Amid US talks with Taliban, Afghan women remain vigilant

Why We Wrote This

As the US negotiates an Afghanistan withdrawal, many women are, unsurprisingly, worried that their hard-won gains are at risk. But our correspondent found a spirit of determined optimism too.

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Shogofa Sediqi (l.), chief director of Afghanistan’s Zan TV (Women’s TV), and Marie Hosseini, head of the camera department, stand in front of the TV station's control room in Kabul Feb. 10.

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The Taliban imposed strict rules when they controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and the severe restrictions upon women are perhaps the most widely remembered. So the status of women is a key issue as US-orchestrated peace talks with the Taliban aim to end America’s longest war and involve the Islamist group in government again. American officials, who are meeting Taliban chiefs Monday, have said any peace deal must include protecting gains for women and civil society.

In Kabul and other Afghan regions, some women cite years of progress for women as a cause for hope. Online journalist Freshta Farhang says that after a cease-fire last year, “the Taliban comprehended that women have active participation everywhere, in education, in the economy.” She says people on both sides have “seen each other, that they are all Afghans, that they are all humans, all Muslims.”

But uncertainties persist about what comes next. Shogofa Sediqi of Zan TV says call-in programs reveal concerns about opportunities for women if there is peace with the Taliban. Women in rural areas, she says, “want changes.”

The Taliban imposed strict rules when they controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s: Attending Friday prayers in the mosque was mandatory, for example, enforced with beatings at the end of a whip.

And music and images of people were forbidden, so Taliban checkpoints were marked by shimmering clouds of magnetic tape, which was pulled from music and videocassettes confiscated from passing motorists.

But it was the severe restrictions inflicted upon women two decades ago that are most widely remembered: The Taliban forced women to be chaperoned and wear the all-enveloping burqa in public, and barred them from working or getting an education.

Those memories are creating widespread concern among many Afghan women, especially, as US-orchestrated peace talks with the Taliban advance. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, resumed meetings today with the highest Taliban delegation yet, led by Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

US negotiators are seeking an end to America's longest war, and the Islamist Taliban a return to government. American officials say any peace deal must include protecting gains for women and civil society.

The fear of a Taliban return to power in some form, and the risk of renewed harsh social restrictions on women, is encapsulated by a leaflet seen in Kabul.

It shows a Taliban man in the street beating women wearing blue burqas years ago, and reads: “Afghanistan will not go back!”

But even as some fear a return to medieval Taliban attitudes toward women, other Afghans say that such a retreat is unlikely: Afghanistan has moved on from late 2001, when the US military engineered the toppling of the Taliban, and women have since enhanced their role.

“Can the Taliban take us back? No, it’s almost impossible,” says Farkhunda Ehssan, who works at Zan TV, which aims to empower Afghan women with a constant diet of shows highlighting women’s issues and progress.

“Women’s TV” is one front line against a retrenchment of Taliban ideas, with its female directors and journalists, and mostly women staff, who are tangible proof of forward movement.

“The Taliban will face a completely different Afghanistan.... They will face women with much more power in the economy, in society, and in media especially,” says Ms. Ehssan. “Now is not the time they should impose something on us.”

Promises, with caveats

Taliban leaders – negotiating sporadically with US diplomats in Doha, Qatar, and Afghan opposition figures in Moscow – suggest that some gains for women will be preserved. But they also say that “rights” granted to women are subject to opaque standards of “Islamic rule” and “Afghan culture.”

“Yes, I’m telling you that [women] can go to school. They can go to universities. They can work,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban political chief, told the BBC earlier this month in Moscow.

The sincerity of that apparent change of heart is a key topic of debate among Afghan women, who make up half of the 65 percent of the population too young to directly remember Taliban rule.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Freshta Farhang, who writes profiles and covers women’s issues for the on-line Afghan newspaper Khabarnama, sits at her desk in the outlet’s Kabul newsroom on Feb. 13. She says that after a cease-fire last year, “the Taliban comprehended that women have active participation everywhere, in education, in the economy.”

“There are lots of changes in the last 17 or 18 years in our country. People have changed, minds changed. So these changes also had a positive affect on [changing] Taliban minds,” says Freshta Farhang, 21, a reporter with the Kabul online newspaper

“There is a lot of difference between the old Taliban and the new Taliban,” says Ms. Farhang, who was born in Ghazni Province, southwest of Kabul. A key moment came last June, during a three-day cease-fire when Taliban militants and Afghan security forces alike put down their weapons and many people crossed the front lines.

“After the cease-fire, the Taliban comprehended that women have active participation everywhere, in education, in the economy,” says Farhang. Now people on both sides “are ready – they’ve seen each other, that they are all Afghans, that they are all humans, all Muslims.”

Many Afghan women “will never accept the Taliban again. But what we should focus on is peace,” says Farhang. “It’s the violent conflict that has a negative effect on education and every kind of development.”

Violence toward civilians and women

Not all Afghans are convinced of Taliban 2.0’s credibility. But it’s also not just in the 12 percent of Afghan territory the Taliban control, and the 34 percent they contest – according to US military figures published Jan. 31 – where issues of misogyny, child brides, and honor killings persist.

The United Nations released a report Sunday that tabulates a record number of civilian casualties in 2018, underscoring the need for peace, even as all sides ramped up offensive operations last year to gain leverage in the talks. The UN reported 3,804 civilian deaths last year, an 11 percent rise over 2017. Of those, US forces killed 674 Afghan civilians, the UN noted, nearly all in the Pentagon's ramped-up air campaign.

The UN noted that Taliban attacks on civilians nearly doubled in 2018 compared with 2017. The result is that – during a Taliban insurgency over the years against forces of the US, NATO, and the Western-backed government – the toll by militants has also included thousands of civilian lives.

For women, the poisoning of food and wells at schools for girls, to dissuade them from going to school, has been one sign of unchanged attitudes. Still, the Taliban have sometimes tailored their rules according to local concerns – allowing schooling for girls to continue in places that have come under their control.

“The fear is widespread, among the Afghan young generation particularly,” says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul. They “have no direct memory of how the Taliban rule, but remember very well how the Taliban treated them as students at school, and their fathers, uncles, and brothers in the [Afghan] National Army.”

She recalls working clandestinely during Taliban rule in the late 1990s, running secret home-based literacy classes for women and girls. It was risky but possible, whereas the experience of Afghan youth is of a Taliban “who have used terrorism as a weapon to terrify the people, who have bombed schools, mosques, public spaces, and killed civilians,” says Ms. Nemat.

‘We don’t want to go back to 2001’

One step to ease women’s concerns is being taken by President Ashraf Ghani, even though his government is not yet part of the US-led peace talks. The Taliban refuse to meet with what they call a Western puppet regime.

Mr. Ghani recently convened a daylong meeting to discuss key elements of a sustainable peace with women and other Afghan stakeholders.

“One thing common among the women was they said, ‘We don’t want to go back to 2001, under any circumstances. We don’t want to sacrifice our rights to have peace,’” says Razia Arefi, the country manager for the Belgian nongovernmental organization Mothers for Peace, who attended the meeting.

“Peace is not only to stop the firing and shooting and all these wars; peace is that we have the rights to education, to vote and to have our equality, which is mentioned in the Constitution,” says Ms. Arefi. She says if the Taliban “really believe in women’s rights” they should include a woman on their negotiating team.

That is unlikely, and the initial peace “framework” agreed with the Taliban makes no mention of civil society issues, but only a US military withdrawal in exchange for the Taliban preventing transnational terrorist attacks from Afghan soil.

The 50 percent of Afghan society who are women “must be heard and included” in peace talks, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass tweeted last week. “Afghanistan has made substantial progress on rights of women to live fully, participate in public life, and achieve their full potential.”

The urban/rural gap

What will happen in practice is far from clear, if peace with the Taliban is reached.

“There might be, even in provincial capitals, a temporary slump in women’s rights, media rights, and everything else. But in very rural Afghanistan right now, these are the conditions that are prevailing anyway,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named.

“In urban areas, of course, it will be a shock to the system. You can’t just make peace for people just in urban, progressive areas,” says the official. “If you are a woman in urban Mazar-e Sharif, you have different aspirations, ideas, and values than a woman in rural Helmand province. They might both be happy where they are, as long as they have been left alone.”

But leaving women alone is not what the Taliban are known for.

“Now the nation is against Taliban views,” says Shogofa Sediqi, the chief director for Zan TV, who told the Monitor last year that the channel’s purpose was to “work on people’s minds” to show “what women can do.” 

Call-in programs register the same concerns, she says, about fewer chances for women if there is peace with the Taliban. “When I hear the views of women in rural areas, they are not happy with those conditions and they want changes,” says Ms. Sediqi.


Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Najwa Alimi, an Afghan correspondent who covers suicide blasts and military issues for Zan TV (Women’s TV), sits for a portrait in the TV station’s offices in Kabul on Feb. 10. She says she will be “the first person to take up weapons” against the Taliban if the government caves in to Taliban demands that don’t respect the rights of women and others.

And there is distrust in Kabul of a Taliban presence, says Najwa Alimi, a Zan TV correspondent from the remote northeastern Badakhshan province, who reports in Kabul on suicide attacks and military forces.

“I lost a relative in a suicide attack, and personally I will never forgive the Taliban.… I will never be at peace with them,” says Ms. Alimi, 24, who wears a headscarf with a peacock feather design, in camouflage colors.

She will be “the first person to take up weapons” against the Taliban, she says, if the government proves weak, is “unable to protect us,” or caves in to Taliban demands that don’t respect the rights of women and others.

“This is not only my voice,” says Alimi. “There is a huge group of the younger generation that have the same views.”

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