Afghanistan remains the worst place in the world to be a woman, and the continuation of war makes it additionally difficult for Afghan women to live full, secure lives. Kabul has recently witnessed a new wave of shootings of women, including the murder of a prominent Afghan journalist by her husband’s family.
To put an end to this prolonged violence, an end to the war through a peace deal with the Taliban is necessary. The United States has accepted the Taliban as a legitimate stakeholder and is directly negotiating with them in Doha to bring the long war to an end.
While renewing hopes for peace, the United States-Taliban talks have also renewed fears that when the Taliban join a new political order, Afghan women, who suffered terrible atrocities and oppression under the Taliban rule in the 1990s, will be forced to relive those dark times.
But it is both possible and necessary to negotiate peace with the Taliban while ensuring that women’s rights are secured. I came to believe this after meeting with the Taliban in Doha last month. There is an opening, albeit small and fragile, to talk to the Taliban about women’s rights and freedoms.
In 2001 I joined the board of Women for Afghan Women, a group working with Afghan women who face domestic abuse that runs shelters for them in Afghanistan. In mid-April I traveled to Doha with a colleague to join around 250 Afghan government officials, members of various civil society organizations and the opposition political parties in the first intra-Afghan dialogue on peace with the Taliban.
Although I was not officially invited, it was an opportunity to speak to attendees about ensuring there is no backsliding of the progress Afghan women have made in the past 18 years. Afghanistan has two million or more female heads of households, who often have to fend for themselves and negotiate on a daily basis to survive.
Unfortunately, the formal talks failed to materialize over a disagreement about the size and composition of the delegations coming from Afghanistan. On April 20, the day after formal talks broke down, I met with several members of the Afghan diaspora at a hotel in Doha who were interested in meeting the Taliban. The question of trusting the Taliban troubled many of us, but we wanted to see for ourselves whether they were tired of war and keen to chart a way forward.
Twenty-four of us, including four women, met with 25 Taliban representatives in what turned out to be a six-hour-long conversation. We were not sure how we would be received. My perceptions of the Taliban were formed mostly by the stories of Afghans who had lived under their rule, the stories of those who didn’t survive and my own years living in Kabul, where their attacks had become increasingly brazen and lethal.
The three other women and I were offered the first choice of seats at the discussion table. We sat directly across from the Taliban leaders, including Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the group’s chief negotiator, and Amir Khan Motaqi, former minister of education and son of Mullah Baradar, the only surviving co-founder of the Taliban, who was arrested by Pakistan in February 2010 in Karachi and recently released at the urging of the United States.
The Taliban began by speaking about their interest in peace. They discussed the problems of the war itself, civilian casualties, kidnappings, injustice, narcotics trade and corruption, including the internal displacement of over a million people resulting from forced land grabs by commanders aligned with the Afghan government. They seemed genuine in their desire to engage.
Among the visitors, we women were given the first turn to speak. I spoke about working with women’s organizations, and the other women spoke about the right to education for girls and the need for a cease-fire. The Taliban acknowledged that girls would be able to go to school and women would be able to work.
The Taliban argued that progress on women’s issues can be made only in the context of Islam. The Afghan constitution itself declares Islam the religion of Afghanistan. My colleagues on the front lines in Afghanistan have been fighting against domestic violence by using commandments against such violence in the Quran and encouraging education of women by quoting the Prophet Muhammad urging Muslim women and men to seek education even if they have to go “as far as China.”
We recognize that Islamic interpretation of women’s issues will be at the heart of the debate on women’s rights in Afghanistan, but the basis for the defending of the right to education, work and political life already exists in Islam.
At lunch, we were offered food before the men. We were given gifts of prayer rugs and perfume and clothes. At the end of the meeting, we women asked for a prayer for peace. We were invited to lead the prayer — a rather radical act, as it is always Afghan men who lead the prayers.
This single meeting does not erase the Taliban’s record on women, nor does it undo the terrors of the past, but it was a surprising reception. We need to see the Taliban’s words matched with deeds on the ground. But the conversations with the Taliban offered me the glimmer of hope I needed to believe that peace is possible.
Masuda Sultan is an Afghan-American founding board member of Women for Afghan Women and a co-founder of All in Peace, a movement to bring the longest United States war in history to a peaceful end.