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Amid Peace Talks, What's Really At Stake For Afghan Women

Czech Republic--Freshta Jalalzai, an Afghan-American journalist with RFE/RL's Afghan Service, Radio Azadi. Prague, February 13, 2019.

As tentative peace talks aimed at ending 17 years of war and instability in Afghanistan progress, many observers are worried that hard-won, fragile advances in women’s rights will be reversed if a deal is reached with the Taliban and U.S. troops withdraw.

Freshta Jalalzai, an Afghan-American journalist covering the war for RFE/RL’s Afghan Service, known locally as Radio Azadi, says these fears are well-founded, but the uncertain future of Afghan women and girls is only part of the story.

“As someone who grew up as a girl under the Taliban in the nineties, of course I’m worried, but it’s not just women’s rights that are at risk,” said Jalalzai. “It’s true that I wasn’t allowed to go to school under the Taliban, but neither was my brother, in effect, because there were only religious schools. Every child’s access to education is endangered, as are the rights of religious minorities, LGBTQ people, press freedom, freedom of thought and expression—all are in jeopardy depending on what kind of deal, if any, will be reached with the Taliban.”

The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia law that was especially brutal towards women. Now, the Taliban says it’s prepared to embrace women’s rights, but only on it’s own terms.

An Opaque Process

Following six days of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha in January, U.S. officials announced “significant progress” had been made. However, the Taliban still refuse to talk directly with the Afghan government and its 12-person delegation, which includes three women, meaning Afghan women are so far excluded from the process.

“There is so much we don’t know,” said Jalalzai. “In my reporting I’ve spoken to some analysts who say the Taliban has changed, but some say they haven’t. The problem is that we don’t really know what they want. They state officially that they want all foreign troops to leave, but then what? Do they want Sharia law? And there is also confusion from the U.S. side. Are they leaving or not?”

What’s Really At Stake

Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the Afghan constitution, and there has been a big push over the last decade to increase access to education for girls and to political office for women. Jalazai cautions, however, that the gains in women’s rights achieved in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, though significant, should not be overstated. She says foreign media have a habit of lauding the opportunities now available to women in Kabul and major cities where international investments in women’s advancement have been focused, but these opportunities are still unimaginable for the majority ofAfghan women, who live in rural areas that are very traditional and conservative.

AFGHANISTAN -- Afghan women cast their vote during the Parliamentary elections in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 27 October 2018.
AFGHANISTAN -- Afghan women cast their vote during the Parliamentary elections in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 27 October 2018.

“From our reporting, we’ve found that most of the investment from international NGOs has been focused on Kabul, but we have 34 provinces in Afghanistan, and the experience of women and girls in the capital is not representative of the whole country,” she said.

Whatever the outcome of talks with the Taliban, Jalalzai says in order to see a real improvement in the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, the country first needs peace and stability, followed by a sea change in attitudes towards women, both of which she expects will take a very long time.

“There is such a deeply rooted devaluation of women in Afghanistan that talking about women’s rights seems a luxury,” she said, citing the pervasiveness of domestic violence, as well as frequent maimings and honor killings. “We have to first decide that women matter enough to live at all. Then we can talk about education, work, and political engagement.”

Pointing to the peace talks as a bell-weather, Jalalzai says if women continue to be excluded from the peace process, there is little hope of their interests being considered at all.

“Peace without justice is meaningless and justice prevails when victims are heard. Afghan women are victims of wars they did not start, and its time all victims’ voices—men and women—were heard” said Jalalzai. “It will take a long time to recover from 17 years of war, and the recovery can’t happen without women.

—Emily Thompson

RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is an online pioneer and media leader in Afghanistan, reaching 36 percent of the adult audience nationally on radio, SMS, and the internet.