the with­drawal of for­eign troops and ef­forts of coun­tert­er­ror­ism – side­line them by def­i­ni­tion. U.S.-Tal­iban talks in Doha, Qatar, have been marked by all-male photo ses­sions. Talks in Moscow be­tween Afghan power bro­kers and the Tal­iban re­cently in­cluded two Afghan women at a 42-seat ta­ble.

And when U.S. en­voy for peace Zal­may Khalilzad held a large high-level meet­ing in Kabul this month with the Afghan pres­i­dent and the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, not one woman was present.

Even the Tal­iban have said they now sup­port women’s rights, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion – as long as the rights com­ply with Is­lamic prin­ci­ples. Afghan women and men have chafed at this, say­ing that leaves much to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

To ad­dress women’s con­cerns, the first lady’s of­fice and women’s or­ga­ni­za­tions set out last Au­gust to sur­vey 15,000 women in Afghanistan’s 34 prov­inces, in­clud­ing those con­tested or un­der Tal­iban con­trol.

Each meet­ing was dif­fer­ent. In south­ern Hel­mand prov­ince, women said learn­ing how to read and write was the only way to achieve peace. In cen­tral Sa­man­gan, par­tic­i­pants burst into song, de­mand­ing their voices be heard by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. In Konar in the east, where only a hand­ful of those at­tend­ing had their faces un­cov­ered, women asked to be in­cluded “be­cause it is a woman who has raised the Talib and a woman who has raised the sol­dier,” the women from the prov­ince wrote in a state­ment on Twit­ter.

Not all have em­braced the first lady’s ef­forts, how­ever. When her of­fice dis­trib­uted tens of thou­sands of dol­lars last month to im­pov­er­ished women in east­ern Nan­ga­har prov­ince, mem­bers of the Tal­iban seized the money and set it on fire. Lo­cal of­fi­cials also viewed the move with sus­pi­cion, say­ing it was a po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver de­signed to ben­e­fit her hus­band, who is seek­ing re­elec­tion this year.

The six-month project cul­mi­nated in an all-women con­fer­ence in Fe­bru­ary in the Afghan cap­i­tal, where 3,500 Afghan women gath­ered un­der the mas­sive tent used for the loya jirga, a tra­di­tional gath­er­ing for de­bates and de­ci­sion-mak­ing – and the con­ven­tional do­main of men.

“It was a lit­tle bit over­whelm­ing,” Ghani said at the mem­ory, a slight gig­gle lighting up her face. There, along­side the first lady and the pres­i­dent, the women de­manded an im­me­di­ate cease-fire and that their rights be pro­tected go­ing for­ward. At­ten­dees later de­scribed the mood in the tent’s air as one of de­fi­ance.

But the event drew zero re­sponses from the U.S. govern­ment or the Tal­iban. Now, as the next round of in­tra-Afghan talks gets un­der­way, still with­out govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tion, a group of 40 women be­long­ing to the um­brella rights group Afghan Women’s Net­work are head­ing to Doha – even though only around five were of­fi­cially in­vited to at­tend.

“We wanted more women. We were not con­tent,” said Wazhma Frogh, a mem­ber of the Afghanistan High Peace Coun­cil, adding that all 40 have re­ceived their Qatari visas. “There is no clar­ity yet if we are go­ing to be at the ta­ble, but we want to be phys­i­cally there,” she said.

Women’s rights ac­tivists fear that U.S. state­ments, in­clud­ing from Khalilzad, that women’s rights must be pro­tected in any peace agree­ment, could be no more than lip ser­vice.

“As we’ve seen, the Amer­i­cans have their own pol­i­tics, agenda and plan. But we have told them, a peace deal with­out women is not a deal at all,” said Mary Akrami, di­rec­tor of the Afghan Women Net­work.

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