A New Way Forward: Reconciliation and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

I had the pleasure last week of being interviewed alongside noted author and human rights advocate Ann Jones.  The conversation focused on reports of negotiations (real or otherwise) in Afghanistan and quickly moved into a discussion on the centrality and importance of women’s rights in any negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict.

In the south and the east of the country (and, unfortunately, increasingly over the last two years in parts of northern and western Afghanistan) the most pressing concern to women and their families is the daily and constant violence.  Achieving a settlement that addresses and resolves the political causes of the fighting is, of course, the priority for southern and eastern Afghanistan.  A woman’s primary concern right now is the very real and current possibility of her family being killed by an errant missile or roadside bomb, as opposed to any promises of future cultural, educational, or economic advancement.

In the northern, western and urban parts of Afghanistan, it is commonly believed that gains have been realized for women since the fall of the barbaric and excessive Taliban regime in 2001.  So, any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan would seemingly need to see protections of such gains as a priority.  However, it is not that simple, since the notion of such gains has limits.  This is because the role of women in all parts of Afghan society, not only in the conservative south, cannot be divorced from generations upon generations of misogynist traditions anchored by cultural and religious roots.  In contrast to popular narrative in the United States, none of the sides in the multi-dimensional and multi-layered Afghan conflict are champions of women’s rights.  This is a point highlighted by Kabul resident, Anita Sreedhar, in her recent essay “Dinner Plans in Kabul”:

Like all local women in the neighborhood, I can’t leave the house alone. People outside of Afghanistan are shocked to hear this – “but the Taliban have left, no?” Yes indeed, but the Taliban did not make these rules. Many of these rules were actually enforced and created during the time before the Taliban by warlords who, bloated with arms and cash from Pakistan and the US (in order to defeat the Russians), fractured the country.

After the Taliban were defeated, those same warlords were brought back into power by the US. The Karzai government resumes must read like a list charges at an international tribunal. The human rights’ violations are endless. And it is thanks to them (and not the Taliban) that I have to live in a capital city shuttered by extreme conservatism.”

A negotiated settlement is needed to end the Afghan conflict, not just to stop the mindless and pathological infighting between several generations of Afghans, or to guarantee the disassociation of Afghan militias from political and religious groups with trans-national terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, but also to enable structural and institutional assurances of progress for future generations of Afghans, most especially women.  David Cortright, an Afghanistan Study Group member and the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has co-authored a report entitled, “Afghan Women Speak”.  The report, to be presented to the United Nations Forum on Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan on October 28th, provides recommendations for a way forward for reconciliation and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

As the Afghan war continues to worsen and prospects for a better future appear hopeless to many Afghans, it is proposals like David’s, as well as the Afghanistan Study Group, that should be at the forefront of discussions in Washington and Kabul.

Matthew P. Hoh
Director, Afghanistan Study Group

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