“There was a piercing cry, then nothing,” says Jamila, large tears welling up in her dark eyes. “They were beating her legs with a long metal pipe. When I asked what her crime had been, they said she should have been at mosque, not walking alone down the street.”
Jamila is recalling images from her past that she would much rather forget. Despite all the years that have passed, such memories of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan continue to haunt her.
Now, with the news that U.S. and Afghan officials are holding peace talks with Taliban leaders, the women of Afghanistan are filled with dread at what those negotiations might herald for them and their families. A recent report by global NGO ActionAid found that 86 percent of women questioned were deeply concerned about the prospect of a new Taliban-influenced government. And in the urban areas the figure increased to 92 percent. Women in Afghanistan are concerned that president Hamid Karzai will seek peace at any price. If that means kowtowing to the Taliban on women’s rights, his administration will likely do so, they fear, and then the entire country will take a huge step backward.
Since the U.S. army arrived in Afghanistan a decade ago, women there have witnessed positive changes in the rights attributed to them under the Afghan constitution. Now almost three million girls are in full-time education (although many more do not have access to schooling at all). There are 69 female MPs and many more members of development councils. The pupils at Mirwais Hotaki School in Kabul are, of course, too young to remember the time when young mothers were dragged out and stoned in the Ghazni stadium for adultery. These young women are bright, hardworking, chatty and full of hope. As I tell them that, where I come from, all girls go to school, and can make their own choices about their lives, their eyes light up. Although none of them has heard of London, all of them are delighted to tell me they know who Harry Potter is.
They are undoubtedly the lucky ones. The fact is that Afghanistan remains a very hard place to live as a woman. Oppression is still rife, particularly in the south. Eighty-seven percent of women suffer violence at home and medical care is so poor that one woman dies every half hour in childbirth. Only 13 percent of women are literate (compared with almost 33 percent of men). Although educational opportunities have improved in some areas, in other, mainly rural, parts of the country, girls attending school have been attacked and their classrooms burned to the ground. Women holding prominent public positions live in constant fear of their lives, and some have been murdered, such as Malalai Kakar, the journalist Zakia Zaki, and councillor Sitara Achakzai. Charities and aid organizations working in Afghanistan must keep the details and whereabouts of their projects secret, for fear of reprisals. In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how doing a deal with the Taliban is going to improve matters.
These days not all women wear the burka in Afghanistan, but many still have no choice but to submit to it, just as they submit to their husbands. Thousands are killed or injured every year in road accidents because the burka forces women to walk slowly and restricts vision and movement. Nowadays women have become creative with wearing it. They are conscious of the shapes they cut. Touches of individuality make a fleeting impression—a dash of kohl and turquoise on a heavily cloaked face. They say that if a man sees a burka he knows if she is beautiful from the way she moves. But if a Taliban-sympathetic line is taken with the talks, such tiny expressions of femininity will be sure to disappear once again. A husband will recognize his wife because he buys her shoes for her.
Will women have a say in the peace talks? Jamila herself is skeptical. “The prospect seems unlikely,” she says, shaking her head gravely. She might well be right. There are just nine women out of 70 members of the High Peace Council designated to spearhead the peace discussions. Many men on the Council themselves dismiss the presence of the women, arguing that the women are only there to keep up appearances. The fact that their hosts are Saudi seems even more worrying to them. Saudi Arabia is well known to offer little freedom of opportunity to its own women, who are not permitted to even drive cars.
To ensure effective progress is made on all fronts, Afghan and U.S. leaders must ensure women are actively involved in a settlement that protects the rights accorded to them in recent years. We do not face a fight for just the future of Afghanistan, but a fight for human rights. And it is a future that for the women of the country now more than ever hangs in the balance.