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.


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
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France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.