After nearly 40 years of war, Afghanistan and the international community are urgently seeking paths for a peace process. But amid the tentative efforts—a three-day ceasefire in June, the peace march across the country by hundreds of Afghans and talks by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad—a somber question hangs for women and human rights advocates. How can Afghanistan make peace with the Taliban while protecting democracy and women’s rights?
While that question is universal in peacemaking, Afghanistan’s history of abuses against women, by the Taliban and many others, makes it a tough case. But the remarkable story of Ayesha Aziz, a women’s rights activist from Kabul, suggests that Afghan women themselves—armed with the right knowledge, negotiating skills and steely determination—may be able to assert their rights to education and a voice in democratic government, even with a Taliban movement typically seen as inimical to those ideas.
What’s more, Aziz offers a concrete plan to do it. In an interview, she sketched a proposal for Afghan women’s rights advocates to initiate a dialogue with Taliban leaders.
Aziz is a long-time teacher and school administrator who has negotiated with Taliban officials to win their approval to run schools for girls. She has supported her campaigns for girls’ education and empowerment by running a business refining Afghanistan’s semiprecious stones, employing hundreds of women. She also is a lifelong member of Hezb-i-Islami, the Afghan political party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. That fact surprises some who encounter Aziz, as Hekmatyar and his party are seen widely as conservative on the role of women in Afghan society. When Hekmatyar chose to end his 15-year fight against the Afghan government, Aziz was one of a seven-member team that negotiated that peace deal with Kabul.
Ayesha Aziz has managed to advance education and public roles for women and girls by directly approaching key leaders, in Hezb-i-Islami and among the Taliban, and building relationships of trust. That trust has been based heavily on Aziz’s Islamic scholarship and her ability to find common ground in religious values. Aziz says her negotiating style relies “on respect, humor and Islam.” As Afghans and their international partners seek a path to peace that includes rights for women and other excluded groups, Aziz’s successes in finding common ground in religious values may offer models for progress.
Ayesha Aziz’s Story
Ayesha Aziz was born in Kabul, the daughter of a businessman who urged jihad, a sacred struggle, against the communist regime backed by the Soviet Union and its 1980s occupation of Afghanistan. The young Ayesha secretly joined her father’s marches and protests and recalled that her family only realized her participation when she was injured in one of the protests. By the time Aziz graduated and became a teacher, she had joined Hezb-i-Islami to conduct covert resistance against the government. She recalls that she was briefly arrested but managed to escape to the eastern city of Jalalabad, where she ran girls’ schools under the Hezb-i-Islami until the Taliban took power.
Established in the mid-1990s, the Taliban regime banned any public role for women. Aziz recalled being warned against continuing to advocate for human and women’s rights. “I responded that, ‘It is up to Allah when my time is up and I die, and I will continue to speak about issues that are important to me,’” Aziz said.
In Jalalabad, Aziz pressed the Taliban for the continuation of the girls’ schools. She calculated her approaches, at times going directly to Taliban leaders who might be gathered for a meeting in the men’s section of a home. At other times, she met a leader’s female relatives and got them to introduce her. Aziz negotiated by advocating first for girls’ religious education, winning the Taliban’s agreement in part by explaining distinctions of religious knowledge for girls that, she argued, only women know how to teach. Eventually, Aziz persuaded Taliban officials to allow teaching of literacy and math. And critically, she built relationships with those officials and their families.
Aziz moved to Pakistan in the late 1990s and began advocating for the rights of Afghan refugees. Some had been imprisoned without trials or hearings, at times simply because they had no identity documents. She began documenting their cases and advocating their release. At one point, told that Pakistani authorities were seeking to detain her, she asked Taliban officials with ties to Pakistan to intercede and prevent her arrest, she said.
Afghan Women, Negotiating Peace
Following the 2001 U.S. intervention and the fall of the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fought his own war against U.S. forces and the governments led by Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. For three years, Aziz said, she sent messages petitioning Hekmatyar to make peace with the government. “I told him that ‘the Hezb-i-Islami needs to work for peace to protect security and not fight,” she said.
When Hekmatyar finally made that choice, party officials asked Aziz to help with preparations. She urged them to include women as negotiators within a single team—not as a separate women’s delegation. After extended deliberations, the party agreed, asking Aziz and another woman to join the negotiation team. The government reciprocated, including two women in its delegation.
Last year, as Hekmatyar made his way to Kabul to sign the peace accord, he met Aziz in Jalalabad. She says she urged him to allow greater roles and independence for women in in the party, including its support for at least five female candidates to parliament. She also recommended that he take his family—including his wife and daughter—to the signing of the peace accord. He did.
Hekmatyar’s accommodation with the government astonished many. During long years of Afghanistan’s warfare, Afghans and international observers sharply criticize him and his party for human rights violations and alleged war crimes. From 2003 until his signing of the peace accord, the United Nations sanctioned Hekmatyar as a terrorist. And Hezb-i-Islami has been viewed with apprehension by women activists.
But the peace agreement and Aziz’s role in it have won her guarded respect among women’s rights activists in Kabul. Last year, Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, invited Aziz to speak at the prominent, annual Afghan Women Symposium. In a hall filled with Afghan women activists, Aziz addressed directly women’s concerns about her party and urged listeners to join her in a meeting to formulate requests to Hekmatyar for policies on women’s rights.
This year, Aziz has stepped back from a formal party role to focus on her business and on supporting women entrepreneurs. She said the party has changed to open more direct communication between men and women. She said it supported more than 150 female candidates in the October 2018 parliamentary elections.
Aziz’s Proposal: Women Taking Dialogue Straight to the Taliban
Aziz offers a concrete proposal to win Taliban acceptance of greater women’s rights. She called for Afghan women’s rights advocates to choose women religious scholars and women with roots outside the country’s main cities, to go to rural areas, identify Taliban leaders, and ask directly for dialogue.
“If we really want to establish an environment to promote peace we should have women who are religious teachers on a delegation and go speak to women in Taliban areas about peace,” Aziz said. The presence of women religious scholars in such a mission is vital, she said, to a conversation that is steeped in religious language and symbolism for so many. “It is an opportunity to build trust and explain our peace goals from an Islamic perspective that they will understand. … It is important for us to articulate our shared religious values for peace and our goals and vision for a peaceful community.”
While much of Afghanistan’s women’s rights movement is led by women from Kabul, Herat and other large cities, those metropolitan areas, as in many countries, exist across a significant cultural gap from towns and rural areas where the Taliban are rooted. So, Aziz said, a direct Afghan women’s dialogue with the Taliban will need a strong presence of women leaders from the provinces.
In sending delegations to open dialogue with local-level Taliban leaders, “women need to sit with women first,” Aziz proposed. Taliban women will not simply be conduits to men, but will include skilled negotiators on behalf of the movement.
“We can identify and invite women from the homes of known Taliban in the village with the help of a local woman, and have women scholars from Kabul, who are educated in Islamic studies, join the conversation. These women should stay in that village for three or four days to gain the trust of the people and have in-depth conversations. It is only through respect, listening, speaking their language and gaining their trust that we can build a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.”