AFGHANISTAN: Women and Reconciliation: What are the Concerns?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Afghanistan Analysis Network
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Peace is not made with friends, it is made with enemies. Peace deals are then about finding a minimum common ground and making compromises: It comes at a cost, but the price is not necessarily equal for everybody. Sari Kouvo, AAN Senior Analyst, discusses some of the key themes that came up in her meetings with Afghan women about reconciliation and what is needed to make peace in Afghanistan. This blog is the first of a series that will discuss Afghan women's concerns and situation. It is also a first snap shot of 'opinions', and there will be many more opinions to express.

The US-led military intervention in Afghanistan was, in part, legitimized as an effort to ‘liberate Afghan women' from the Taleban's ‘gender apartheid'. In November 2001, the US State Department published a report about the ‘Taliban War against Women' (see here) describing how the liberation of Kabul from Taleban rule had enabled Afghan women to retake their rightful place in society. Similar promises were made by other countries involved in the military and aid efforts. The issue of women and reconciliation still makes it into the international media, as journalists try to assess, for example, what has changed for Afghan women and girls since the fall of the Taleban and what they might lose if a peace deal is struck between their government and the Taleban (see for example here). Horrific individual stories, like the story of Aisha who had her nose cut off*, are used to symbolize all Afghan women's plight (see here). While horrific individual stories may result in emotional outcries from international audiences, they seldom result in a serious discussion about the situation of different groups of Afghan women. Members of the current US administration, especially Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State who is known to champion women's rights have also been questioned hard about whether, when push comes to shove, Afghan women can count on promises made by the US in 2001 and if they can trust the current US government's commitment (see here). At a meeting with Afghan women before the 2010 Kabul Conference, Hillary Clinton stated that she had a ‘personal commitment' to Afghan women and that peace cannot come ‘at the cost of women and women's lives' (see here).

Over the past year I have taken many opportunities to discuss the subject of a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan and specifically reconciliation with the Taleban with Afghan women. This has mostly been with Kabul-based, educated women working in government, civil society and the media. Some are the very women who have helped secure the legal guarantees which now should protect women's rights. All of them have helped carve out a space for women in the public sphere in Afghanistan. Some of their efforts have focused on trying to break with the Taleban era laws and policies, but for the most part, they have been fighting to eradicate much more deep-rooted patterns of misogyny and discrimination. My questions in these discussions have been driven by what I wanted to know: What do urban, educated women think about reconciliation with the Taleban? What I learnt is that my question was wrong. Women do have concerns about reconciliation, and they do worry about what price will be paid for peace and whether women will have to pay that price. However, at least among the women I have talked to, the concern has not been primarily the Taleban; it was the mix of bad governance, impunity and ongoing conflict (including of course violations by the Taleban). Or, as one woman told me: ‘We already have a government of warlords, what difference will the Taleban make?'

Another key concern repeatedly expressed was the rapidly shrinking space for women's rights advocacy. The government's attempts to exert greater control and appease conservative forces within it and outside it, coupled with the volatile security situation, has resulted in vocal women feeling threatened from all sides: The Shiite Family Law and the government's attempts to take control of women's shelters were mentioned as examples of the conservative bent of the government (see here). Direct threats against these women also seem to have become common place, with many feeling exasperated. I have heard many variations along the lines of : ‘I now have to force myself to get going every day; it is difficult at home, it is difficult in the streets and it is difficult at work' and ‘I fear that many of us will have to die.' With very few exceptions, the women I talked to have wanted a political settlement and some have been very concrete about what compromises they felt their government and they could do to get such a settlement. The war – and the corruption and criminality that has followed in its footsteps – was perceived as the worst enemies of Afghanistan and Afghan women.

This said, most of the women that I have talked to have expressed concerns about what compromises the Afghan government will be ready to make and what compromises the US and other significant international players will allow the government to make in order to move towards a political settlement for the conflict in Afghanistan. Women frequently expressed anger and frustration at the way the public is being kept in the dark about what is actually happening, and their lack of avenues for making their concerns heard. This frustration also turned towards the international community: One woman noted that the fact that she had been ‘talking to internationals for years' was now held against her by the same international actors; those who had been seeking her advice and opinion were now questioning whether she was ‘representative of Afghan women' and whether she really understood the concerns of ‘real Afghan women'. Questioning the legitimacy of those Afghan women who have made it into the public realm is of course an easy way of ignoring their opinions and concerns. Many of my discussions have also strayed towards discussing the long-term effects of a settlement with the Taleban. That is, how would a political settlement strengthen conservative forces within government and how would this, over time, affect women's rights? Several of the women noted that the compromises made at the time of the political settlement would probably be less intrusive on women's rights than the long-term strategies of conservative forces inside and outside the Afghan government. A question frequently asked from me has been: What will happen to Afghan women's rights when the world's eyes again turn away from Afghanistan?