Afghan Women Need A Seat At The Table
October 7, 2010
As Washington looks for a graceful end to its longest war — today is the ninth anniversary — talk about reconciliation between the Kabul government and the Taliban forces is growing louder in Afghanistan. The Washington Post on Wednesday presented the latest reports about these increasingly serious negotiations.
Yet many women in Afghanistan are uneasy, even fearful, about the prospect of talks in which they have had no voice. During the roughly five years that the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, women lost their rights to work and to gain an education. Though some women managed to learn at underground schools or were able to quietly support their families with home-based businesses, most lived under virtual house arrest, barred from walking alone on the streets or contributing to their families’ income during years of economic collapse.
The question Afghan women ask now is: In the world’s rush for an exit from their war-scarred nation, will they again lose their rights? Will their opportunity for work and education be regarded by the United States and its NATO allies as the necessary price of peace? Afghan women now fear that the same international allies, so quick to invoke their plight on the way into Afghanistan, will not hesitate to compromise their basic rights on the way out. They worry that if future Taliban negotiators refuse to protect women’s now-constitutional guarantees of “equal rights and responsibilities,” the world might look on with a shrug — viewing women as unfortunate but necessary collateral damage along the path to withdrawal.
In interview after interview, Afghan women say they are desperate for peace and talk about welcoming Taliban brothers back into their communities. But they insist that the cost should not be their daughters’ schooling or their own ability to earn money for their families.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has frequently pledged to Afghan women that their rights will be not be sacrificed for the sake of stability. She promised Afghan women leaders, when they visited Washington in May: “We will not abandon you.”
But the women of Afghanistan worry that the State Department will not be able to prevail against the pressure to reach a peace agreement swiftly. Few outside the State Department in the Obama administration have regularly spoken out about preserving Afghan women’s rights as a policy priority. Privately, administration officials sympathetic to Afghan women’s plight admit they face a tough battle to galvanize a war-weary U.S. public, which has yet to show great interest in this issue.
Afghan women have fought hard over these past nine years to make the most of small openings created by the international community — despite the creeping reach of a deadly anti-government insurgency.
A new generation of women — entrepreneurs, midwives, Army officers, lawmakers and community leaders — has arisen to fight for their own rights. But they say they cannot do it alone. They need the United States and its global allies to keep pressuring Kabul, to insist that women have a role in whatever process is created to determine their country’s future.
Women in Afghanistan say they do not want to be viewed as a sideshow — sated with symbolic representation or eloquent but empty lip service. Instead, they talk about their role as critical allies in the fight to create a more secure and stable Afghanistan. This goal is in the world’s best interest — and their own.
For only when all the nation’s citizens can contribute does a country as starved for growth and stability as Afghanistan have any hope for a better future.
In 2001, then-Sen. Clinton argued, “a post-Taliban Afghanistan where women’s rights are respected is much less likely to harbor terrorists in the future.” The White House must keep this in mind as preparations for military withdrawal and the Taliban talks look poised to turn from theory into reality.