Jarring absence

Published September 21, 2020
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

THE plane carrying the Afghan government delegation that set off for Doha to engage with the Afghan Taliban carried a roughly equal number of officials, negotiators and journalists. Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar explained that the inclusion of reporters was pointed, a demonstration of the government’s commitment to press freedom. This was a strong statement, highlighting one of Afghanistan’s greatest achievements — the freest media in the region. What, then, can be interpreted from the paucity of women on board?

Kabul’s 21-member negotiating team includes four women. The High Council for National Reconciliation, a supervisory body meant to direct the negotiation team, counts nine women among its 46 members. The government has been criticised for tokenism, with commentators saying the few women representatives are marginalised. Yet their presence matters, particularly as the Taliban side, not surprisingly, has no women.

Scant female participation in peace negotiations is not a uniquely Afghan problem. Ann Towns and Karin Aggestam in an article on The Gender Turn in Diplomacy cite research showing that 85 per cent of the world’s ambassadors in 2014 were men, with an even higher percentage participating as negotiators or mediators in peace negotiations. The UN Security Council resolution on Women, Peace and Security, which prioritises women’s participation in diplomacy, was passed only two decades ago. When women do participate, their interventions are limited to ‘soft’ issues, and their priorities ‘ghettoised’.

Female representation in the Afghan talks is especially important because the status of women’s rights following any political settlement with the Taliban is a key point of contention. Afghan women don’t want to lose the few rights they’ve gained in the post-Taliban dispensation; the Taliban merely mumble about protecting women in line with Sharia requirements. The few Afghan women who have made it to Doha bear the heavy responsibility of ensuring that their womenfolk can endure life in a post-settlement Afghanistan.

Afghan women are justified in feeling abandoned.

They are right to feel abandoned. The US — which used the plight of Afghan women as justification for its intervention — has not made women’s rights a central condition of the talks. Separately, backchannel outreach between Taliban representatives and Afghan powerbrokers mean a settlement may yet be reached with no female participation.

The sidelining of women’s issues would be a tragedy in a country where female emancipation is nascent. Afghan women have only recently secured the right to be named on official documents, previously only existing in the names of male family members.

The female negotiators’ real challenge is that their opponents are not only the Afghan Taliban, but Afghan society as a whole. A recent UN study indicated that two-thirds of Afghan men believe Afghan women now have too many rights.

Moreover, as Brookings Institution’s John Allen and Vanda Felbab-Brown point out, Afghan women also have a conflicted opinion. The women in the negotiating team and the civil society representatives cheering them on, largely represent the position of urban Afghan women who now enjoy access to education, employment and independent choices. But this reality is barely manifest for rural women, who comprise around 76pc of Afghanistan’s female population. According to Allen and Brown, rural women have been more directly affected by the fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan army, and are more likely to advocate for peace, even at the cost of their own rights.

Afghan women’s — and society’s — position on women’s rights may also evolve as women face heightened threats as a result of the women’s rights agenda’s prominent role in this negotiation. Fawzia Koofi, one of the female negotiators, survived an assassination attempt last month. Before that, Fatima Khalil, a member of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, was killed in a car bomb attack. Filmmakers, activists and even young women roaming Kabul’s streets have all been subject to increasing attacks. Perversely, they may be asked to surrender their rights for their own protection.

The focus on securing Afghan women’s rights is distracting from a broader discussion about the need for meaningful female participation in the talks. Towns and Aggestam point to recent academic research that shows that women’s participation increases the chances that peace agreements will hold over time by up to 35pc.

The real danger is that the women’s rights agenda is used cynically as a way for Kabul to insist upon US forces remaining in the country beyond the May 2021 deadline. This would be a poor outcome, belittling the issue to the status of a political weapon, holding women’s rights hostage to security priorities, and undermining the government’s stated commitment to women’s rights. Afghan women deserve better.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2020


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