The highest level of negotiations till date were conducted recently between American diplomats and representatives of Taliban in Qatar, and a wave of optimism emerged. Many saw it as a move towards ending the long and complex conflict which has affected every aspect of the Afghan society and polity. But one thing stood out during the negotiations and that was the absence of women.
The absence soon drew criticism. The country’s leading women’s rights group, the Afghan Women’s Network, released a strongly-worded statement calling for “the full, equal and meaningful participation of women” in the negotiations. In another initiative led by Time4RealPeace, a civil society initiative of Afghan women and youth has aimed to raise awareness about the lack of female involvement in the peace process. As one of its campaigns, it invited prominent writers and activists from across the world, including Arundhati Roy and Margaret Atwood, to pen an open letter in order to highlight the exclusion of Afghan women’s voices in the ongoing peace process. The open letter published in the Guardian, strongly stated that “we, the women of Afghanistan, will not go backwards”.
When the coalition arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, it was on the back of promises made to Afghan women and future generations. We have been fighting for our rights and representation ever since. We welcome all steps to bring peace to our country, but history has taught us the bloody lesson that you cannot have peace without inclusion.
Feminist scholars across the world have argued that men and women experience conflict differently, and any attempts to arrive at peace must take into account their differing experiences, needs and priorities. They have also highlighted that the image of women as mere victims of a conflict must be challenged, and the immense potential that they hold as agents of peace and reconciliation must be acknowledged. The passage of the UNSC Resolution 1325 in 2000 was a landmark achievement in the field of women, peace and security. It not only highlighted the fact women’s experiences of conflict differs from that of men, but also accorded them an important place in initiatives for peace-building.
Bell and O’Rourke (2010) have observed that women’s inclusion in peace agreement texts is “an important starting point in achieving other political, legal and social gains for women”. They suggest references to women can be significant at the stage of “ceasefire and pre-negotiation agreements; framework agreements which set out the arrangements for substantively settling the conﬂict; and implementation agreements that address implementation of the framework agreement”. Further, in line with the UNSC Resolution 1325, seventy-nine countries, including Afghanistan, have devised National Action Plans to guide the resolution’s implementation. As for the United States, in October 2017, it became the first country in the world to pass a Women, Peace and Security Act, signed off by President Trump himself. It was passed explicitly to “ensure that the United States promotes the meaningful participation of women in mediation and negotiation processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict” across the world.”
Thus both parties at the table, and the whole of international community, must push for greater meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace process.
The long-drawn conflict in Afghanistan has had immense consequences for the lives of women in the country. But it was the Taliban rule (1996-2001) which turned daily life into a nightmare for the Afghan women. In accordance with their strict understanding of the Sharia law, the Taliban restricted women’s access to education, made it mandatory for them to step out with a male guardian, and termed simple things like painting of nails as a crime punishable through lashing. However, several women organisations such as the Afghan Women’s Network and the Revolutionary Association of the Afghan Women continued to fight for their rights and assert their agency in the political future of the country.
As a result of their efforts, the end of the Taliban rule in 2001 brought lofty promises from both the United States and the Afghan government regarding the protection and promotion of women’s rights. The 2004 constitution of the country explicitly mentioned that “the citizens of Afghanistan–whether man or woman–have equal rights and duties before the law.”
It is now time that both the Afghan government and the United States live up to their promises. The women of the country are a major stakeholder in its future, and hold the key to sustainable peace. Marginalising them in the peace process will be a major setback, as will seeing them as mere victims. Any meaningful step for Afghanistan’s future must therefore listen to what its women have to say, and listen to them very closely.