Will Afghan women’s rights be bargained away?

July 16, 2010

(CNN) — On a recent afternoon I visited with a Kabul girls’ high school principal, whose office looks out on a beautiful and blooming garden. Trained in mathematics, she works 12 hours a day at a school that teaches more than 4,000 girls in three shifts each day. She smiled with pride as she pointed to a shiny gold championship cup her students brought home from a recent sports tournament. But her mood shifted instantly when I asked about their future. “We are living day by day in Afghanistan,” she said. “Let’s see what comes; let’s see if they have a chance. Let’s see what happens with security.” She and other Afghans will be watching Tuesday when a bevy of international donors descend upon their capital to discuss the Afghan government’s plan to achieve peace and stability for its citizens. Women leaders are struggling for more than symbolic representation at the Kabul Conference, which will cover topics including agricultural development, economic empowerment, governance and security. The most talked-about topic not on the official agenda: Talks with the Taliban. The draconian prohibitions of the Taliban years and the gains Afghan women have achieved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001 are now well known and often cited: Today Afghans lucky enough to live in secure regions can go to school, women may work in offices and the burqa is no longer mandatory. The country now counts more than 2,000 midwives nationwide, a strong female presence in Parliament and more than 400 candidates for the upcoming legislative elections. Evening television even boasts advertisements appealing to women to join the Afghan National Police. Women are TV anchors and professors, community leaders and farmers, tailors and entrepreneurs. And now policewomen and army officers. But in the shadow of this progress a dark and increasingly palpable question mark looms ever larger over women’s lives. Talk of reconciliation has grown increasingly enticing for Afghan leaders eager for peace, supported by international backers with citizenries grown weary of a war whose purpose they have forgotten and whose end they cannot see. Afghan women understand this. They, too, say they want nothing more than an end to the fighting. But they fear that the men who will decide their fate — Afghan and foreign alike — are coming to see women’s opportunities as unfortunate but inevitable collateral damage in the plodding procession toward a deal. Once again, they worry, peace will be decided at their expense. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 after a searing, four-year civil war, they immediately instituted laws which fit their utopic vision of the time of Islam’s founding more than 1,300 years earlier. Afghan women’s lives offered the most visible sign of the imagined past to which Afghanistan’s present was to be returned. And still, despite the restrictions and prohibitions dictating every element of their existence, down to the color of their socks and the polish on their nails, women managed to weave around and through the rules for the sake of their families and their communities. Often with the help of devoted fathers, brothers and husbands, they managed to eke out a living as underground teachers, medical doctors, international NGO workers, community organizers and even entrepreneurs. While the world looked away, they looked out for one another, and ensured that many in the next generation received an education and a chance at having a future — once the rules changed. One of the questions women now ask themselves is the same as the one that caused the Kabul high school principal so much consternation: What will the future look like? And what does it mean for the next generation? Are Taliban who are willing to lay down their arms also willing to accept a constitution that offers women equal rights under the law? And how ready is the world to negotiate away women’s rights without even offering them a seat at the negotiating table? Will reconciliation be part of a far broader program to include economic development and access to justice or will it be a narrowly tailored one-off designed to buy an evanescent peace? The math is clear: Half the population cannot be a special interest group. The politics, however, are far more hazy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.