Foreign Policy Op–Ed: What Obama’s speech will mean for Afghan women

June 22, 2011

Women in Afghanistan will be watching particularly closely to what President Barack Obama says this evening about the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, as well as watching how he says it. A group of Afghan women leaders came to Washington last week on a whirlwind policy talk-a-thon with the State Department, Pentagon, White House and Congressional leaders. On the women’s minds: What kind of peace process will emerge in Afghanistan, and what kind of role will women have in an eventual arrangement with the Taliban that once oppressed them so brutally?

The fight is on for women to safeguard their own rights to go to school and to work, and to have their voices heard as part of the process to shape whatever government comes next in their country.

Some Afghan women leaders say they favor peace talks, but they fear that their rights will be up for negotiation in any talks with the Taliban. Winning a seat at the peace table for civil society in general and women in particular is viewed as a bulwark against a wholesale rollback of women’s rights, which are now protected under the Afghan Constitution. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to Afghan women that “we will not abandon you,” but women say they are concerned that Clinton is a lone voice on their behalf. Visits to the White House last week helped assuage some of those concerns, since administration officials kept the focus on engagement with Afghanistan after the scheduled 2014 pullout, rather than discussing a rush for the exits between now and then.

In the women’s view, then, the U.S. looks ready to commit to remain in force in their country for the next several years, years in which they plan to bulk up their own activism and fight for a stronger and more robust civil society that can speak up on its own behalf and defend the gains women have made this past decade. Women now serve on provincial councils across the country and work as parliamentarians, entrepreneurs, teachers and civil servants.  The country now has one female governor and a female attorney general.

Among the recommendations the women put forward in Washington was a suggestion to, as they also wrote in a position paper, “include advancement of women’s participation in the peace process among the accountability criteria for the $50 million the US has committed to support the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program.”

The last week has been a tense one for NATO and U.S. leaders in Afghanistan.American officials had decided not to strike back after a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in which he accused the US and the international community of dishonoring the Afghan people and using Afghanistan solely for their own purposes. The idea was to let the injurious comments fade away, given that relations between Karzai and his international patrons already were strained nearly to the breaking point. Yet only a day later, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry surprised everyone by aggressively and emotionally countering Karzai during a graduation speech to university students in Herat.

However, for all of the back and forth between the two countries, the Afghan government remains overwhelmingly dependent on the United States, its largest donor, for its financial survival. Its political future is also a question as talks of Taliban negotiations move from theory to reality — albeit very slowly.

For the women who visited Washington, the news the U.S. would not abandon Afghanistan as talks progress was reassuring, but also a sign that now is the time to get in and be heard when it comes to shaping their country’s political future. How much success they will have in the end depends on how forcefully they are able to advocate for their own position, and convince Americans that helping Afghan women helps serve our long-term goals in Afghanistan.

Until now, support for women in Afghanistan has been seen largely as a women’s rights issue. Afghan women themselves, however, see their involvement in their nation as a security issue — and not just for themselves. In their view, the battle to contribute to their families and get their girls educated is also in the interest of the international community and all those who want to see a stable, more secure Afghanistan that draws on the talents of all its citizens. Women want to be seen as contributors, not collateral damage. The coming months will see whether they can convince the world of their view.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.