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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Threats in the Night
For many women, debates over the constitution are an abstract irrelevance. What matters is that mounting insecurity is eroding the few gains they have made. Taliban night letters — chilling missives delivered under the cover of darkness — threaten women in the south of the country, a Taliban stronghold, who dare to work. "We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter," reads one. "We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner," says another. Both letters, which were obtained by Human Rights Watch, are printed on paper bearing the crossed swords and Koran insignia of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the former Taliban government. Elsewhere, girls' schools have been burned down and students have had acid thrown in their faces. In May, mounting violence in the west of the country prompted the religious council of Herat province to issue an edict forbidding women to leave their homes without a male relative. The northern province of Badakhshan quickly followed suit, and other councils are considering doing the same.

The edicts are usually justified as a means of protecting women from the insurgency, but Koofi, the member of parliament, says there is a better way of doing that: improved governance and security. That will not just protect women but also strengthen the Afghan government's hand in the course of negotiations. "We need to marginalize the Taliban by focusing on good governance," she says, fearing that a quick deal would bring only a temporary lull in the violence — enough to permit the international coalition a face-saving withdrawal but not much more than that. Afghanistan's women recognize that dialogue with the Taliban is essential to any long-term solution, but they don't want those talks to be hurried. They want a seat at the table, and they worry that Afghanistan's friends overseas are tiring of its dysfunctional ways. "I think it is possible to make things better if the international community supports good governance," says Koofi, "but they are too focused on an exit strategy. They want a quick solution."

For Afghanistan's women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous. An Afghan refugee who grew up in Canada, Mozhdah Jamalzadah recently returned home to launch an Oprah-style talk show, which has become wildly popular. Jamalzadah has been able to subtly introduce questions of women's rights into the program without provoking the ire of religious conservatives. "If I go into it directly," she says, "there will be a backlash. But if I talk about abuse, which is against the Koran, and then talk about divorce, which is permitted, I am educating both men and women, and hopefully no one notices." Jamalzadah says her audience is increasingly receptive to her message, but she knows that in a deeply traditional society, it will take time to percolate. If the government becomes any more conservative because of an accommodation with the Taliban, she says, "my program will be the first to go."

That would be Afghanistan's loss. Jamalzadah's TV show is an education for the whole nation, albeit sometimes in unexpected ways. On a recent episode, a male guest told a joke about a foreign human rights team in Afghanistan. In the cities, the team noticed that women walked six paces behind their husbands. But in rural Helmand, where the Taliban is strongest, they saw a woman six steps ahead. The foreigners rushed to congratulate the husband on his enlightenment — only to be told that he stuck his wife in front because they were walking through a minefield.

As the audience roared with laughter, Jamalzadah reflected that it may take about 10 to 15 years before Afghan women can truly walk alongside men. But once they do, she believes, all Afghans will benefit. "When we talk about women's rights," Jamalzadah says, "we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place."

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