The Debate | Opinion

America and the International Community Must Stay Focused on Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Afghan women have fought hard for their rights since 2001. Peace should not come at their expense.

By Fatema Jafari and John A. Lechner for
America and the International Community Must Stay Focused on Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

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

Credit: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

On August 6, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement urging Afghanistan’s grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, to recommend the release of 400 Taliban prisoners. Since the United States signed a security deal with the Taliban on February 29, prisoner exchanges have been a key obstacle to peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. After three days of deliberation, however, the Loya Jirga recommended freeing the prisoners, which — after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s intended approval — paves the way for the intra-Afghan dialogue next week

The intra-Afghan dialogue may result in a new government that includes the Taliban. Despite Pompeo’s assurance to the Loya Jirga that the Taliban have “committed to significantly reduce violence,” casualty figures since the U.S.-Taliban peace deal have remained among the highest on record. And while Americans focus on Russian bounties for coalition lives, Afghan women remain deeply concerned for their own. The United States and the international community, through effective monitoring and aid conditionality, have the power to support Afghan women, even if the Taliban joins a future government.

Afghan women have fought hard for their rights since 2001. Women are in government, own businesses, and run NGOs. Yet there is still a significant urban-rural divide and over 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day. Amidst war, widespread poverty, and illiteracy, the country remains culturally conservative. Despite incredible progress, Afghan women still need outside support. 

Women cannot count solely on their government. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — the government’s official title — is among the most corrupt in the world. It suffers a crisis of legitimacy as well; two men, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, held competing inauguration ceremonies for the presidency this year. Many in government — ex-mujahideen themselves — share the Taliban’s views on women. 

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former U.S.-designated terrorist, signed a peace deal in 2016 and his party, Hizb-e-Islami, is in the government now. On women’s rights he may be more conservative than the Taliban. A female pop singer once asked Hekmatyar whether she could sing if he were president of Afghanistan. His answer: “Let’s allow an Islamic government to be established. Then you will not ask for a concert […] you will ask permission to go to the battlefield.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Women will have seats at the approaching intra-Afghan dialogue. But tokenization is a significant threat. On the other side, the Taliban’s insistence that they support women’s rights “as granted by Islam” is vague, at best. Afghanistan is already an Islamic republic; that the Taliban is at war with the government suggests the country is not “Islamic enough” in their eyes. Seats at the negotiating table today are important, but positions of power in the future are critical. 

There are two ways the United States and the world can support Afghan women. First, sustainable peace in Afghanistan requires monitoring from a neutral international organization. Second, the U.S. and others must make aid to Afghanistan conditional on progress for women.

Several organizations can act as mediators. All parties have accepted the International Committee of the Red Cross as an observer for prisoner exchanges. Afghans also continue to trust the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). After 40 years of war, incentives for demobilization are few. These organizations, and others, can report to aid-giving governments on the status of women’s rights, corruption, and violations of ceasefires. 

U.S. aid will be a lifeline in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Even the Taliban wants aid to continue. Given this influence, a recent Congressional paper sees the opportunity for members to “encourage more equal, inclusive, and effective governance.” Afghan women are the greatest advocates for their own rights, and Congress should play a supporting role. 

The United States rarely leverages aid to Afghanistan, but in March it announced a $1 billion cut in response to the Ghani-Abdullah feud. Indeed, Pompeo’s August 6 statement declared, “the decisions and conduct of both parties to intra-Afghan negotiations will affect the size and scope of future U.S. assistance.” Kabul likely understood the not-so-subtle hint.

Women’s participation in politics, society, and the economy is as important as the typical security and geopolitical concerns; women do, after all, account for about 50 percent of all Afghan citizens. The “size and scope” of future U.S. assistance must be contingent on women’s rights and progress. One tangible example: There is a quota for women’s representation in parliament, 27 percent. Were the Taliban to remove this quota, the U.S. should cut aid. 

The Taliban wants a new constitution. But any such constitution must retain Article 22 — that all men and women are equal. The Taliban cannot annul treaties signed over the past 20 years, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Again, if this occurs, the U.S. should cut aid.

Most Afghan women and men support peace with the Taliban. As a provincial council member in Herat, I have seen many women killed fighting for their basic rights. And while women had no rights under the Taliban, the current situation — violence, government corruption, poverty, lack of education — is also unacceptable. 

As an Afghan woman, I hope that these talks will bring the chance for peace. But that peace cannot come at the expense of the progress which Afghan women have made over the past 20 years. We will continue to fight for our rights and dignity.

Fatema Jafari is a member of the Herat Provincial Council and the author of a book on women’s political participation in Afghanistan. A former Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at Yale, and NED Fellow in Washington, she is now a fellow at the European University in Florence. You can find her bio here.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

John A. Lechner is a former financial analyst with Lazard and Deutsche Bank and currently a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He writes on the history, politics, and languages of the former Soviet Union, Turkey, and Central Asia. Twitter:  @JohnLechner1