Can Afghan Women’s Achievements Survive the Peace Talks?

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Women from the first graduating class of the Afghan National Army Female Officer Candidate School stand for the playing of the national anthem during their graduation ceremony, Sept. 23, 2010. Twenty-nine Afghan women completed 20 weeks of training, which included 8 weeks of basic training and 12 weeks of advanced training in logistics and finance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Laura R. McFarlane/Released)

by Fatemeh Aman

As peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban enter a new phase and hopes of reaching a sustainable deal increase, concerns are increasing that gains made by Afghan women over the last decade could be at risk.

Taliban leaders are reportedly demanding changes to the country’s constitution that also include the rights of women. Negotiators say they will not compromise on the issue and even describe it as their “red line.” However, reaching an agreement with Taliban is extremely important for the Afghan government. But it’s not clear how strict those red lines will be.

In an unprecedented move, a delegation of high-ranking Afghan women—including lawmakers Shukria Barakzai, Fawzia Koofi, Nilofar Ibrahimi, Farkhunda Naderi, and Suraya Dalil; High Peace Council members Siddiqa Balkhi, Gulalai Noor Safi, and Awa Alam Nuristani; and Hasina Safi, the head of the Afghan Women’s Education Council— held “unofficial” meetings on June 3-4 in Norway with Taliban representatives. All have long fought against the traditional culture of violence against women, two are survivors of assassination attempts by militants, and others have forcefully spoken out for women’s rights.

The Taliban described the talks as informal and not necessarily “peace talks.” Shukria Barakzai said that they attended the meeting to secure democratic values achieved in the last decade in Afghanistan.

In a June 30 meeting with the members of the NAPWA (National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan), President Ashraf Ghani stated that women’s role in the peace talks will be real, not just a formality.

Several interested parties are monitoring the very complicated issue of whether or how much women’s rights should be sacrificed to achieve peace. Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, said on July 8: “We also want to see [the Taliban] accept the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.”

Two chapters in Afghanistan’s constitution deal with women rights. Article 22 of Chapter Two rejects discrimination against any Afghan citizen, declaring: “The citizens of Afghanistan, man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law.” Article 44 of the same chapter addresses women and girls’ right to education and the desire to eliminate illiteracy in the country.

Young civil society activists—including women rights activist Munira Yousufzada—have echoed the concern that democratic achievements for women may be compromised.

Afghan women are a vulnerable sector of society and, as such, have much at stake in these negotiations. A female Afghan MP, General Nazifeh Zaki, stated that the Taliban’s steep demands suggest that they want to control the entire government. Several members of parliament, among them female representatives, have called on the government to negotiate from a position of power and not give into pressure. They want the Taliban to cease all attacks as a precondition for continued negations. The Taliban has rejected that.

Indeed, the Taliban’s attacks have been intensifying, with some of the worst violence in recent months. That, in turn, has undermined confidence that peace negotiations will produce a meaningful result.

Through these attacks, the Taliban appears to be trying to increase their leverage with the goal of winning a better deal at the negotiation table. They want to be portrayed as powerful and holding the upper hand. But a major factor complicating that strategy is the uncertain unity of the Taliban as a group. As a result, the implementation of any agreement reached with “the Taliban” could be less than guaranteed—whether opposing factions will comply with the terms of any deal is an open question. MP Fawzia Koofi, who represents Badakhshan, expressed concern that the government’s negotiating partner may not constitute the entire Taliban, which could mean that even an agreed-upon deal might not end the violence and fighting.

On July 7, the Pakistani government hosted an official four-hour meeting between Afghan government and Taliban representatives in Murree, outside Islamabad. Representatives from the United States and China also attended. It was the first time the two parties have met directly, and many observers saw this meeting as a turning point in the war. Until that meeting, the Taliban had rejected negotiating with official representatives from the government in Kabul because it did not formally recognize its existence. The Afghan delegation consisted of four officials and included Hekmat Karzai, a nephew of former President Hamid Karzai and a critic of President Ghani’s efforts to improve relations with Pakistan.

Many Afghans believe the Pakistan government is so connected to the Taliban that it could stop the insurgent group if it wanted. Despite such skepticism, the peace talks will be considered a success if they lead to a tangible reduction of violence. The fact that China and the United States are observing—and that the U.S. has welcomed the negotiations—has heightened the credibility of the negotiations and provided cause for optimism.

Even without the Taliban’s threatened “red line” on women’s rights, Afghanistan has a long way to go in terms of ensuring equal treatment for women. Still, since the fall of the Taliban, women have made once-unimaginable gains. Girls have gone a long way from being barred from attending school during Taliban rule to making up a large portion of Afghanistan’s students. Women’s participation across four sectors of the society—including health, education, work and employment, and legal rights—have increased. Women’s employment in the police and army and their participation in the political process (measured in greater turn-out in the elections) have also increased.

Also, since women and children have borne the brunt of Afghanistan’s violent turmoil, they will benefit the most from a stable country at peace. The best outcome of negotiations would be if women can live in peace without sacrificing their rights and achievements. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Taliban will let that happen and how strongly the government will defend its female citizens.

Photo: Female officers in the Afghan National Army

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).