Taliban talks 'pose risk' for women

Reconciliation talks could reverse women's progress, rights group warns.

    Women have returned to work and school, and even run for parliament, since the Taliban fell [AFP]

    If Asma had not made a living giving lessons in Afghanistan, the Taliban would not have decided to teach her one of their own.

    She knew she was taking a risk when she broke Taliban taboos by taking a job in a girls' school in southern Afghanistan, where the group has been gaining in power as the Nato military mission falters.

    When the Taliban's warning came, in a letter left during the night, it was as unequivocal as it was brief. "We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and we shall set fire to your daughter," it said.

    Asma stopped working as a teacher, and the Taliban claimed another quiet victory in their silent war on Afghan women; a war, some warn, in which they could be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

    Human rights advocates fear that a renewed interest from the Afghan government in political reconciliation with the Taliban could erase the fragile progress made in improving the situation of Afghan women over the past nine years in return for peace.

    Officially, the Taliban say they are not interested in a peace deal with the government. But behind the scenes, insurgent leaders are said to have held meetings with government officials, sparking fears of a possible return to the brutal repression of women that came to define the Taliban's time in power.

    "We are a little bit confused," said Fatana Gailani, the chairperson of the Afghanistan Women's Council, in an interview from Kabul. "One day the government says one thing, one day they say another. And the international community, too, does not have a single policy."

    Hired guns?

    Central to the reconciliation theory is the assertion that the majority of Taliban ranks are made up by guns for hire - that they are non-ideological fighters who can be lured away from the group, and from the values it espouses.

    Many women are registered to vote, but turnout is low in Taliban-controlled areas [EPA]

    Some say that the Taliban has abandoned any social agenda to concentrate solely on fighting the presence of international troops in Afghanistan, but this claim is belied by the experience of women on the ground in Taliban-controlled areas.

    "Everyone says there are so many kinds of Taliban," Gailani said. "But the Taliban do not have two or three faces. They have one face, one ideology."

    Local Taliban commanders often set up parallel governance structures to implement their vision of society, one in which women know their place and do not seek to change it.

    Taliban edicts on local populations have been as wide-ranging in their scope as they are brutal in their threats. Girls in Kapisa province have been threatened with being beheaded if they call local radio stations to request songs.

    Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban envoy to Pakistan who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay after the fall of the Taliban, says that the group "are not against" women, but seek to treat them "in accordance with Islam".

    "This kind of situation today in Afghanistan is not acceptable to the Taliban," he told Al Jazeera.

    "But this is not only unacceptable to the Taliban, but to other people in Afghanistan. They are looking at this as some kind of corruption that came to Afghanistan; they [the Americans] ... want to change our customs."

    Changing strategy

    But Tom Malinovski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, rejects Zaeef's argument.

    "We are talking about really basic things - the ability to walk out of your house, to go to school, the ability to have a job," he says. "I don't think there is a question that most Afghan women, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be on the conservative and liberal side of the Afghan spectrum, would like to do these things without being killed. The desire to go to school without being killed is not a Western value."

    Many women, tired of war, have mixed views on the Nato occupation of Afghanistan [EPA]

    As Kabul buzzes with rumours of meetings between the Afghan government and figures associated with the Taliban, and Nato strategy moves from seeking outright victory over the Taliban to creating conditions for their fighters to lay down their arms, human rights activists are doing everything they can to make sure this sort of statistic remains a thing of the past.

    Masha Hamilton, the founder of the Afghan Women's Writing Project - a non-profit programme that publishes writing from Afghan women - said many of her writers feel "trapped" between the violence of war and the grim prospect of a negotiated settlement.

    "They want the conflict to end ... but in this political arena, with this president, I don't think they feel there's much that can be done to protect women's rights," she said.

    Suraya Pakzad, the executive director of the Herat-based Voice of Women Organisation and a member of last month's peace jirga, said the government has made some positive gestures on women's rights. Delegates to the jirga agreed that insurgents should accept the Afghan constitution, which declares men and women to be equal.

    But Pakzad said in an interview that she was not convinced the Afghan government will follow through to enforce that demand.

    "Since the fall of the Taliban ... we have all kinds of beautiful papers that protect women's rights," she said. "But if there's no action on the part of the government, then they won't help."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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