As the Trump administration hastens to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban to end a 17-year long War on Terror, the Taliban is in no similar rush. After initially being pushed across the Pakistani border, the organization has regained dominance in 61 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, increasing their leverage to manipulate and direct negotiations.
The Taliban’s growing role in shaping Afghanistan’s future poses serious risks for Afghan women, who stand to suffer the most from the group’s resurgence. At the threat of losing the minimal human rights they have acquired since 2001, women must urgently find a way to participate in fragile peacebuilding processes.
Promisingly, they can look across the border to Pakistan for lessons in peacebuilding at the grassroots level. In Pakistan, women successfully navigated a similar situation against the Taliban and other violent terrorist groups. Despite specific differences framing women’s participation, the contextual similarities between the two countries lend credence to the effectiveness of a comparable approach.
Women in Peacebuilding: The Unique Cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan
While Afghan women are rarely included in the ongoing peace process, the February 2019 Track II Dialogues held in Moscow were an exception. There, two women in the “unofficial” Afghan delegation negotiated the topic of women’s rights directly with the Taliban. For most Afghan women though, the only option is to informally engage with the extremist group at the local level — through dialogues and petitions — in a bid to protect their rights.
While laudable and without precedent in Taliban-controlled territory, this approach is full of challenges. The societal status of women leaves them with little bargaining power. Furthermore, success in negotiations at the grassroots level is dependent on their ability to skillfully present an argument within an Islamic framework.
In Pakistan, importantly, women’s participation in peace-building is not limited to informal dialogue at the local level. A vibrant development sector presses on with key initiatives to safeguard women’s rights independently. Additionally, the government is supportive of women’s political participation at the electoral and representative level. This recognition has played a crucial role in expanding the scope for women’s participation in avenues where they hold sway — homes and educational institutions. So, although Pakistani women similarly find themselves excluded from formal peace talks, their ability to engage through platforms where they have an established and strong role crucially serves to protect — if not raise — their status in communities.
Yet, despite situational differences, Afghan women can look to the example of Pakistani women to find avenues that are not pinned on direct dialogue with the Taliban, to maintain rights and prevent extremism from spreading in their communities.
For instance, a nonprofit initiative – the Seeds for Peace network – which is headed by renowned activist Gulalai Ismail, successfully mobilized 500 youth in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to enable their communities to challenge the concept of “violent heroism” (martyrdom) through access to training, grants and mentorship. Through its cross-border focus, this effort proved that interventions implemented in Pakistan can also be applied effectively in Afghanistan.
Working within Sociocultural Constraints to Protect Children and Communities
In more conservative areas of the country, where Pakistani women lack the liberty to overtly challenge local norms, they have worked ably to secure peace within the constraints of traditional social structures. In these regions, conditions for women closely mirror those in Afghanistan — including being confined to traditional gender roles that restrict them to their homes and strictly prohibit interactions with men who are not relatives.
In such communities, women have successfully engaged as negotiators in violent, tribal conflict. A local nonprofit, CAMP, has focused its efforts on integrating women in jirgas (local, patriarchal dispute resolution mechanisms), to support the cessation of blood feuds that have continued unabated for decades. In this, despite segregated participation, the viewpoints of women are heard and considered.
Similar efforts were pursued successfully on a national scale in Afghanistan, when nine women were allowed to participate in the High Peace Council in 2010, which had its roots in the National Consultative Peace Jirga organized by Karzai during the same year. In February 2019, arguably as an extension of this initiative, an all-female jirga was organized by Afghan women to record their perspectives on the ongoing peace processes.
In other cases, Pakistani women have identified modes of participation that do not threaten status quo. This includes resisting sending children to madrassas with extremist links, to protect them from being groomed as suicide bombers. There is in fact evidence that women can successfully “prevent their sons and husband from continuing to fight alongside violent extremist groups.” This represents an important lesson for Afghanistan, as the Taliban targets mothers in recruitment strategies to convince them (and their families) to fight for the insurgency.
In Pakistan, additionally, women have used any existing occupational roles to restrain the spread of extremism. This entails teachers modifying curriculum at local schools to equip students with the analytical skills and religious knowledge required to question and resist extremist agendas. Where religious schools are the dominant forms of education, women have stepped up to run madrassas that advance moderate ideologies.
These efforts are notable. A review of various peace-building programs run in Pakistan since 2002 by an international nonprofit indicates that “educational reforms, including Madrassahs [are] high impact [initiatives].” In Afghanistan there are indications that education is being increasingly utilized as a tool for preventing extremism, in an environment where madrassas are often the sole source of community education, even for girls. Here, women have established secular, private schools, such as the Zabuli Education Center.
With Taliban rule imminent in various regions of Afghanistan, women must navigate exceptional challenges to defend hard-won rights and restrain extremism from defining the future of their communities. While there are major restrictions framing their efforts, they can look to the successful cases of Pakistani women’s participation in peace-building efforts for viable solutions. Despite differences in the sociopolitical climate, there are key overlaps in local conditions governing women’s rights in the two countries, that promise the derivation and application of important lessons.
Wajeeha Hazoor is affiliated with the EastWest Institute’s Asia Pacific program. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute.