As talks between the U.S. and the Taliban raise hopes for peace in Afghanistan, the country’s women fear another—and related—possibility: That their hard-won rights to participate in the nation’s political and economic life could again be washed away by the Taliban’s rigid views on gender.
In theory, Afghan women, who have played a role in peace efforts since 2010, should have an insurance policy against exclusion from the talks and any power-sharing arrangement that results. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which calls for the United States to be a global leader in promoting women’s participation in preventing, managing and resolving conflict. and in sustaining democratic institutions in fragile states. The law even requires training for Defense and State Department officials in how to further that goal.
That said, it’s far from clear—despite some of-the-moment rhetoric—that the Taliban has any intention of ensuring such a place for women in negotiations. It is also uncertain whether the United States, faced with the realities of trying to wind down the war, is in a position to do much about it, assuming the U.S. even has the will to try. This has left Afghan women fearing abandonment after years of posting extraordinary gains in every area of public life.
In short, after 17 years of American-backed governments, Afghan women, and the society as a whole, have changed significantly with the emergence of female entrepreneurs, political leaders and nightly news anchors. The Taliban, by contrast, have evolved little on women’s issues since being pushed from power in 2002, despite persistent claims to the contrary. The group’s record is spotty at best in the areas of Afghanistan it controls, and its leaders continue to make ominous statements on gender, such as calling for girls’ education to end by age 12.
So, the renewed commitment of international powers and the Afghan government to developing a roadmap for political settlement is accompanied by a precarious sense of the place women might occupy in a future Afghanistan. But trading away the status of Afghan women for an agreement is—to be blunt—unacceptable.
Beyond Female Faces
The very notion of a deal that limits women’s rights must be named, called out and put under a spotlight so negotiators understand such an arrangement is a non-starter.
The inclusion of women is not just about putting female faces at the negotiating table. It means bringing the perspectives of more than half of the population into the peace process. It is about making sure the rights, concerns and contributions of women are considered at every turn and communicated forcefully in closed-door meetings with the government and the Taliban and with other insurgent groups. Any political settlement, power-sharing plan or proposed constitutional reform will affect every aspect of women’s lives, and they must have a seat at the table.
First, a quick review of what Afghan women have achieved since the Taliban government fell, even as patriarchal politics continue to limit women’s rights and opportunities in most of the country. Recall that under the Taliban there were no female judges, prosecutors or defense attorneys; no women in the media or security forces; no girls or female teachers in schools. A few women worked in medicine under strictly circumscribed conditions. As of 2019:
- Millions of women have voted in local and national elections. Of parliament’s 320 members, 63 are women, while women hold 18 seats as ministers or deputy ministers and four serve as ambassadors.
- Schools and universities employ more than 68,000 women instructors including 800 university professors in both private and public institutions.
- More than 6,000 women serve as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and army personnel.
- Government data counts about 10,000 women among the country’s doctors, nurses and health professionals.
- Female journalists number 1,070, working throughout Afghanistan.
- Some 1,150 women entrepreneurs have invested $77 million in their businesses, providing job opportunities for 77,000 Afghan women and men.
Women in Peace Talks
Since 2010, when President Hamid Karzai organized a three-day National Consultative Peace Jirga to pave the way for a political settlement, women have had some role in seeking to end the conflict. Women, who comprised almost 20 percent of the peace jirga, demanded they be included in peace processes and as a result nine were appointed to the 64-member High Peace Council that came out of the gathering of tribal leaders.
Women’s groups since then have proactively consulted with women across the country to identify their needs and expectations regarding the peace process and communicated their findings to the Afghan government, political leaders and the international community. Women have reached out to Taliban fighters, pleading with them to stop the bloodshed. (In 2014, the female members of the High Peace Council collected 300,000 signatures calling for peace and cessation of armed hostilities.) And, they have demanded that the Afghan government intensify its efforts for an inclusive peace process.
Because of their advocacy, a small number of women were able to participate in Track II dialogues with members of the Taliban in Norway, Doha and most recently in Moscow.
A Platform in Russia
Last month, Russia hosted a two-day conference in Moscow where 10 Taliban representatives and some 40 Afghan political leaders, including four presidential candidates, took part in a face-to-face dialogue. Karzai headed the delegation of political figures, most of whom oppose the current Afghan government.
At the conference, whose Afghan diaspora organizers described it as an “intra-Afghan” dialogue, two women joined the political sector delegation—Fawzia Kofi, a member of parliament from Badakhshan, and Hawa Alam Nuristani, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). They were invited in their personal capacities, not as representatives of the Afghan government.
Two other female Afghan officials declined to attend, saying peace talks without the government could not yield meaningful results.
Topics covered during the two-day conference included foreign troop withdrawal and the formation of an interim government. But only two male delegates even brought up women’s rights and preserving the gains of the past 18 years.
The Taliban’s chief negotiator, in a closing speech, addressed the role of women in society.
“Islam has given women all fundamental rights, such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health, and right to good life,” he said, according to a Taliban translation of his remarks. He went on to say that in the name of women’s rights, Afghanistan has seen a rise of immorality, indecency, and a corrupting media that spreads non-Islamic culture and “encourages women to violate Afghan customs.”
While some saw the negotiator’s statement as a sign of progress, it sparked more anxiety and uncertainty for millions of Afghans. Those who lived through Taliban rule from 1994 to 2001 remember that similar declarations foreshadowed hardship and humiliation under the group’s version of Sharia.
Indeed, in the statement notes, “From the beginning, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has a very comprehensive and clear approach towards the rights of women.”
That approach, embodied in the Taliban’s charter, issued on April 4, 1999, and still in effect, states that women shall not work for foreign organizations and or any entity not affiliated with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It requires that women always cover their faces in public. If a woman is found traveling alone in a vehicle, she along with the driver of the vehicle, will be prosecuted. In areas under its control today, the Taliban has announced numerous other restrictions over the radio or simply through loudspeakers hooked to circulating vehicles.
Women’s Red Lines
To preserve women’s gains and block Islamist groups from imposing their view of women’s rights, Afghans negotiating with the Taliban, as well as the international community, must take seriously the red lines set down by Afghan women. It is important to focus simultaneously on women’s right to participate in the process; have their rights protected in any agreement; and ensure that adequate institutional mechanisms and resources are available to implement and uphold the terms of an agreement.
Negotiators must firmly reject any backsliding on rights enumerated in Afghanistan’s constitution and legal code. Enforcement must be guaranteed for laws that bar violence against women and abolish discriminatory and unjust practices and traditions. The agreement to reach a political settlement must honor Afghanistan’s obligation to implement international laws and treaties to which Afghanistan is a party. Institutions such as the AIHRC, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Women’s Chamber of Commerce must be further supported to provide the necessary services to all Afghans including women.
Negotiators have potent leverage to avert a retreat: The international community will not bankroll an Afghanistan that abridges these rights. Most donors view the women’s issue as the single most important litmus test of Afghanistan’s post-2001 progress, and without these donors Afghanistan cannot maintain financial solvency.
The United States should stand behind these demands: The Women, Peace, and Security Act mandates that the U.S. government reinforce through diplomatic efforts and programs the promotion of “physical safety, economic security and dignity of women and girls.” Enforcement of the act helps to set a global standard. The U.S. is the only country to enact such a law passed in response to United Nations resolution 1325, which spells out the critical nature of women’s contribution to every aspect of building peace.
Sacrifices and Contributions
Women’s rights groups and NGOs have played a pivotal role in providing legal, social, economic, educational, health and psychological services to millions of Afghan men and women. A peace agreement must explicitly allow these groups to continue operating without restriction; their staff must be further empowered and protected from persecution and unjust treatment in the name of Sharia or local traditions.
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, numerous attempts by neighboring and regional powers and the U.N. to forge a durable peace have failed. The lack of inclusion in those efforts of women, whose participation in peace negotiations has been shown to lead to more sustainable outcomes, almost certainly contributed to the failures. Throughout the world women have demonstrated critical skills in monitoring agreements related to law and security, facilitating mediation and dispute resolution, and providing services to families of former fighters.
If an end to the conflict is the genuine goal of the warring parties and their backers, they will respond to women’s demands and place women at the center, not the margins, of their efforts.