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What a peace deal with the Taliban could mean for women in Afghanistan

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/31/2019 Ruby Mellen
A woman reads a local newspaper in Kabul. Women’s rights in Afghanistan have advanced significantly since the Taliban fell in 2001, but some women worry a peace deal could erase the progress made. (Rahmat Gul/AP) © Rahmat Gul/AP A woman reads a local newspaper in Kabul. Women’s rights in Afghanistan have advanced significantly since the Taliban fell in 2001, but some women worry a peace deal could erase the progress made. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

On Saturday, after six days of negotiations in Qatar, U.S. and Taliban officials announced they were one step closer to an agreement that might finally end the American war in Afghanistan.

The two sides agreed only to the broad outlines of a peace deal, and it remains unclear whether the Taliban will agree to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. Still, the announcement was hailed as a rare sign of diplomatic progress after more than 17 years of fighting.

But some Afghan women fear an American withdrawal will mean a reversion to an Afghanistan in which they had virtually no rights.

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“If they come back, we wouldn’t be able to walk outside at all,” Shahlah Darwish told The Post’s Pamela Constable in Kabul, recalling how women could not study, hold jobs or even leave their homes without wearing a burqa under Taliban rule.

Women’s rights have advanced significantly in Afghanistan since the Taliban fell in 2001, particularly in urban areas. Women’s equality was enshrined in the constitution, education and employment were made more accessible and women began to serve in government. They also were given increased access to technology, granting them more independence.

Given the progress made, some Afghan officials say it is impossible for the country to backslide.

“I don’t believe Afghanistan could fall back. We are a changed nation,” Roya Rahmani, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, told NPR. Rahmani is the first woman to serve in the role.

“If I am at the table like many other women, I will be representing half of my population,” she said, adding that “no deal would be acceptable if it ignores half of our population.”

But there are plenty of reasons for pessimism. While the situation has improved in Afghan cities, many other parts of the country still hold to cultural norms that deem women second-class citizens. Afghanistan remains one of the worst places in the world for girls to receive an education.

And while the United States has served as an advocate for women in Afghanistan in the past, it is not clear whether that is still the case.

During the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said any peace deal with the Taliban “can’t come at the cost of women and women’s lives.” But the Trump administration has tended to gloss over human rights abuses by other countries, and experts are concerned women’s rights may be discarded if it means ending the war.

“Across the board, everyone should be concerned about this administration’s lack of focus on human freedom and women’s rights,” said James Schwemlein, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served as senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2011 to 2017.

Even if the Trump administration strongly pushes for women’s rights in Afghanistan, withdrawing from the country will undoubtedly make it harder to hold the Afghan government accountable for any promises it makes on the issue.

“The United States is saying it’s not acceptable for the country to go to back to the 1990s,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That’s nice, but will it have any capacity to enforce that if it has withdrawn?”

Women have been boxed out of the peace process before, and Felbab-Brown said some of the liberties enjoyed by women could be on the chopping block this time as well.

“Everyone is expecting the Afghan constitution will be revised” in the event of peace, she said. “The question is how much and how badly. Hopefully it won’t be too dogmatic in how it envisions women’s possibilities — but it’s a faint hope.”

Read more:

The return of a Taliban government? Afghanistan talks raise once-unthinkable question.

U.S., Taliban move closer to deal on American troop exit

Trump wanted a big cut in troops in Afghanistan. New U.S. military plans fall short.

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