Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban

15 minute read

The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband’s house. They dragged her to a mountain clearing near her village in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, ignoring her protests that her in-laws had been abusive, that she had no choice but to escape. Shivering in the cold air and blinded by the flashlights trained on her by her husband’s family, she faced her spouse and accuser. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn’t run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Later, he would tell Aisha’s uncle that she had to be made an example of lest other girls in the village try to do the same thing. The commander gave his verdict, and men moved in to deliver the punishment. Aisha’s brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose. Aisha passed out from the pain but awoke soon after, choking on her own blood. The men had left her on the mountainside to die.

This didn’t happen 10 years ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It happened last year. Now hidden in a secret women’s shelter in the relative safety of Kabul, where she was taken after receiving care from U.S. forces, Aisha recounts her tale in a monotone, her eyes flat and distant. She listens obsessively to the news on a small radio that she keeps by her side. Talk that the Afghan government is considering some kind of political accommodation with the Taliban is the only thing that elicits an emotional response. “They are the people that did this to me,” she says, touching the jagged bridge of scarred flesh and bone that frames the gaping hole in an otherwise beautiful face. “How can we reconcile with them?”

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That is exactly what the Afghan government plans to do. In June, President Hamid Karzai established a peace council tasked with exploring negotiations with Afghanistan’s “upset brothers,” as he calls the Taliban. A month later, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, a New York based NGO, flew to Kabul seeking assurances that human rights would be protected in the course of negotiations. During their conversation, Karzai mused on the cost of the conflict in human lives and wondered aloud if he had any right to talk about human rights when so many were dying. “He essentially asked me,” says Malinowski, “What is more important, protecting the right of a girl to go to school or saving her life?” How Karzai and his international allies answer that question will have far-reaching consequences. Aisha has no doubt. “The Taliban are not good people,” she says. “If they come back, the situation will be worse for everyone.” But for others, the rights of Afghan women are only one aspect of a complex situation. How that situation will eventually be ordered remains unclear.

As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. The publication of some 90,000 documents on the war by the freedom-of-information activists at WikiLeaks working with the New York Times , the Guardian in London and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel has intensified international debate. Though the documents mainly consist of low-level intelligence reports, taken together they reveal a war in which a shadowy insurgency shows determined resilience; where fighting that enemy often claims the lives of innocent civilians; and where supposed allies, like Pakistan’s security services, are suspected of playing a deadly double game. Allegations of fraud and corruption in the Afghan government have exasperated Congress, as has evidence that the billions of dollars spent training and equipping the Afghan security forces have so far achieved little. In May, the U.S. death toll passed 1,000. As frustrations mount over a war that even top U.S. commanders think is not susceptible to a purely military solution, demands intensify for a political way out of the quagmire.

Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve a reconciliation with the Taliban or, at the very least, some elements within its fold. But without safeguards, that would pose significant risks to the very women U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised in May not to abandon. “We will stand with you always,” she said to female members of Karzai’s delegation in Washington. Afghan women are not convinced. They fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined. “Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved,” says Fawzia Koofi, the former Deputy Speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament.

Yet that may be where negotiations are heading. In December, President Obama set a July 2011 deadline for the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. That has made Taliban leaders feel they have the upper hand. In negotiations, the Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women’s rights, which they deem a Western concept that contravenes Islamic teaching. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. “You have to be realistic,” says a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.” Which sounds understandable. But who, precisely, will be asked to make the sacrifice?

The parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi says Afghan women cannot be "the sacrifice by which peace is achieved"
The parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi says Afghan women cannot be "the sacrifice by which peace is achieved"Jodi Bieber—INSTITUTE for TIME

Stepping Out

When the U.S. and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of removing the safe haven that the Taliban had provided for al-Qaeda, it was widely hoped that the women of the country would be liberated from a regime that denied them education and jobs, forced them indoors and violently punished them for infractions of a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Under the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women accused of adultery were stoned to death; those who flashed a bare ankle from under the shroud of a burqa were whipped. Koofi remembers being beaten on the street for forgetting to remove the polish from her nails after her wedding. “We were not even allowed to laugh out loud,” she says.

It wasn’t always so. Kabul 40 years ago was considered the playground of Central Asia, a city where girls wore jeans to the university and fashionable women went to parties sporting Chanel miniskirts. These days the streets of Kabul once again echo with the laughter of girls on their way to school, dressed in uniforms of black coats and white headscarves. Women have rejoined the workforce and can sign up for the police and the army. Article 83 of the constitution mandates that at least 25% of parliamentary seats go to female representatives.

During Taliban times, women’s voices were banned from the radio, and TV was forbidden, but last month a female anchor interviewed a former Taliban leader on a national broadcast. Under the Taliban, Robina Muqimyar Jalalai, one of Afghanistan’s first two female Olympic athletes, spent her girlhood locked behind the walls of her family compound. Now she is running for parliament and wants a sports ministry created, which she hopes to lead. “We have women boxers and women footballers,” she says. “I go running in the stadium where the Taliban used to play football with women’s heads.” But Muqimyar says she will never take these changes for granted. “If the Taliban come back, I will lose everything that I have gained over the past nine years.”

It would be easy to dismiss such fears as premature. The Taliban leadership has not yet shown any inclination to reconcile with Karzai’s government. But a program to reintegrate into society so-called 10-dollar Talibs — low-level insurgents who fight for cash or over local grievances — is already in place. Koofi worries that such accommodations may be the first step down a slippery slope. Reintegrating low-level Taliban could mean that men like those who ordered and carried out Aisha’s punishment would be eligible for the training and employment opportunities paid for by international donors — without having to account for their actions. “The government of Afghanistan needs to make it clear, not just by speaking but by action and policy, that women’s rights will be guaranteed,” says Koofi. “If they don’t, if they continue giving political bribes to Taliban, we will lose everything.”

Clinging to the Constitution

Both the U.S. administration and Karzai’s government say such worries are overblown. Afghanistan’s constitution, they insist — which promotes gender equality and provides for girls’ education — is not up for negotiation. In Kabul on July 20, Clinton said that the red lines are clear. “Any reconciliation process … must require that anyone who wishes to rejoin society and the political system must lay down their weapons and end violence, renounce al-Qaeda and be committed to the constitution and laws of Afghanistan, which guarantee the rights of women.”

Afghan women cling to such promises like a talisman. But ambiguities abound. Article 3 of the constitution, for example, holds that no law may contravene the principles of Shari’a, or Islamic law. What constitutes Shari’a, however, has never been defined, so a change in the political climate of the country could mean a radical reinterpretation of women’s rights. Karzai has already invited Taliban to run for parliament. None have done so, but if they ever do, they may find some like-minded colleagues already there. Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the Minister of Economy and leader of the ideologically conservative Hizb-i-Islami faction, for example, holds that women and men shouldn’t go to university together. Like the Taliban, he believes that women should not be allowed to leave the home unaccompanied by a male relative. “That is in accordance with Islam. And what we want for Afghanistan is Islamic rights, not Western rights,” Arghandiwal says.

Traditional ways, however, do little for women. Aisha’s family did nothing to protect her from the Taliban. That might have been out of fear, but more likely it was out of shame. A girl who runs away is automatically considered a prostitute in deeply traditional societies, and families that allow them back home would be subject to widespread ridicule. A few months after Aisha arrived at the shelter, her father tried to bring her home with promises that he would find her a new husband. Aisha refused to leave. In rural areas, a family that finds itself shamed by a daughter sometimes sells her into slavery, or worse, subjects her to a so-called honor killing — murder under the guise of saving the family’s name.

Parliamentarian Sabrina Saqib fears that if the Taliban were welcomed back into the fold, those who oppress women would get a free ride. “I am worried that the day that the so-called moderate Taliban can sit in parliament, we will lose our rights,” she says. “Because it is not just Taliban that are against women’s rights; there are many men who are against them as well.” Last summer, Saqib voted against a bill that authorized husbands in Shi’ite families to withhold money and food from wives who refuse to provide sex, limited inheritance and custody of children in the case of divorce and denied women freedom of movement without permission from their families. The law passed, and that 25% quota of women in parliament couldn’t stop it. Saqib estimates that less than a dozen of the 68 female parliamentarians support women’s rights. The rest — proxies for conservative men who boosted them into power — aren’t interested.

Despite her frustrations with her parliamentary colleagues, Saqib is a firm supporter of the constitutional quota. “In a society dominated by culture and traditions,” she says, “we need some time for women to prove that they can do things.” If the constitution were revised as part of a negotiation with the Taliban, she says, the article mandating the parliamentary quota “would be the first to go.” Arghandiwal, the Economy Minister, would love to see the back of it. “Throughout history, constitutions have changed, so we have to be flexible on this,” he says. The quota for women, he claims, “makes them lazy.”

Threats in the Night

For many women, debates over the constitution are an abstract irrelevance. What matters is that mounting insecurity is eroding the few gains they have made. Taliban night letters — chilling missives delivered under the cover of darkness — threaten women in the south of the country, a Taliban stronghold, who dare to work. “We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter,” reads one. “We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner,” says another. Both letters, which were obtained by Human Rights Watch, are printed on paper bearing the crossed swords and Koran insignia of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the former Taliban government. Elsewhere, girls’ schools have been burned down and students have had acid thrown in their faces. In May, mounting violence in the west of the country prompted the religious council of Herat province to issue an edict forbidding women to leave their homes without a male relative. The northern province of Badakhshan quickly followed suit, and other councils are considering doing the same.

The edicts are usually justified as a means of protecting women from the insurgency, but Koofi, the member of parliament, says there is a better way of doing that: improved governance and security. That will not just protect women but also strengthen the Afghan government’s hand in the course of negotiations. “We need to marginalize the Taliban by focusing on good governance,” she says, fearing that a quick deal would bring only a temporary lull in the violence — enough to permit the international coalition a face-saving withdrawal but not much more than that. Afghanistan’s women recognize that dialogue with the Taliban is essential to any long-term solution, but they don’t want those talks to be hurried. They want a seat at the table, and they worry that Afghanistan’s friends overseas are tiring of its dysfunctional ways. “I think it is possible to make things better if the international community supports good governance,” says Koofi, “but they are too focused on an exit strategy. They want a quick solution.”

For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous. An Afghan refugee who grew up in Canada, Mozhdah Jamalzadah recently returned home to launch an Oprah-style talk show, which has become wildly popular. Jamalzadah has been able to subtly introduce questions of women’s rights into the program without provoking the ire of religious conservatives. “If I go into it directly,” she says, “there will be a backlash. But if I talk about abuse, which is against the Koran, and then talk about divorce, which is permitted, I am educating both men and women, and hopefully no one notices.” Jamalzadah says her audience is increasingly receptive to her message, but she knows that in a deeply traditional society, it will take time to percolate. If the government becomes any more conservative because of an accommodation with the Taliban, she says, “my program will be the first to go.”

That would be Afghanistan’s loss. Jamalzadah’s TV show is an education for the whole nation, albeit sometimes in unexpected ways. On a recent episode, a male guest told a joke about a foreign human rights team in Afghanistan. In the cities, the team noticed that women walked six paces behind their husbands. But in rural Helmand, where the Taliban is strongest, they saw a woman six steps ahead. The foreigners rushed to congratulate the husband on his enlightenment only to be told that he stuck his wife in front because they were walking through a minefield.

As the audience roared with laughter, Jamalzadah reflected that it may take about 10 to 15 years before Afghan women can truly walk alongside men. But once they do, she believes, all Afghans will benefit. “When we talk about women’s rights,” Jamalzadah says, “we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place.”

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