KABUL — For many women in Afghanistan, peace talks between the United States and the Taliban are evoking the darkest days of their lives, when the group stripped women of their most basic rights.
The Taliban regime banned girls from going to school. Women were forbidden from working. They had to be covered head to toe when venturing outside and accompanied by a male relative, even if that meant their baby boy. Showing a wisp of hair would get them whipped by vigilantes.
The peace talks could return the Taliban to power, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government so far has been excluded from the dialogue. But his wife, first lady Rula Ghani, has emerged as a powerful voice on the talks and women’s role in them. She is working to become, as she says, “the little stone you put under the urn so it will not fall. This is what I do for Afghan women.”
Her involvement has bolstered grass-roots movements around the country of women who insist, in the words of one popular hashtag, that Afghan women will not go back.
“I realized, that as first lady, I do have some privileges,” Rula Ghani said in an interview in her chambers within the sprawling presidential palace in the center of Kabul, where security concerns have largely confined the 70-year-old to its scented gardens and cherry blossom-lined paths.
With women in government, women at universities, thriving rights groups and a capital city abuzz with young men and women in its cafes, the country has dramatically changed from the time of the Taliban in the late 1990s.
The first lady wants women’s voices in the peace process to be heard, pushing the dialogue beyond the unheeded calls by the United States and NATO for women to be at the table.
“We were not seeing any kind of real work being done to understand what women really want. What are their thoughts? What are their priorities? What do they see as obstacles to peace?” Ghani asked with a faint but recognizable French lilt, a nod to her upbringing in Lebanon and studies in Paris.
Afghan women activists say the stated focus of the U.S. peace talks — the withdrawal of foreign troops and efforts of counterterrorism — sideline them by definition. U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, have been marked by all-male photo sessions. Talks in Moscow between Afghan power brokers and the Taliban recently included two Afghan women at a 42-seat table.
And when U.S. envoy for peace Zalmay Khalilzad held a large high-level meeting in Kabul earlier this month with the Afghan president and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, not a single woman was present.
Even the Taliban have said it now supports women’s rights, including education — as long as the rights comply with Islamic principles. Afghan women and men have chafed at this, saying that leaves much to interpretation.
To address women’s concerns, the first lady’s office and women’s organizations set out in August to survey15,000 women in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including those contested or under Taliban control.
Each meeting was different. In southern Helmand province, women said learning how to read and write was the only way to achieve peace. In central Samangan, participants burst into song, demanding their voices be heard by the international community. In Konar in the east, where only a handful of those attending had their faces uncovered, women asked to be included “because it is a woman who has raised the Talib and a woman who has raised the soldier,” the women from the province wrote in a statement on Twitter.
Not all have embraced Ghani’s efforts, however. When her office distributed tens of thousands of dollars last month to impoverished women in eastern Nangahar province, members of the Taliban seized the money and set it on fire. Local officials also viewed the move with suspicion, saying it was a political maneuver designed to benefit her husband, who is seeking reelection this year.
The six-month project culminated in an all-women conference in February in the Afghan capital, where 3,500 Afghan women gathered under the massive tent used for the loya jirga, a traditional gathering for debates and decision-making — and the conventional domain of men.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” Ghani said at the memory, a slight giggle lighting up her face.
There, alongside the first lady and the president, the women demanded an immediate cease-fire and that their rights be protected going forward. Attendees later described the mood in the tent’s air as one of defiance.
But the event drew zero responses from the U.S. government or the Taliban.
Now, as the next round of intra-Afghan talks gets underway, still without government representation, a group of 40 women belonging to the umbrella rights group Afghan Women’s Network are heading to Doha — even though only around five were officially invited to attend.
“We wanted more women. We were not content,” said Wazhma Frogh, a member of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, adding that all 40 have received their Qatari visas. “There is no clarity yet if we are going to be at the table, but we want to be physically there,” she said.
Women’s rights activists fear that U.S. statements, including from Khalilzad, that women’s rights must be protected in any peace agreement, could be no more than lip service.
“As we’ve seen, the Americans have their own politics, agenda and plan. But we have told them, a peace deal without women is not a deal at all,” said Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Network.
When Khalilzad’s American wife, the scholar Cheryl Benard, penned a recent op-ed about Afghan women, her views were widely seen as representing the U.S. diplomat instead. Writing for the Center for the National Interest, Benard said Afghan women should work hard for their rights, just as Western women did, and stop relying on foreign money and pity to do their bidding.
The Afghan backlash was indignant.
“We have been fighting for our rights long before the American military arrived and will continue long after it has withdrawn,” Palwasha Hassan, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center, wrote in response in the same publication.
Afghan women could have their say at the upcoming loya jirga that the president has called, requesting that 30 percent of delegates be women, or in presidential elections slated for September.