As envoys gathered in Russia’s capital for a shake-up of the Afghan peace process, Afghan women wondered: what about us?
Just one woman, human rights advocate and politician Habiba Sarabi, was on the 12-member delegation of Afghan government and political leaders attending Thursday’s summit in Moscow. The 10-member delegation sent by the Taliban had none.
On Thursday, Sarabi addressed a vast circular table of male counterparts at a Moscow hotel, calling for a ceasefire.
“Why should (I) be the only woman in the room? We have not been part of the war, we can certainly contribute to peace,” she said, according to a tweet from a fellow negotiator that she shared.
“Fifty-one percent of people should not be ignored.”
@SarabiHabiba in her remarks to the room full of men: “why I should be the only woman in the room? We have not been part of the war, we can certainly contribute to peace. 51% of pple should not be ignored. Hope hosts take note of it for the future.” pic.twitter.com/imd1FY3CjR
— Nader Nadery (@N_Nadery) March 18, 2021
With just six weeks left before a deadline for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, Shaharzad Akbar, who leads Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said it was unacceptable that only one woman attended the meeting.
It was also a worrying sign for the future: “It’s setting the tone for things to come in terms of inclusivity,” she said.
The Moscow summit was the start of a series of international meetings reflecting a shift in focus by Washington, as a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of United States and other foreign troops looms and negotiations between the government and Taliban in Doha have stalled.
Diplomats say Washington wants support from regional powers to push Afghans to form a power-sharing government. At the talks in Moscow, the US was joined by Russia, China and Pakistan in calling for an Afghan ceasefire.
Women’s rights activists fear that the shift will further dilute the role of the few women involved in the peace process, in favour of traditional male political figures.
In many cases, the regional powers owe their influence in Afghanistan to ties with warlords who held sway throughout four decades of conflict, all of them men.
“A number of our colleagues in the international community are going to … the same leaders, who ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago,” said Fauzia Koofi, one of just four female negotiators among the 42 representing the Afghan sides in Doha.
A spokesperson for the US State Department said Washington wished there had been more than one woman in the Moscow delegation. The US would advocate for “meaningful participation” by women in upcoming gatherings.
“Women, girls, and minority groups in Afghanistan have made extraordinary gains … and preserving those gains is a high priority for the Biden Administration,” the spokesperson said.
A spokesman for Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During their 1996-2001 rule, the Taliban enforced an interpretation of Islamic law that was among one of the harshest towards women’s rights in the world.
Women were required to fully cover their bodies and faces in a burqa, and were barred from education or work or from leaving the house without a male relative. The Taliban say they have changed but many women remain sceptical.
Since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001 by US air strikes, the international community has poured billions into Afghanistan’s development.
Gains for women and girls in access to education and public life are repeatedly touted as one of the chief successes of 20 years of foreign involvement.
“It’s … ridiculous to expect a single woman, in a room full of not just men, but in many cases men with long track records of abusive attitudes and conduct toward women, to carry all women’s rights on her shoulders,” said Heather Barr, the interim co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, who nevertheless said Sarabi would do all she could.