April 30, 2021, 10:17 a.m.
This year could be the historic year of peace in Afghanistan. The end of the war, which has now lasted for two decades, is desirable for all concerned. However, I am morally obliged to warn that peace with the Taliban cannot come at the expense of basic human rights, especially for Afghan women, who have made great strides in recent decades.
The planned withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by US President Joe Biden on September 11th will undermine the Afghan government’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban and deepen insecurity in the country, especially if troops depart before a long-term political solution is reached . Put simply, an unconditional US exit will not provide the time it takes negotiating parties to embark on a meaningful peace process. A hasty dialogue could result in the incapacitation of Afghan women and all of the profits we have made over the years. In order for Afghanistan to move forward, we need a peace process that guarantees a meaningful and not just symbolic participation of women in shaping the future of our country.
As a member of the Afghan negotiating team in Doha, I have met with representatives of the Taliban for the past six months to put an end to the ongoing violence in our country. I am a woman and I am here, along with other negotiators, because the peace process depends on the women of Afghanistan. Studies show that peace outcomes are more sustainable when women are involved in the peace process. This is especially true in Afghanistan.
When we first met in September 2020, the Taliban delegates seemed uncomfortable in my presence. They avoided eye contact with me and tried to pronounce my name out loud. For many observers inside and outside Afghanistan, I did not come to Doha as a negotiator who was ready for a substantive discussion, but as a sign and provocation – to convince the world that the Afghan government, which I represent, is concerned about the rights who cares about women.
Since then, the representatives of the Taliban have felt more comfortable around me and my colleagues. They started listening to us. We now call each other by our names and say hello when we meet in the corridors. We also have discussions in the negotiating rooms. I hope you have come to appreciate the variety of views and expertise we women bring to the table.
Indeed, the Doha negotiations may be the only recent peace talks in which warring parties have debated women’s rights. But my negotiators and I are not only in Doha to discuss women’s issues. We are here because we must uphold the rights of all Afghans – from freedom to security to economic prosperity.
In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban reached a peace agreement in Afghanistan. But what followed was a worrying rise in violence. In 2020 Afghanistan recorded 8,820 civilian casualties from armed conflict. Despite the supposed end of the war, Afghanistan remains one of the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian.
Regardless of the security gaps, Western aid to Afghanistan over the past two decades has created the crucial space for Afghanistan’s self-empowerment. Few groups have gained so much – and actually more to lose – than Afghanistan’s women.
In the years before 2001, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, women had no right to education or work. Now we serve as ministers in the government, conducting life-saving operations and administering international non-governmental organizations as I do today.
I am not in Doha to serve as a symbol of transformation. I would like to emphasize here that safeguarding women’s rights in Afghanistan is not just a moral imperative. Women make up half of our country’s population: if they are insecure or excluded, the nation will suffer and exacerbate the toll of an already long war.
However, some actors in the Afghan peace talks expect women to give up our hotly contested rights in order to find a political solution. For example, to reach a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, we may have to sacrifice our freedom and security. Increasing insecurity leads women to withdraw into their homes. Everyday women in Afghanistan already feel the pain of not being able to walk safely on the streets of our country.
But my colleagues and I are not going to trade our freedom for an agreement, and neither should the regional powers push us to do so.
Although the Taliban have changed their attitude towards negotiators like me, personal views do not automatically lead to changes in their women’s rights and gender equality positions in Afghanistan as a whole. So far, the Taliban have not clarified their position on women’s rights. They did not publish these details on the other side of the negotiating table – although continued personal engagement could get us there.
At this turning point, I urge the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and neighboring countries with an interest in Afghanistan’s stability to urge both the Afghan government and the Taliban to have at least 30 percent of the elected seats and appointments in our future politics to reserve institutions for women. In addition, international aid should be made dependent on the protection of the constitutional role of women in Afghanistan’s democratic systems – a fundamental right that should be on the agenda both in Doha and in further negotiations in Istanbul.
In Afghanistan, the United States and its partners have made sacrifices for which the Afghan people are deeply grateful. Now they are understandably focusing on the cold logic of troop numbers and withdrawal periods. But foreign powers should also ensure that their hopes for my country are not based on enthusiasm for misogyny. Afghan women have won so much. With peace in sight, we must not lose.