Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Women Fear Sell-Out in Taleban Talks

Assurances from officials do little to calm fears that rights will be traded for peace.
By Mina Habib
  • Qazi Mohammad Amin Waqad of the Afghan High Peace Council tasked with talking to the Taleban. Women’s groups fear negotiations conducted in secret by an unrepresentative body could result in a deal that undermines their basic rights. (Photo: Isafmedia/Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor)
    Qazi Mohammad Amin Waqad of the Afghan High Peace Council tasked with talking to the Taleban. Women’s groups fear negotiations conducted in secret by an unrepresentative body could result in a deal that undermines their basic rights. (Photo: Isafmedia/Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor)

Afghan women’s groups are warning that a peace deal with fundamentalist insurgents could unravel the gains made on women’s rights since the Taleban government was ousted in 2001. They are especially worried by the fact that the talks process is taking place behind closed doors. 

Their concerns have strengthened as reports filter out about secret meetings between the specially-created High Peace Council and representatives of insurgent groups, and assurances from officials have done little to ease them.

The High Peace Council began operating last October following a meeting in June, the National Consultative Peace Jirga, which endorsed steps to seek a political resolution of the long-running conflict.

In an address to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, President Karzai gave an assurance that existing rights would be protected if the Taleban were brought into the fold.

“Not only will efforts to make peace with the opposition not harm women’s rights; they will further strengthen them,” he said.

Fatana Ishaq Gailani, a leading activist who heads the Afghanistan Women Council, remains sceptical.

“Women welcome negotiations for a lasting peace, but it is worrying that talks are taking place in secret and that women are unaware of them,” she told IWPR.

After the Taleban captured Kabul and took charge of governing Afghanistan, they issued repressive rules depriving women of many rights, forcing them to wear the burka, and preventing them from working and studying.

The post-2001 environment has allowed women back into work, public life and political institutions including government and parliament. These gains could be at risk if a political settlement with the Taleban involves legal and constitutional concessions.

“Women will simply not allow anyone to make deals concerning their future,” Gailani said.

Mawlawi Ataullah Ludin, another deputy chair of the council, says women need not worry about a reconciliation deal with the Taleban, which would require the insurgents to agree to “certain preconditions and guarantees”.

However, he went on to say that women could not expect unconditional freedom in areas where Islamic rules and Afghan values were dominant. It was not just the Taleban who believed in Islamic dress and protecting women’s honour, he said.

“We too want laws for women to be ones that Islam has prescribed for them, not what the West has designed,” he said.

There has been much criticism of the peace council’s composition, with commentators noting that its 68 members, all of them appointed by President Hamed Karzai, include the heads of militia factions that engaged in a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, former members of the Taleban and its ally Hezb-e Islami, as well as community and tribal leaders from around the country.

Gailani is particularly concerned about the way members were selected, and the fact that only nine of them are women.

“Some members of the council are not really popular, while the presence of a number of women on the council is purely symbolic,” Gailani said.

Najia Zewari, deputy chair and secretary of the peace council, rejects claims that its female members are toothless.

“The women on the High Peace Council are not the kind to say yes to everything. They are fully apprised of its decisions,” she said.

Afghanistan’s ministry for women’s affairs, is keen to stress that the emancipation achieved over the last decade will be preserved.

Fawzia Habibi, who heads the ministry’s international relations department, argues that women had an input into shaping the peace process through their participation in last year’s jirga.

“We shouldn’t make assumptions before the Taleban come over. Let’s see what happens in practice,” she said. “Accepting the constitution is one of the major conditions which the Taleban must look at. If they accept the constitution, there won’t be any concerns in this regard.”

Such promises are not enough to convince sceptics like Najiba, who works for an Afghan non-government organisation.

She argues that the government’s record over the last decade showed that officials put political, factional and personal interest before the public good. Women could thus hardly be expected to believe any pledges that they were acting in good faith.

“Personally, I don’t trust the president at all,” she added. “If he said the sun was shining, I’d have to think about it to see whether it was true.”

Other female leaders do not buy the argument that the insurgents will change their minds and sign up to the current constitutional bill of rights.

“The Taleban will never accept the constitution,” Shokria Paikan, a member of parliament from the northern Kunduz province, said. “They violated the whole of women’s rights when they were in power, and they did so on the basis of their beliefs. Their Islamic beliefs about women will never change.”

A spokesman for the Taleban, Zabihullah Mojahed, failed to provide much reassurance on this point.

In a phone interview for IWPR, he rejected the idea of women’s rights as set out in civil law. Instead, he insisted, Islamic law provided unprecedented rights for women, and the only people who opposed these rules were those who have “lost their faith and come under the influence of western democracy”.

Mojahed did not offer much hope for negotiations, either, saying the Taleban did not recognise the High Peace Council, were not in negotiations with it, and had not shifted from their basic demand that international troops leave Afghanistan before any talks take place.

“Unless the foreign forces leave and Afghanistan is recognised as an independent country, we will not talk with any institutions,” he said.

Rights activist Shafiqa Habibi argues that times have changed since the Taleban were able to rule unchallenged – these days women now have a range of support organisations and greater political awareness than before.

“Afghan women have awoken,” she said. “It will be impossible for the Taleban to impose their strict rules on them again, because women will defend their rights by every means.”

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.

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