Women in Peril
As the United States begins its scheduled 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Afghan government has intensified its reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Needless to say, the outcome of any subsequent peace deal with the Taliban holds enormous consequences for the women of Afghanistan, given the brutality they suffered at the hands of the fundamentalist regime.
Thus, many Afghan women have been adamant that any negotiations with the Taliban have substantial female representation, as a way to ensure that the rights they have gained won't be crushed if the Taliban returns to the Afghan fold.
This seemed like a genuine possibility at first, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai created the High Peace Council to direct negotiations with the Taliban and gave the committee female representation. Unfortunately, the government top-loaded the council with 60 men and only 9 women, a disparity in numbers that brought immediate concern from Afghanistan's nascent crop of women leaders.
One such leader, Fauzia Kofi, a member of Afghanistan's parliament, said of the female council members, "They're negotiating for our rights -- for my rights, for the rights of my daughters -- from a position of weakness." Suraya Parlika, head of the All Afghan Women's Union, added, "The women on the council are…pawns."
Unfortunately, their view was confirmed by the council's deputy director, Ataullah Luddin, who said, "They want to go as a group of women to meet with Mullah Omar [the Taliban supreme leader]. But that's just not possible. If they go, they will be killed." Luddin also added with a laugh, "And anyway, we all know that women can't keep a secret for more than 34 hours."
Luddin's quip notwithstanding, his appraisal of the Taliban response to such an encounter was spot on. While Muslim men in the region more often than not treat women little better than livestock, the Taliban's approach takes the situation to a whole other, disturbing level.
Under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, life for Afghan women was nothing short of a terrifying nightmare. Required to wear a head-to-toe burqa, Afghan women were forbidden to work outside the home or even leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative.
Other prohibitions on women included being banned from appearing on the balconies of their apartments or houses, laughing loudly, being photographed or filmed, or being in public gatherings of any kind. Failure to abide by any of these rules resulted in public whippings, beatings or stoning.
In addition, the Taliban banned both sexes from listening to music, watching movies, television and videos. While the Taliban banned most sports, those that were allowed required spectators to replace clapping with chants of Allahu Akbar ("God is great").
When the Taliban was ousted in 2001 and Afghan women were freed from their terrible yoke, they made some remarkable progress in the ensuing years. In fact, many of their gains have been quite significant, such as Afghan women being elected to government office, allowed to attend school or trained to be military pilots. Other achievements, perhaps less noteworthy but equally groundbreaking, include Afghan women training to be Olympic boxers or openly marching in protest for women's rights.
One such protest came recently when 30 Afghan women marched through the streets of Kabul protesting sexual harassment, carrying banners that read: "This street belongs to me" and "We won't stand insults anymore." While the protest march drew angry stares from male onlookers and necessitated a full security escort, the fact that it was even allowed was in itself a mark of substantial achievement.
Of course, it should be noted that these incremental steps of progress can't paper over the fact that life for most Afghan women is still a Hobbesian existence. According to the US State Department, Afghanistan is a major source, transit, and destination country for the forced labor and sex trafficking of women and children.
Most of those trafficked were girls under age 18, with about 29 percent having been forced into marriage after being "raped, kidnapped, harassed or exposed to violence."
Not unexpectedly, the result of these and other abuses has made the life expectancy of Afghan women just 44 years, with a recent UN report also finding 31 percent of them suffering physical violence and another 30 percent suffering from psychological trauma.
The advancement in human rights, respect and education for Afghan women and girls may be only marginal, but the gains are nonetheless threatened by negotiations with the Taliban.
Still, some have said that the entire High Peace Council gender debate is much ado about nothing, as talks with the Taliban to discuss a framework of reconciliation have reportedly gone nowhere. In fact, the Taliban has adamantly denied that any peace talks have ever occurred. As Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently said, "There is no negotiation…we deny any report about such kind of peace talks."
While some Taliban have joined the Afghan government, and some lower and mid-level fighters have reintegrated into their communities, its 30,000 insurgents still seem fiercely intent on continuing the insurgency and relinquishing their lost power.
To prove that point, violence in Afghanistan has exploded to record levels, as insurgents have been markedly increasing their attacks on US coalition forces, as well as stepping up suicide strikes, bombings and intimidation against Afghan officials and civilians. According to a July report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, there has been a 119 percent rise in insurgency attacks, as well as a 106 percent rise in civilian casualties over the past year.
Recent examples of the Taliban assault on the Afghan civilian population include the hanging of an 8-year-old boy from a balcony after his father, an Afghan policeman, refused to comply with their demands to provide them with a police vehicle; the beheading of four men who were working to remove land mines from western Afghanistan; and the forcing of an 8-year-old girl to detonate herself at an Afghan police checkpoint.
Moreover, the Taliban has assassinated six high-profile Afghan government figures in the last month, including President Karzai's half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and Jan Mohammad Khan, the former governor of southern Urozgan. The most recent victim was the mayor of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city, who was killed by a suicide bomber hiding an explosive device in his turban.
So, despite the investment of men, time, and money in developing an effective Afghan National Army (ANA) and police force to save the existing regime from sliding back into Taliban control, all signs seem to point to an eventual Taliban triumph.
That dismal prospect is why some have pinned their hopes on reaching some accommodations with the Taliban. As Najia Zewari, a female High Peace Council member, said, "We want the Taliban to know that they respect our rights."
Yet, that prospect seems unlikely to ever come to fruition. Human Rights Watch Washington director Tom Malinowski has said it's "hard to imagine that the Taliban are going to stop believing or acting as they do."
If that's indeed the case, it certainly hasn't stirred concern in Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose feelings toward the Taliban were perhaps best expressed in 2009 when he said, "We call on our Taliban brothers to come home and embrace their land." If that event does transpire, for the women and girls of Afghanistan, it promises to be a deadly homecoming.