Asia Life | Society | South Asia

Afghanistan’s Women Are the Key to a Lasting Peace

To guarantee a peace process that will materialize and come to fruition, women need to be substantively involved at every level, from pre-negotiation to talks.

By Sohrab Azad for
Afghanistan’s Women Are the Key to a Lasting Peace

Afghan women attends an election campaign rally by Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 5, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

The continuous clashes between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban after the U.S.-Taliban ceasefire agreement is gradually closing the window of opportunity for Afghanistan to attain long-lasting stability. Disagreements over the timeline for releasing Taliban prisoners and Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah’s inability and lack of political will to create an inclusive government have created potentially fatal setbacks for the peace process. However, Ghani’s recent proposal to let Abdullah lead the peace process might prove advantageous to the Afghan government. A unified response to settle a deal with the Taliban is only possible through peacemaking, peace management, and peacebuilding.

This peace process should be geared toward supporting and establishing a culture of peace rather than a culture of war. However, for too long, a majority of Afghans have not been included in the discussions about the future of their country. This often is done deliberately, as by excluding with swaths of the population from the ongoing discourse, the political elite of the country have been able to maintain a monopoly on the political economy of Afghanistan. To guarantee a peace process that will materialize and come to fruition, women need to be substantively involved at every level from pre-negotiation to talks, instead of serving as a symbolic checkbox that needs to be ticked off for the illusion of inclusion, as has occurred far too often in Afghanistan. There is still time to develop a negotiations framework and foundation that allows women to be essential components of the greater infrastructure of the peace process.

For most Afghans, peace would be a new normal and a collective aspiration that must be comprised of key elements that are acceptable to every person, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. Simply having a ceasefire followed by a power-sharing agreement should not be the end goal of this process because the role and pain of women can easily be disregarded. In essence, an arrangement should not be reached that would see combat stop but would not fundamentally change the system of governance that has systematically excluded a plurality of the Afghan citizenry for decades.

A massive obstacle in fully integrating women in the peace process is the disagreement among major stakeholders in the conflict about their value. Those in power — ranging from the political elite to local leaders to civil servants — are likely to only be concerned about how a potential power-sharing agreement will affect their power and access to patronage networks, meaning that women will not be viewed as vital participants unless it is beneficial to them. All indications suggest that the United States is simply attempting to broker an agreement that will reduce violence and allow for a withdrawal of troops, not safeguarding or providing basic rights for women and more marginalized religious and ethnic communities. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent announcement that Washington will cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan if an inclusive government is not formed in Kabul makes clear that the United States is tired of the zero-sum attitudes of Afghan politicians and is using the aid as leverage to focus on getting out of the country. Moreover, Pompeo has made clear time and again that it is not the responsibility of the United States to ensure that women and other minorities are included in the negotiations.

In some circles, there is an unwarranted fear that the inclusion of women and minorities will produce a spoiling effect, preventing an accord between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This fear resulted in a conscious effort to exclude women from the peace talks. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has been in this position before. Since 2005, women have had an active role in negotiations only twice, so the exclusion of women has not proven to produce peace.

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These unsuccessful strategies have prevailed because there is an antiquated assumption that women’s empowerment is only of concern to urban Afghan women and international funders and excludes the voices of rural women. It is very important to note that women in Afghanistan, like in every other country, are not a monolith. To discount the achievements and accomplishments of one group of women, such as those in rural areas, is a deliberate attempt to strip them of their agency and discount them from the conversation. Urban and rural women across Afghanistan are in different stages of their lives and practice varying lifestyles. However, this divergence of ideas does not differentiate the goal of peace for both urban and rural women.

A United States Institute for Peace-commissioned study in 2019 found that although some rural women prefer a traditional role in their family structure, they believe that is still contributing to peace since families are the core of the community. However, this is not all-encompassing; many rural women express a desire to play a more active role in their communities, even when it threatens their lives. The notion that rural women do not believe that they should play a role in political matters such as the upcoming peace talks is a canard. Moreover, the study found that most women, urban and rural alike, perceive education as being the most effective tool in building sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Further, the Asia Foundation in its annual survey of Afghan society demonstrated that rural women are more likely to vote for women officials and that there is a growing and widespread increase of support for women working outside the home and gender equality within education. Those who stated that women should not work outside of the home cited security reasons as their main concern.

The gap between urban and rural women is often manufactured, at times deliberately by those with selfish motives, and acts as another roadblock to peace. Even if there were vast disagreements, it would prove beneficial to allow more women to build the foundations of peacemaking to provide a more effective, genuine, and inclusive political dialogue.

In Afghanistan, the perception of whether women are viewed as victims or agents is based on distorted cultural elements. The perception of women is not fueled by cultural heritage, but rather a culture of war that has been accepted and pushed by oppressive actors, both domestic and foreign. In the mid-20th century, Afghanistan had a progressive outlook on women and movement toward equal rights was steady. Women were granted the right to vote in 1919, a year before the United States had equal suffrage. When a new constitution was ratified in the 1960s, women were key authors who brought gender equality to many aspects of their lives. The violence that followed, the growth of extremist ideologies, and the rule of the Taliban all contributed to limiting women’s agency by banning them from public life and service. For years, women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone and young girls were not able to study. Therefore, the current state of women has not been perpetual throughout time. Afghanistan is in a temporary period in history that is defined by a culture of war and extremism instead of peace and moderation.

Even with grave political and societal repression, the women of Afghanistan have fought to make their agency clear and to involve themselves in the governance and future of their country. Women activists have fostered a culture of peace through participating in athletics and street art. Soccer clubs and martial arts studios that include girls change the attitudes and perceptions of old and young men alike toward women by showcasing their strengths and contributions. In the past, most Afghan women and girls had very few opportunities to play sports, let alone have the proper equipment or training. Now, women have protected spaces and national Olympic programs have been established. The all-girls robotics team has won international contests in Europe and Afghan girls have been included in science competitions in India. Around the country, young girls paint murals depicting the struggles of women and the hope for a more free and fair society. Afghan women’s resistance is a showcase of the people’s continuous struggle with war. This is a revived tradition of peace with a realization that Afghanistan needs to enter a new era and women will be at the forefront.

Since 2001, there has been a great transition back to the participation of women in the political and economic environment. President Ashraf Ghani’s National Action Plan, launched in 2015, has paved the way to involve more women in higher-level positions than ever before in the history of the country as 28 percent of the parliament is comprised of women legislators. At the state and local level, women make up 22 percent of provincial peace councils and 48 percent community development councils. While this participation may at times be largely symbolic, it sends a message that women are regaining their rightful position at the heart of Afghan society. Out of the $1 billion in export commodities that Afghanistan produces, women provide nearly 80 percent of the labor. Beyond their political participation and labor, women are innovating in the realm of business, as more than 1,200 female-owned businesses are operating out of Kabul, Herat, and Balkh provinces. As more young girls are able to pursue education, making up 35 percent of the students, it is a reality that women’s empowerment is economic empowerment and the inclusion of women Is a necessity for the country.

With all of this progress, out the 21-member peace team established by Kabul, which was rejected by the Taliban, only five members were women. Empowerment is not simply having a diverse set of persons in a government or council, but also letting them drive the narrative and establish the framework.

This is the perfect time to utilize the achievements of women as an instrument of peace. As the Taliban prepare to restrict the freedoms that women have worked for in the past two decades, the conditions of the peace process need to be set to reject any offer that takes Afghan women back in time. The value and role of women in Afghan society are undeniable and non-negotiable. Excluding women from the design of the peace process simply denotes them as another issue in Afghanistan rather than a central core that binds the country’s future.

Intra-Afghan dialogue is the best mechanism to end the conflict and to have a fully unified force determined to chase prosperity. Every segment of society needs to be involved to share their grievances and vision for the country. Excluding voices or minimizing them will not be helpful to produce peace. The goal is not to simply stop violence and reintegrate the Taliban back into society but to also promote tolerance and have an understanding of every Afghan’s narrative. Leaving anyone behind means that the country will be faced with more uncertainty than before. The new strategy for peacemaking should be to include the voices of women who are building communities and promoting hope from the governmental level to the local level. The design must shift before Afghans lose this window of opportunity. If women are not granted a meaningful role in the peace talks, then no one will be able to move forward.

Sohrab Azad is a graduating senior in the School of International Service at American University. Azad, an Afghan native, previously worked for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. as a media and communications officer.