The US-Taliban Peace Agreement of 29 February was supposed to initiate an intra-Afghan peace negotiation. The exact date of the pending peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban has yet to be set. The Covid-19 pandemic may delay it even further. However, on 26th March the Afghan State Ministry for Peace released a list of its negotiating team: of its 21 members, only 5 were women. What is the role of these female negotiators and what is expected from them? Sangar Paykhar approached three prominent Afghan women’s rights advocates for answers.

Entrepreneur and women’s rights activist Masuda Sultan is confident that Afghan women will play a very active role in the negotiations. “I have been active as a volunteer for women’s rights for the last 19 years. The reason why I became more interested in peace initiatives is because I have realised that all our efforts to serve Afghan women are hampered by the continuation of armed conflict in Afghanistan.”  Sarina Faizy, a former provincial council member in Kandahar province agrees with Sultan. “Afghan women have suffered a lot in this conflict, therefore they must be present at any negotiating table so that they can represent the interests and concerns of women the way only women can.” Sultan was one of the women who spoke to the representatives of the Taliban in Qatar last year during an informal meeting. She has faith in the ability of Afghan women to negotiate with the Taliban. “Women may tend to be physically weaker, but Afghan women are very smart, they use kindness, reason and references to Islamic scripture to make the case for their fundamental rights.”

Female Negotiators
While the role of women as negotiators is welcomed by many, there are still some concerns that women may be used in only a symbolic capacity during the negotiations. A week before the list with the names of official negotiators was released, there was another list circulating amongst Afghan media outlists, in which Orzala Nemat was named. An award winning scholar and the director of the independent think tank The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Nemat stated “I am not part of any political movement and nobody consulted with me to be part of the negotiations.” According to Nemat, women are sometimes mentioned in Afghanistan for political purposes without their consent. Sarina Faizy is also concerned about the political posturing in Afghanistan where women are given symbolic roles. The youngest ever female provincial council member insists on a tangible and equal role for women in the negotiations. “There are some women who live abroad and their activism is limited to posting on social media. I have a lot of respect for their efforts but the women living in Afghanistan should be the ones speaking on our behalf and they should be involved in decision making.”

“Despite challenges, women are playing a prominent role in the peace efforts,” reassures Nemat. “The People’s Peace Movement (PPM) is a grassroots movement that was initiated by a woman who set up a tent in Helmand province.” Her initiative developed into a nationwide movement of activists marching across the country demanding peace. “Wherever the male activists go they are supported by local women.” Nemat, who is a political ethnographer, speaks to the activists regularly. “I have recently learned that in some rural parts of the country the official representatives of PPM are women.”  Faizy, who recently completed a course on leadership at The Bush Institute in The United States, has a suggestion for the negotiators. “During the negotiations, women should be given ample opportunity to speak.” As a former politician in the deeply conservative province of Kandahar, she knows how challenging it can be for women to negotiate. “Our society is very traditional and therefore as women we have to exert ourselves in order to get things done. Especially when we are outnumbered.”

Violence Against Women in Afghanistan
The accomplishments of Afghan women in the last two decades are often hailed as an achievement of the current government and its international patrons. The Taliban, for their part, dismiss this as mere propaganda, pointing out the almost total lack of development and action in rural parts of Afghanistan. Nemat, who has conducted extensive research in rural Afghanistan, has an explanation. “ The resources for development in Afghanistan have not been distributed fairly. The powerful figures force allocation of resources to their own localities, leaving other areas at an extreme disadvantage.” According to Nemat, this has created a huge discrepancy that needs to be addressed by Afghanistan’s political leadership.  Sultan has observed how many Afghans have moved out of rural areas and settled in the cities in the last two decades. “The opportunities created for women who have come into the cities has been generally positive because they have benefited from development projects backed by the international community. Despite all the progress the unemployment rate of women in Afghanistan is still nearly 70 percent, which is unacceptably high.”

 

All three experts believe that Afghan women have come a long way since the fall of Taliban regime. Yet, in areas outside Taliban control, there are still many cases of violence against women. The most notable was the notorious lynching of Farkhunda in the heart of Kabul in 2015. Recently, during the lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic a video went viral of a Kabul city police officer beating a girl with a rod. Sultan, the author of ‘My War at Home’ and ‘From Rhetoric to Reality: Afghan Women on the Agenda for Peace’ has contributed a big part of her volunteering to serving victims of violence. “Violence against women is not exclusive to just one faction, one group or one part of the country. Afghan women need a commitment from all sides of the political spectrum. During the intra-Afghan peace talks, the participants have to discuss where we currently stand on women’s issues. If a woman can be beaten in the streets of Kabul in public we have to question, where do we really stand on women’s advancement?”

Afghan Women’s Rights
The United States and the Taliban have agreed on a complete pull-out of American troops from Afghanistan. Some Afghan activists who have spoken to Australian television program ‘The Foreign Correspondent’ fear that they will lose their freedom if Americans are gone. Sultan disagrees with this sentiment. “The international community did not ask Afghan women for their permission when they came to Afghanistan after 9/11. They came because of what happened in America, not to rescue Afghan women. While influence through programs and spending by international community helps, it is not up to a foreign military to give Afghan women any rights. It is up to Afghan woman to claim their rights, and Afghan society must grant them those rights.”

 

The representatives of the Taliban in Doha are frequently asked about their position regarding women’s rights. In various statements they have assured that they accept all women’s rights according to the edicts of the Sharia. For Faizy, this is not a satisfactory answer. “Afghanistan is an Islamic country with an Islamic constitution. I oppose the Taliban’s idea of women’s rights under their Emirate as we have seen in the past.” Sultan hopes the Taliban’s will clarify their position on women’s rights. “I can have the best rights in the world on paper but when I am not granted these rights in real life it doesn’t really mean much.” That’s why she expects from the negotiating team to focus more on practical implementation of women’s rights instead of an ideological debate. Faizy cites an example of how impractical the Taliban’s ideas can be. “They say that they want separate schools and universities for women. In Kandahar we have probably 4 female academics who are qualified to teach at a university while there are thousands of women who want to study. How can we run a university with only four lecturers?”

Can Afghan Women Trust The Taliban?
In the last decade the Taliban have steadily gained momentum. Some Afghans fear that the Taliban may force the government into a chaotic collapse. Nemat doubts that a new government entirely dominated by the Taliban is ever possible. The Taliban paint themselves as a legitimate authority supported by the people of Afghanistan. According to Nemat, that is not accurate. “The reason why people are radicalized and subsequently recruited by armed groups is because injustices aren’t addressed. Some people who have committed crimes weren’t even required to at least ask for forgiveness for what they have done.” This is why she believes the Taliban have made gains in recent years. “In order to achieve peace, there needs to be a process of reconciliation so that all sides can sit together and address injustice and inequality.”

 

While all three experts welcome the peace efforts, they still have doubts about the trustworthiness of the Taliban. Faizy remarks “After the signing of the agreement the Taliban have continued their attacks on Afghan armed forces. How can we trust them after they have massacred dozens of Afghan soldiers in Zabul recently? Sultan agrees. “It is not about having blind trust. The fear that Afghan women have is justified, however the Taliban appear to be genuine in their quest for peace and in their desire to do something. We have to create an opportunity to solve these issues through a peace process.” With regard to the Taliban’s sincerity, or lack thereof, Nemat is certain of one thing. “Nobody can force the society to go back. So any limitation of women’s rights is impossible because people will never accept it.”