Afghan women fear peace may come at a price

Afghan women’s groups are warning that a peace deal with fundamentalist insurgents could reverse the gains made on women’s rights since the Taliban government was ousted in 2001.

Their concerns have heightened as reports circulate about secret meetings between the government-created High Peace Council and representatives of insurgent groups.

So far, assurances from officials have done little to ease their fears.

In an address to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, President Hamid Karzai vowed that existing rights for women would be retained even if the Taliban 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 insisted.

But Fatana Ishaq Gailani, a leading activist who heads the Afghanistan Women Council, is skeptical.

“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 said.

Most women remember what life was like under the Taliban in the 1990s. In addition to being required to wear the bukra, they were denied the right to work or obtain an education. Many were literally prisoners in their own homes.

The post-2001 environment has allowed women back into work, public life and political institutions. Most are unwilling to relinquish these hard-won gains.

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

Mawlawi Ataullah Ludin, a member of the peace council, insists women have nothing to worry about since the Taliban would be required to accept “certain preconditions and guarantees” as part of any peace deal.

However, even Ludin says that the Taliban aren’t the only ones opposed to expanding women’s rights.

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

Of particular concern to women’s rights activists in Afghanistan is that of the 68 members of the peace council appointed by Karzai, only nine are women. Gailani says their presence on the panel is “merely symbolic.” Najia Zewari, deputy chair and secretary of the peace council, insists the female members of the panel play an active role.

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

Still, skeptics doubt that the Taliban will agree to participate in a government that has the protection of women’s rights at its core.

“The Taliban will never accept the constitution,” said 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.”

• Habib is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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