Afghan women reach for the veil as Taliban re-emerges

Afghan football fans watch a Roshan Afghan premiere league match between Toofan Harirod and Simorgh Alborz at the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) stadium in Kabul. (File/AFP)
Updated 09 March 2019
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Afghan women reach for the veil as Taliban re-emerges

  • Taliban’s resurgence comes after progress in peace talks between the group's representatives and the US
  • Many women fear for their rights as hardliners return

KABUL: As night falls in Afghanistan, many young Afghan men rush home for fear of falling prey to criminal activities, which are still rife in the country’s major cities that remain untouched by insurgency.
Now and then, however, one can spot a few women driving in certain urban areas of the country.
Their freedom to do so was won after the ouster of the Taliban. The hardline Islamist group held power over the majority of the country from 1996 to 2001, and imposed strict rules on women in that time, including banning them from education and outdoor activities. Those who opposed the group’s orders were publicly flogged.
And even the liberties enjoyed by Afghan women since the Taliban were removed from power are in no way comparable to the freedom which they enjoyed for decades prior to the civil war in the 1990s when they were at the forefront in several areas.
Today, Afghan women can run their own businesses, go to the gym and swimming pools allocated for women, and ride bicycles in public. Several have earned accolades for the country in the sports, fashion, and entertainment sectors. The number of women who hold senior government positions is unprecedented in Afghanistan’s history.
But there are fears that all of that might be a thing of the past with the Taliban slowly working its way back into the government.
On the eve of International Women's Day on March 8, several women told Arab News that they are concerned about their futures, as peace talks between the insurgents and US representatives gain momentum.
The dialogue in Doha, Qatar — which will likely grant the Taliban some representation in the government — is based on the condition that Washington withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. Women are excluded from the discussions.
There have been calls for Washington — which has taken credit for the Taliban's ouster and the “empowerment” of women in Afghanistan — not to sideline women’s rights in order to finalize a deal.
“It’s far from clear — despite some of the rhetoric — that the Taliban has any intention of ensuring a place for women in negotiations,” Belquis Ahmadi, a well-known Afghan women rights activist wrote recently. “It is also uncertain whether the United States, faced with the realities of trying to wind down the war, is in a position to do much about it, assuming the US even has the will to try. This has left Afghan women fearing abandonment after years of posting extraordinary gains in every area of public life."
To preserve those gains, and block the insurgents from restricting women’s rights, she wrote, “Afghans negotiating with the Taliban, as well as the international community, must take the red lines set down by Afghan women seriously."
Days ahead of her letter, the government convened a large gathering of female representatives from around the country in Kabul. Those women delivered a clear message, stating that they “want peace, but not at the cost of our rights.”
Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the talks with the Taliban as Washington’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan. He has been criticized by some local women activists who claim he is ignoring the rights of Afghan women.
The chiding prompted his wife, Cheryl Benard, who is the Director of Metis Analytics and the author of “Civil Democratic Islam” to respond, saying that it was not the responsibility of America to ensure the rights of Afghan women.
“As women in Western civilization, we didn’t get our rights because people from a different culture far away felt sorry for us and sent their soldiers and tons of their money to lift us out of oppression,” Benard, who was born in 1953, wrote. “We got our rights through a lengthy and difficult struggle, by proving our capabilities and our worth and by perseverance. Every step of it was hard — the right to vote, the right to study, the right to work, the right to not be beaten by one's husband, the right to own property. Advancement toward greater justice, fairness and inclusion is a process every society has to go through on its own.”
She expressed concern that some Afghan women seemed to be against the withdrawal of US troops, not out of concern for the troops, but for themselves.
“Emancipation and equality aren’t the product of pity or guilt, and you aren’t owed them by someone else’s army or taxpayer dollars. Seventeen years, 2,500 dead Americans and $126 billion are enough. More is not only unjustified but wouldn't achieve the desired outcome anyway,” she wrote.
Her article drew criticism from several commentators in Afghanistan, with Muqadesa Yourish, a prominent women's rights activist, saying that women should be included in the peace talks.
“Time to think of women as strategic partners in the peace process, not mere victims or recipients of peace," she said in a tweet.
Mawlavi Qalamuddin, a former Taliban minister who is a member of the peace council claimed that the Taliban will give women their rights according to Islam. "I know that Afghan women want what Islam has ordered for them as their due right and the Taliban will give them all of those rights," he said while speaking at a debate with media last week.
Some local women have stated that they are against any peace deal with the Taliban, but supporters of the peace process point out that men with alleged record of grave human-rights violations and abuses have already been accommodated in the government, so excluding the Taliban on those grounds seems inconsistent.
Among many cases, they point out at Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of Maidan Shehr city in Maidan Wardak province, who was kept from assuming her office for nearly eight months by influential male authority figures in the government.
Nasrin Gul, a 45-year-old tailor, said that attaining peace for Afghanistan was the most important goal.
“Not everyone serving in this government is good and not all the Taliban are bad,” Gul, who hails from the eastern Nangarhar province, told Arab News. “We should not accept any deviation under the name of democracy and we should also not allow people to give their orders in the name of Islam. The Taliban are not the Taliban of 17 years ago; they have learned and changed. So let us not sacrifice peace for our personal goals and demands.”
Zakia Wardak, a prominent politician, said that Afghan women are not scared of the Taliban, but are concerned over the group’s ideals.
“The Taliban do not (instill) fear but they bring unknown, with a feeling of uncertainty and pain from the past that women endured, which gets misinterpreted as fear,” she said.


Knife attacker injures four staff at Oslo school: police

Norway police said they apprehended the attacker and the motive was not immediately clear. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Knife attacker injures four staff at Oslo school: police

  • The four victims, all school employees, were taken to hospital with minor injuries

OSLO: An attacker armed with a knife injured a teacher and three other staff at a school in Oslo on Tuesday, police said.
Police said they apprehended the attacker and the motive was not immediately clear.
The four victims, all school employees, were taken to hospital with minor injuries, police told Norwegian news agency NTB.