A generation of women have grown up in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Whether it’s in education, healthcare, culture or government, women have seen steady progress throughout Afghan society in the last 18 years. And those who have lived through the Taliban’s misogynistic rule, like Roya Sadat—the first Afghan woman film director and producer in the post-Taliban era—fear that all this progress could be discarded in a peace deal.

Roya Sadat, center, at a test shoot for a TV drama she directed in Kabul, Oct. 18, 2017. Sadat sold her apartment, car and jewelry to make a movie on women’s rights. It’s Afghanistan’s selection for the Oscars now. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Roya Sadat, center, at a test shoot for a TV drama she directed in Kabul, Oct. 18, 2017. Sadat sold her apartment, car and jewelry to make a movie on women’s rights. It’s Afghanistan’s selection for the Oscars now. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

For Roya, living under the Taliban made her dream of becoming a filmmaker a farfetched possibility. Her story, and the obstacles she has overcome, highlight the tremendous progress Afghan women—and society at large—have made.

Under the Taliban, television was strictly banned, and stores were not allowed to sell TVs or satellite dishes. During a screening at USIP of her most recent film, “A Letter to the President,” Roya asked the audience to “imagine a life where again there is no music, no cinema, no free media, no freedom of expression, no girl’s education, no women in public, and no elections. What kind of life is this, can you live such a life? You cannot. We cannot either. Not again.”

Growing up Under Taliban Rule

Raised in Herat province, Roya has seen the Afghan conflict from the Soviet invasion through the overthrow of the Taliban to today. Because Roya could not receive education under the Taliban regime, she was home schooled by her mother and developed a love for novels; she even dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. This dream however had to wait until after the fall of the Taliban, when Roya was able to study law and political science at Herat University and earned a degree in arts and film production.

Roya penned the script of her first film, “Three Dots,” while the Taliban was still in power, not knowing if she would ever be able to make it into a movie: It ended up being her first feature film. Roya has gone on to make several films and television shows and founded the International Women's Film Festival in Afghanistan in 2013.

Her most recent film, “A Letter to the President,” highlights the challenges Afghan women face in navigating the complex Afghan justice system. In 2009, after having written the script of the film, Roya reached out to international producers because Afghanistan’s film industry was destroyed under the Taliban. But, she was told that due to the high security risks involved in filming in Afghanistan, they would not be able to support the film.

But Roya persisted, assembling a film crew and starting production in 2010 with the help of her husband and sister. At the USIP film screening, Roya said, “The tragedies and challenges I faced behind the scenes while producing the movie mean as much to me as the story of the film.”

Through Roya’s steadfast commitment to her art, she has helped create space for other Afghan women filmmakers. Roya is just one example of the many Afghan women that are working tirelessly to maintain women’s continued progress—and they want to see that progress advance further for the next generation of women.

Where are Afghan Women Now?

Today, Afghanistan has a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is headed by Sima Samar, a prominent women’s rights activist. Afghan women constitute roughly 27 percent of the civil service and parliament.

Outspoken women like Roya Rahmani, the first Afghan woman ambassador to the U.S., and Shukria Barakzai, a former member of Parliament and ambassador to Norway, have been tireless advocates for women’s rights in the face of many threats. In an interview with NPR, Ambassador Rahmani said that Afghan women “have such a high level of resilience ... and every time, we come out stronger and better.”

Since 2001, Afghan women have also made significant gains in education, healthcare, and culture. Forty percent of Afghan girls are enrolled in secondary schools—before 2001, they were barred from secondary education altogether. Maternal mortality rates have seen a 64 percent decrease from 2000 to 2015. The Asia Foundation’s 2018 survey of the Afghan people shows that support for gender equality in education has seen a steady increase, indicating that women’s achievements have encouraged support for women’s right to education.

In civil society, Afghan women have been a voice for the voiceless, coming together and fervently campaigning to bring change. One example is the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was passed in 2009 and reaffirmed by President Ghani in March 2018 because of women’s rights groups’ advocacy.

These gains are heartening but came at great cost and by sustained commitment from Afghan women and the international community. As the Afghan peace process gains momentum, it is critical that women are not excluded from the talks.

“I have walked every step of my life alongside my Afghan people. And have felt and seen my peoples’ pain and sorrow and the look of despair and thirst for peace,” Roya said at the USIP film screening. That desire for peace can only be realized if the gains made by Afghan women are protected and promoted in a peace deal.

Hodei Sultan is a senior program manager for the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Asma Ebadi is a research analyst for the Afghanistan program at the Institute.

Related Publications

A Foot Forward for Peace in Afghanistan?

A Foot Forward for Peace in Afghanistan?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

By: Scott Smith

Taliban and Afghan representatives agreed early this week to a basic, albeit non-binding, roadmap for intra-Afghan negotiations aimed at ending the 18-year war. Since the U.S. resumed direct talks with the Taliban last September, the two sides have focused on the withdrawal of foreign forces and the steps the Taliban will take against terrorists on Afghan soil. Meanwhile, intra-Afghan talks on a political roadmap have yet to get off the ground. After months of seeming stasis, this week’s Doha meeting has injected renewed hope. USIP’s Scott Smith looks at what happened this week, what it means for Afghan women, and the next steps in the peace process.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Peace Processes

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

By: Johnny Walsh

After rapid progress in early 2019, the Afghan peace process has seemingly slowed. The U.S. chief negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, said in May that his negotiations with the Taliban were making slow but steady progress, but there has been little headway in starting talks among the various Afghan parties. Meanwhile, violence has ratcheted up, as typically occurs in the spring and summer in Afghanistan. The country’s overdue presidential polls are scheduled for late September, further complicating efforts to achieve peace. Can talks succeed amid the violence and political discord? Will the elections drain momentum from the peace process? USIP’s Johnny Walsh looks at the Afghan peace process ahead of the next round of talks in late June.

Peace Processes

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Thursday, June 13, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

Palwasha Kakar, senior program officer for religion and inclusive societies, testified on June 13 at the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues' hearing on "Women in Conflict: Advancing Women's Role in Peace and Security.” Her expert testimony as prepared is presented below.

Gender; Peace Processes

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

By: Ashley Jackson

Notably absent from the debate around peace in Afghanistan are the voices of those living in parts of the country that have borne the brunt of the fighting since 2001—particularly those living in areas under Taliban control or influence. This report provides insight into how Afghan men and women in Taliban-influenced areas view the prospects for peace, what requirements would have to be met for local Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, and how views on a political settlement and a future government differ between Taliban fighters and civilians.

Reconciliation

View All Publications