Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban

As the U.S. searches for a way out of Afghanistan, some policymakers suggest negotiating with the Taliban. But that would spell disaster for half the country's population: Afghan women

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Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

The parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi says Afghan women cannot be "the sacrifice by which peace is achieved"

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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?

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."

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