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.
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