Afghan women’s inclusion in the current peace negotiations with the Taliban and the United States has become an international cause célèbre. But calls for participation of Afghan women without methodical, sustained and substantive engagement in a peace settlement has the potential to harm them, not help them.
The international community should ensure that Afghan women are not used as window dressing. We’ve seen it happen too often before the Taliban-US deal.
As an Afghan woman and an American woman, both of us having worked on international programs in Afghanistan for several years, we’ve seen firsthand how well-intentioned efforts sometimes promote progress for Afghan women while quietly failing them. So we asked numerous women — in Canada, Britain and Afghanistan, by phone — their thoughts on the peace process.
An Afghan-Canadian woman, Mina Sharif, who has worked in Afghanistan since 2005, shared an example of a multiyear US-funded program to teach computer programming to women in Afghan villages. The program ended with no money or relevant opportunities. Men in the village took it as proof that educating women is pointless, Sharif told PassBlue.
Foreign government agencies regularly claim that such programs benefit Afghan women by providing skills for a future market, or even by increasing their confidence. But Afghan women pay a price for fickle intervention.
“The fact that these programs are not sustainable only serves to justify to the men in these women’s lives that they should have never been in the program in the first place,” Sharif said. “It shows these people that their daughters should not go to school with the reasoning, Don’t you remember that computer class that wasted our time?”
Undermining Afghan women is too high a price for governments and organizations to burnish their reputations for “helping” them. The relatively late inclusion of a delegation of women activists in the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha last summer, for example, drew international headlines of approval. But the sloppy gesture from those in power did not impress all Afghan women.
“It was mere tokenism,” Humaira Rahbin, a women’s and youth activist from Kabul told PassBlue. “Women on that delegation said they were called two days before the trip.” Rahbin, who organized a series of meetings for the delegates on their return from Doha, said women were angry to have been “included” in a way that they feared showed them to be unorganized and unprepared.
“There was no strategy, no pre-selection meetings, no preparation, no consultations,” Rahbin was told by the women.
Afghan women are already doing the hard work of political negotiation. The journalist Farahnaz Forotan launched the #MyRedLine campaign in March 2019 with support from UN Women to tell Afghan decision-makers that peace cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights and freedoms of Afghan women.
Other efforts have been underway even longer. “Since the negotiations started in 2018, women have been advocating and campaigning,” said Mariam Atahi, a journalist and student in peace-building and reconciliation from Kabul.
“There have been a lot of conferences across Afghanistan to see what women wanted in both the rural and urban areas to see how we could find common ground. Women have written lots of pieces and worked to form the narrative on women’s rights in Afghanistan. This includes efforts to change the interpretation of Islamic law that the Taliban implements in the rural areas they control.”
But, Atahi added, these activists were sidelined from the peace negotiations, which are being led by the American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
“The biggest mistake the internationals have made is to introduce Afghan women to the world and to themselves as victims, and therefore as deserving less,” said an Afghan artist and human-rights activist, Rada Akbar. At the Abarzanan exhibition opening in Kabul, celebrating International Women’s Day, on March 8, Akbar spoke about the need to counter the predominantly Western narrative of Afghan women as victims and how it undermines their efforts.
“We’ll not adhere to a racist standard that because we are from Afghanistan we should be O.K. with just the basics, with just lack of bombs going off in our neighborhoods, with just schools for girls, with just right to work for women who dress a certain way or live a certain way,” Akbar said. “We want equal rights for every single person, and we’ll fight for those rights even as we are betrayed by those who patted themselves on the back for ‘saving’ us.”
All Afghan women we spoke with agreed that their lives are better than they were under Taliban rule and express gratitude for international support. But all of them fear what the future may hold for them, particularly if Afghan women are not substantively engaged in peace negotiations and in determining the fate of their country.
“A majority of Afghan women, especially women in big cities, are really grateful for the changes the US supported in women’s empowerment in Afghanistan over the past 20 years,” Rahbin, the activist from Kabul, said. She was recently accepted to study public policy at the University of Cambridge. “But we thought we would be taken seriously when it came to negotiations and the peace process itself. We were surprised that we were overlooked from the beginning.”
At a heavily attended March 10 panel discussion in New York at the United Nations, sponsored by Afghanistan, Britain and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nargis Nehan, a former Afghan minister of mines, petroleum and industries, said the peace process is “oversimplified by many people.”
The stakes for Afghan women are more than just an end of Taliban attacks, Nehan said. When women participate at the negotiation table, they’re “not thinking short-term.” The problem is that international assistance often thinks that way.
Last month, Molly Phee, the US deputy special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said the US would “support whatever consensus the Afghans are able to reach about their future political and governing arrangements.”
But as NBC News reported, “The United States once vowed to liberate Afghan women from the draconian repression of the Taliban, but a planned deal between the US and the insurgents offers no protections for the country’s women, who fear that their hard-won rights could be lost.”
The international community should not underestimate the political sophistication of Afghan women. Photo ops of women at a symbolic negotiating table may appease some people in certain spheres, but that will not satisfy Afghan women. They are accustomed to being told the wrong thing is better than nothing. While their opinions may not always be considered with the weight they should be, they will help determine Afghanistan’s fate.
“We need to acknowledge the fact that Afghanistan has a history of the West making promises to help and then disappearing,” Sharif, the Canadian-Afghan, said. Afghan women feel a “justified urgency” to take what they can and not complain.
“If you were really hungry and someone gave you a fifty-dollar donut, you would probably say thank you, rather than explain that some bags of rice would make more sense for that price,” Sharif said. “Especially if you weren’t asked until after you got the donut. Yes, they said the program was great, and it was, compared to what they had. But you’re failing because it wasn’t smart.”
“Giving” Afghan women a seat they have actually earned, without giving them a chance to substantively participate in the peace process, will only harm them, many women say. Ironically, excluding women also undoes what Atahi called the international community’s “investment” in Afghan women.
“I’m educated and I’m here to serve the country,” Atahi told PassBlue. Indeed, there are many Afghan women who feel this way, but they keep asking, will the international community support them?
“The international community made a huge mistake. They failed,” Akbar, the artist and human-rights activist, said. “Now they don’t want to accept that they failed, and that is why they just want to blame the Afghans, and say it is our duty now to build up our country with a group of terrorists. It’s not all the US’s fault. Everyone who came and joined are responsible today.”
Samea Shanori and Fiona Shukri met in 2008, when they worked together on a Usaid-funded development project in Kabul. Shanori who is from Afghanistan, is currently working with a global media management company in New York City while pursuing her graduate degree in public policy and administration at Columbia University. Shukri is a writer and consultant who has worked in Central Asia and the Middle East as a senior program manager for the National Democratic Institute in Washington D.C., and as a communications strategist at Unesco in Paris and at UNA-USA in New York.