On the morning of Sept. 12, just hours ahead of a historic meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban, a short note, written in Dari, was posted on the insurgent group’s website. It attempted to explain why, even after months of delay, the Taliban negotiations team did not include Afghan women.
“[Women] were not directly involved in the war,” the statement read. “In accordance to the Islamic customs of the Afghan society, [and] to protect their honour and dignity, we did not consider it necessary [to include them],” it explained. The statement further went on to criticize the Afghan government for “using women as tools to appease the West.”
A few days later, amid talks that included five Afghan women who were part of the government’s team, Taliban negotiators told CBS News that while they would now accept a few women in government, they would not “support a female prime minister, or a woman on the country’s high court."
After decades of fighting, Afghans are now thirsty for peace, and the current talks in Doha, Qatar, bring hope to a generation that have not known a day without conflict. In a way, the negotiations themselves represent a major milestone toward ending decades of war in Afghanistan. Still, for many Afghan women, these justifications and accommodations for the talks aren’t just deeply unsatisfactory, they also represent a potential omen of things to come. The Taliban was sending a message that the presence of women at the talks were merely being tolerated and that any pact should raise concerns about the future of Afghan women.
Even as the two parties engage in talks for peace, violence in Afghanistan has continued to rise, disproportionately affecting women. Despite the deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban earlier this year, there has been a steady rise in civilian casualties resulting from the violence inflicted by both sides.
A recent spate of attacks and assassinations have gripped Kabul and other parts of the country, and many women working with the government or civil society have been among the people targeted. While in a car with her daughter, Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan parliamentarian and National Assembly vice-president who is one of the five women on the government’s team, was shot at by unidentified gunmen on Aug. 14; though she survived, she was badly injured, and has had to attend the Taliban talks while wearing a cast. One week later, Saba Sahar, an actress-turned-policewoman, was injured in a similar attack in Kabul. And while Ms. Sahar survived, her colleague Fatima Faizi, who worked with the anti-narcotics team in Ghazni province, was kidnapped and later killed in July. Just weeks before that, Fatima Khalil, a 24-year-old employee of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was killed with her driver on their way to work after a targeted bombing.
While the Taliban have denied responsibility in all of these recent attacks – as well as for any attacks related to the U.S. embassy’s warning last week that "extremist organizations” are plotting targeted attacks with “a heightened risk” to “female government and civilian workers – Afghan security officials have blamed the group all the same.
These incidents are just a few of the many ways in which outspoken Afghan women – who have been known to defy the rigid patriarchal codes by the Taliban – have been singled out and targeted. For many of them, these intimidating and silencing tactics feel all too familiar; the insurgent group has a long history of subjugating women during its five-year regime in the 1990s, which continues today in areas they control. Indeed, the Taliban became notorious for their pursuit of a “secure environment where the chastity and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct," denying girls access to school, beating those not wearing a burqa, and refusing to let women work outside their homes.
But there is a strange sense of optimism, all the same. Orzala Nemat, a prominent Afghan academic, sees the challenges as an opportunity to engage and change their mindset. “I appreciate the honesty of the Taliban in admitting they truly don’t believe in women’s participation,” she said. “This will allow our team, especially the women, to change their mindset and rethink their position by actually talking to our women representatives.”
Indeed, as Ms. Koofi and the other women involved in the Taliban talks navigate an extremely sensitive landscape, they face men who have made clear that they do not see them as equals. And in a way, the men don’t realize that they’re right: after all, the women have a disproportionate and larger personal stake in the talks than any of the Afghan men in the room. For that reason, they will push back harder against any systematic attempt to eliminate or intimidate them.
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