Afghan women fear a retreat to dark days

Negotiating with the Taliban might be the only hope for peace, but women are nervous.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Shaky gains: A Herat gym offers Afghan women a place to workout. The highly segregated nation offers few public spaces for women.

Afghanistan's Minister of Women's Affairs, Hasan Bano Ghazanfa, closed a recent speech to one of the country's largest-ever women's conferences with an unexpected warning: Afghan President Hamid Karzai should avoid rushing into "political deals" with those opposing women's rights and human rights.

The pointed reference to a possible peace deal with the Taliban was a reminder of the precarious situation of Afghan women.

Seven years after the Taliban regime was ousted, Afghan women have seen gains in areas from political rights to education. But many now see this progress as both meager and tenuous.

The possibility of a political settlement with the Taliban – which might return some of their members to government – has sparked nervous questions among women, who fear their concerns will be ignored and their rights overrun once more: Would Taliban officials agree to the new Constitution's guarantee of equal rights for women? Could women's lives improve if the men who banned them from schools and offices joined the government? Would women be safer?

Though a lack of security remains the largest threat to their progress, women still face challenges accessing healthcare, the legal system, and schools. Girls account for only one-third of school pupils. Few females hold political positions of real power. And in the economic arena, women still struggle to move beyond low-margin handicrafts businesses.

Development officials plead for patience; improving women's lives in this poor and traditional country destroyed by decades of war will take generations, they say.

A growing number of Afghan women say the development process is far removed from their needs, and hampered by foreign donors' focus on short-term wins.

"We don't do sustainable work for women," says Fauzia Kufi, a female parliamentarian from the northeastern province of Badakhshan. "One NGO runs a poultry project for women for six months, another goes to a different region for nine months; there is no sustainability to the effort."

The few women now succeeding in business risk becoming targets for criminals, just as businessmen now are. One Kabul entrepreneur's thriving business was recently surrounded by gunmen, who then kidnapped her son. Her family fled Afghanistan following her son's escape.

At the same time, women have enjoyed constitutional protections, plus a ministry dedicated to their advancement. More than a quarter of Afghanistan's parliamentarians are women. A woman now governs the northern province of Bamiyan. Millions of girls are in school.

Yet these advances are increasingly vulnerable to erosion at the hands of an emboldened insurgency. In the past three months, Taliban supporters in the south assassinated Afghanistan's leading policewoman and threw acid on teenage schoolgirls.

"Those who are against the progress of women are stronger than we are," says journalist and activist Jamila Mujahed.

Despite their anxieties, a growing number of women view negotiation with more moderate Taliban elements as the only way to bring the country some measure of peace.

"Those Taliban from Afghanistan who want Afghanistan to succeed, we want to negotiate with them," says Maliqa Qhani, a community organizer who helped women earn money for their handiwork under the Taliban. "If they accept our Constitution, we are happy to have them here.... We are tired of fighting, tired of explosions, tired of kidnappings."

In this view, leaving the Taliban outside the government is ignoring a reality of Afghanistan: that the Taliban are a political force.

"From the Taliban there are many groups; some of them are reasonable," says Ms. Mujahed, noting that former commanders from most other factions rank among the country's leadership. "It is illegitimate for them to be outside the government."

Others, however, see talk of negotiations as the latest political ploy in the run-up to next year's presidential elections. And they wonder whether women's most fundamental gains will be used as negotiating leverage by a government – and an international community – desperate to show progress toward peace.

"Talk with whomever, that is fine, but who are you talking to and what will be the outcome?" asks Ms. Kufi, the lawmaker. "Will it be at the cost of violating our values of the past seven years? At the cost of violating our Constitution?"

Others go further, saying the international community now faces a crossroads. "The world needs to get serious in fighting the Taliban or just give them the country," says a high-ranking female government official, who asked that her name not be used for security reasons. The Taliban "want the Constitution changed, women out of power, internationals to leave, everything we have done to be undone."

Even those favoring negotiations fear they will once again be forced to fend for themselves. "The international community left us alone to face the Taliban, just as it left us alone to our fate during [three previous years of civil war]," says community activist Roshan Sirran. "We agree with negotiations, but we want a guarantee from the international community that there will be no rolling back of women's rights.

"The world should not forget us again," she adds.

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