These women recall the era of Taliban rule when they were confined to their homes, while denied education, health care, and the right to work. Although Taliban negotiators claim their views have changed, they vehemently reject the 2004 Afghan constitution that enshrines women’s rights (at least in principle).
Fawzia Koofi, a courageous female member of parliament, fears women’s rights may get short shrift in the current talks. President Trump has made no secret of his eagerness to quit Afghanistan and wants to pull half the 14,000 U.S. troops there out this year, undercutting U.S. leverage at the table.
“It is very worrisome that we may go back to where we were under the Taliban,” Koofi told me by WhatsApp from Kabul. “They [the Taliban negotiators] pretend to be very nice,” she warns, “but it is just for the show of getting Americans to leave.
“We were the victims of war, and now we don’t want to be the victims of peace.”
The U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad — an Afghan American and former U.S. ambassador to Kabul — hopes to clinch a deal by July. But, although they are meeting with Khalilzad, the Taliban still refuse to negotiate with the elected Afghan government. Nor have they agreed to a cease-fire; their fighters in rural areas still destroy girls’ schools.
This behavior reminds me of what I saw in Kabul, during a 1999 visit in the days of Taliban rule.
I met widows who could not get medical treatment (at the one hospital open to females) because they were forbidden to exit their homes, even shrouded in burkas, unless accompanied by a male relative — and they had none. I shadowed 10-year-old girls who attended secret schools because female education was forbidden.
While girls’ education is still lagging, at least 1 in 3 young girls go to school, according to UNICEF — compared to none under the Taliban. Many more girls would go in rural areas were it not for continued fighting.
“There is a major generational change,” says Koofi. “Elders from Badakshan ask to build girls’ schools. An educated girl becomes an asset, respected in the community, a teacher, or a health worker, and she brings money to the family.”
There are few women better qualified than Koofi to warn about the still limited but real progress women have made over the 19 years since the end of Taliban rule — and the risks these talks pose. The 19th of her father’s 23 children, in the remote Afghan province of Badakhshan, she was put outside to die because she was female. She survived, and was taken to Kabul by her strong-willed, illiterate mother after her father was murdered in the Afghan civil war. She managed to get an education, only to see her liberal-minded husband jailed by the Taliban shortly after their marriage.
When I visited her in her home in Kabul in 2011, she had been elected to parliament from Badakhshan (27 percent of all seats in the national legislature are reserved for women). Even then she was fighting for female representation in peace talks. Her 12- and 13-year-old daughters told me they dreamed of becoming, respectively, a political leader and a space engineer.
One daughter is now studying at Montclair State University in New Jersey, the other at the American University of Afghanistan, Kabul.
Last week, Koofi traveled to Moscow with a group of senior Afghan politicians (none from the government) for informal talks with some Taliban leaders. She told them: “If a girl was born 19 years back (after the defeat of the Taliban) she grew up with a new world, and you cannot put her back. You say women have ‘Islamic rights,’ but you have a different interpretation of what this means.”
Indeed, the Taliban back in 1999 said women had a right to “Islamic education” but insisted the time wasn’t ripe for that to happen. If the current Taliban have changed their views, says Koofi, they need to prove it by opening girls’ schools in areas they control. Beyond “rights in Islam,” she asks, “what about women’s human rights according to international conventions? They must accept this, they can’t insist on religious education only.”
Most importantly, she asks that Khalilzad “make clear the women’s issue is not negotiable." The basic provisions on women rights in the Afghan Constitution should be a red line in any talks.
She adds: “It is very premature to remove American troops” while talks are ongoing. “If the United States withdraws completely and if there is no [peace] agreement with all Afghan forces, it will be a surrender to the Taliban.”
All the educated women, brave girl students, nurses, teachers, counselors at women’s shelters, and independent female parliamentarians whose achievements U.S. presidents have touted will once more fear for their lives. That will be an ugly stain on any president who lets it happen on his watch.