Will US protect women rights in future Afghan government?

Women rights is a contentious issue at negotiation table with the Taliban which is underway in Doha, capital of Qatar. Under the strict Islamic law of the Taliban rule during 1996-2001, Afghan women were not only prohibited from education and work outside home, they were not even allowed to get out of home without a male companion. After fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghan girls were allowed to get education and millions of girls are now studying in schools across Afghanistan. As Acting Minister of Women Affairs Hassina Safi put it in a panel discussion hosted by United States Institute of Peace (USIP),  thousands of women are currently working in different Afghanistan’s state agencies, including security, justice, and judicial institutions, leave aside women and girls working in private sectors.

Concerns over a likely compromise on this hard achievement increased dramatically after the US-Taliban peace deal signed on February 29. In the agreement, no mention is made about women rights and the US cooperation with a post-settlement government is not bound to any women rights related condition either. “The United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and will not intervene in its internal affairs,” part of the agreement reads.

Every Taliban officials, mostly their negotiators in Doha, say that they will respect women’s rights in the light of sharia. “We are obliged to respect women rights, including the right to education and work, in the light of principles of Islam,” said Mohammad Naeem, spokesperson for the Taliban political office in Doha when Kabul Now reporter asked him whether women would have the opportunity in a future government with presence of the Taliban.

To protect the women rights, civil society activists and Afghan women have so far acted in different ways, including convening large gatherings, rallies, hashtag campaigns, and writing open letters to influential parties. “We want a peace in which the women of Afghanistan, like in your nations, are considered equal humans and are given equal protection and opportunities. With your support, we have taken great risks and have worked incredibly hard to achieve the rights we have today,” the Afghan women said in an open letter they addressed to the women world leaders earlier in August 2020. In the panel discussion hosted by the USIP, Habiba Sarabi, a member of negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, said that they have not discussed the women rights in official meetings between the two sides. “They are showing some sort of willingness to talk about women’s rights. But they are mostly talking about women’s rights in Islam,” Sarabi said of her meeting with the Taliban officials in side events. She added that it was as the result of pressures from outside, especially by outside women rights activists. Sarabi went further to mention the open letter addressed to women world leaders is of special importance in encouraging Taliban to discuss the issue. Although the Taliban officials have made remarks about accepting women rights according to Islamic Sharia, their commanders on the ground have largely proved to be misogynic by holding kangaroo courts and shutting down girls’ school in their controlled areas.

Is it a “redline” for US?

Against the backdrop of perceptions strengthened by the US-Taliban deal and widely raised concerns, three US officials – one from the US Department of State and two from USAID – spoke promisingly at the USIP panel discussion about the country’s support for protection of women rights and achievements in a post-settlement government. The three officials described future US assistance bound to respect of women’s rights by the future Afghan government.

Kelley E. Currie, US’ Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues, who was speaking on behalf of the US Department of State even went further to mention protection of the progression made on women rights in Afghanistan as a “redline” for the United States. “The US continues to support you. We see you, we hear you, we hear your concerns and fears, hopes, and aspirations and we stand with you,” she addressed the Afghan women and girls, expressing concern about targeted attacks on women. “We support a sovereign, inclusive, unified, representative Afghanistan at peace with its self and its neighbors and respectful of all its citizens, including its women. A future Afghan government that does not protect the rights of women should not expect the same US policy towards Afghanistan that we have today,” she noted, describing progress in these areas as “redline” for the US.

“Let me be clear. No current or future Afghan government should count on US support, if that government neglects, restricts, or represses Afghan women and girls,” warned Jenny A. McGee, Associate Administrator for Relief, Response and Resilience, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID. She added that the US will continue to support and stand by Afghan women who are advocating for their rights at time of peace negotiations. According to him, the US and international community will continue to work to “strengthen and expand” the gains made over past 19 years.

Terming what expressed by Jenny McGee and Kelley E. Currie as strong message of US support for Afghan women, Karen L. Freeman, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, US Agency for International Development, said that “we will not only seek to maintain but build upon successes of the past.”

US setbacks

Palwasha Hassan, Director of Afghan Women’s Educational Center, who was speaking at the same panel, expressed concern that there have been “declinations” or setbacks in US stances towards the rights of women in Afghanistan since 2001. She specifically mentioned that during the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 it was “liberation of Afghan women”, then during the tenure of President Obama it was declined to “respect to women’s rights to be maintained”. And now the women rights is declined to be Afghan men’s agenda as an intra-Afghan issue. Noting that the women rights is not even mentioned in the US-Taliban peace deal, she said all the achievements made over past 19 years are now fragile.

“If we don’t have stronger political support of the international community and of the United States – as leading and engaged in the peace process –, there will be a lot of setbacks,” Hassan warned.

As raised by Palwasha Hassan, the US has made some setbacks against the Taliban since the beginning of US-Taliban direct talks and in agreement struck with the militant group. Inter alia, is the country’s agreement to release hundreds of Taliban notorious commanders, including Anas Haqqani who was sentenced to death. Though US officials have repeatedly spoken in support of protecting the women rights, the future of women’s rights still remains at risk.

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