By Saleem Rashid and Arifa Banu
After 18 years of erratic negotiations between the US and Taliban, a deal was signed in Doha, which is expected to bring peace in war-torn Afghanistan. The world is talking about the possibilities in which it can ensure global peace and stability and reduce tension in the subcontinent. But what we are missing out predominantly are the Afghan women. Half of the composition of the Afghan population comprises of women and girls. Citizens below the age of 25 are estimated to be 64%.
In 18 years of this protracted conflict, Afghan women have faced the brunt and suffered the most. Afghan women deserved to be at the forefront of the negotiating table at Doha, to protect and ensure their rights. Their participation was elemental for the peace treaty to succeed. They should have been allowed to protect the civil liberties they had won since 2001.
If the world has grasped anything from wars of the past century, it is that peace deals must be inclusive to stick. History is witness that women and minorities stand to lose the most from any negotiation made behind closed doors and by a room full of men.
After the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, the UN was hopeful that gender policies would become more ‘moderate’ as it matured from a popular uprising into a responsible government with linkages to the donor community. The Taliban refused to give in to international pressure and reacted stoically to aid suspensions.
While in power, the Taliban became notorious internationally for their sexism, complete denial of fundamental rights, and violence against women. This wave of extremely puritanical laws dehumanising Afghan women was done to provide them with a secure environment, thereby protecting their ‘chastity and dignity’. All these measures and restrictions were imposed to convey that they were actually a way of revering and protecting the opposite sex. The behaviour of the Taliban during the six years of their rule from 1996-2001 made a mockery of that claim.
In this extreme case of seclusion mostly referred to as gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work, they were not granted the right to be educated after the age of eight, and until then, were permitted only to study the Quran. The Taliban governance regarding the civic liberties placed severe restrictions on a woman’s freedom of movement and created difficulties for those who could not afford a burqa or didn’t have any Mahram.
These women faced what we can call a house arrest. A woman who was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking the streets alone stated her helplessness at having no other option but to go out alone. Her father was killed in a battle, didn’t have a husband or any other male relatives. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban’s laws. Girls under the age of 16 were forced to marry under the Taliban.
Amnesty International reported that 80% of Afghan women were forced into marriages. The lives of rural women were less badly affected as they generally lived and worked within secure environments. A relative level of freedom was necessary for them to continue with their chores or labour. If these women travelled to a nearby town, the same urban restrictions would have applied to them. The ephemeral fight of the women of Afghanistan has always been at loggerheads with the draconian laws of the Taliban.
Considering their Islamic duties, the Taliban had extended the right to education to both boys and girls; however, girls above the age of eight were prohibited from exercising their right to education. A wide gulf emerged between the literacy rates among males and females in Afghanistan as compared to other South Asian countries.
A meagre 15% of Afghan women can read and write as per the UNICEF statistics. On September 30, 1996, the Taliban decreed a ban on female employment. The overall economy of Afghanistan suffered a great blow with this draconian law. Apart from the banning women from the educational sector, they were also barred from health and public sectors. The impact in the educational sector resulted in a steep drop in elementary education. The health sector of Afghanistan suffered, too, as female patients did not have the recourse to women doctors.
Also, prohibiting them from being operated or treated by male doctors. In the capital itself, the affects were widespread among the 64% of the population which comprises the youth. The ruling affected 106,256 girls, 148,223 male students, and 8,000 female university undergraduates. 7,793 female teachers were dismissed, a move that crippled the provision of education and caused 63 schools to close due to a sudden lack of educators.
On 29th February, the US and Taliban signed a peace treaty, which many analysts regard as America’s fatigue in Afghanistan and Trump’s anxiety to fulfil his electoral promises. However, for a peace treaty to succeed, it should ensure the protection of human and civil rights, including freedom of speech, education, and access to standard healthcare.
The peace treaty did not have any representation of women even when they constitute 64% of the total Afghan population. Mary Akrami, the founder of the Afghan Women Skills Developmental Centre, remarked that Afghan women have been working to build peace for decades. “We have spent years fighting for basic rights and over the past years, for a seat at the table in talks between the US and the Taliban. We are not reassured by the agreement signed by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban’s Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, or by the process that led up to it,” she said.
Article 22 of the Constitution of Afghanistan, decrees that “Any kind of discrimination and distinction between citizens of Afghanistan shall be forbidden. The citizens of Afghanistan, man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law.” Women of Afghanistan are only demanding and reaffirming what the constitution has already guaranteed them.
The Taliban leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani suggested in a New York Times op-ed, that the issue of women being guaranteed these rights would be resolved through consensus among Afghans, doing away with what the constitution already promises. How can the Afghan women trust the Taliban to treat them equally, when the lead negotiator of the deal has refused them a seat on the table?