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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Clinging to the Constitution
Both the U.S. administration and Karzai's government say such worries are overblown. Afghanistan's constitution, they insist — which promotes gender equality and provides for girls' education — is not up for negotiation. In Kabul on July 20, Clinton said that the red lines are clear. "Any reconciliation process ... must require that anyone who wishes to rejoin society and the political system must lay down their weapons and end violence, renounce al-Qaeda and be committed to the constitution and laws of Afghanistan, which guarantee the rights of women."

Afghan women cling to such promises like a talisman. But ambiguities abound. Article 3 of the constitution, for example, holds that no law may contravene the principles of Shari'a, or Islamic law. What constitutes Shari'a, however, has never been defined, so a change in the political climate of the country could mean a radical reinterpretation of women's rights. Karzai has already invited Taliban to run for parliament. None have done so, but if they ever do, they may find some like-minded colleagues already there. Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the Minister of Economy and leader of the ideologically conservative Hizb-i-Islami faction, for example, holds that women and men shouldn't go to university together. Like the Taliban, he believes that women should not be allowed to leave the home unaccompanied by a male relative. "That is in accordance with Islam. And what we want for Afghanistan is Islamic rights, not Western rights," Arghandiwal says.

Traditional ways, however, do little for women. Aisha's family did nothing to protect her from the Taliban. That might have been out of fear, but more likely it was out of shame. A girl who runs away is automatically considered a prostitute in deeply traditional societies, and families that allow them back home would be subject to widespread ridicule. A few months after Aisha arrived at the shelter, her father tried to bring her home with promises that he would find her a new husband. Aisha refused to leave. In rural areas, a family that finds itself shamed by a daughter sometimes sells her into slavery, or worse, subjects her to a so-called honor killing — murder under the guise of saving the family's name.

Parliamentarian Sabrina Saqib fears that if the Taliban were welcomed back into the fold, those who oppress women would get a free ride. "I am worried that the day that the so-called moderate Taliban can sit in parliament, we will lose our rights," she says. "Because it is not just Taliban that are against women's rights; there are many men who are against them as well." Last summer, Saqib voted against a bill that authorized husbands in Shi'ite families to withhold money and food from wives who refuse to provide sex, limited inheritance and custody of children in the case of divorce and denied women freedom of movement without permission from their families. The law passed, and that 25% quota of women in parliament couldn't stop it. Saqib estimates that less than a dozen of the 68 female parliamentarians support women's rights. The rest — proxies for conservative men who boosted them into power — aren't interested.

Despite her frustrations with her parliamentary colleagues, Saqib is a firm supporter of the constitutional quota. "In a society dominated by culture and traditions," she says, "we need some time for women to prove that they can do things." If the constitution were revised as part of a negotiation with the Taliban, she says, the article mandating the parliamentary quota "would be the first to go." Arghandiwal, the Economy Minister, would love to see the back of it. "Throughout history, constitutions have changed, so we have to be flexible on this," he says. The quota for women, he claims, "makes them lazy."

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