Demanding to Be Heard

Advocates for Afghanistan’s women are pushing to ensure that women’s freedoms are protected under a post-Taliban government.


As diplomats at the United Nations continue to lay out plans for a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, advocates for the country’s women are increasingly worried that the rights and freedoms of women will once again be left off the negotiating table.

“Of course, we’re angry,” says Khorshid Noori, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, a coalition of relief agencies based in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. “Anyone would feel angry if they were forgotten, especially in that we have … endured the suffering throughout so many years.”

Spurred on by the rapid military gains made by anti-Taliban forces, diplomatic efforts to produce a framework for a transitional government are gaining momentum. Appearing recently before a hastily-called meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the UN’s envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, outlined plans for a political transition in the country. Representatives from the US, Russia and the six nations bordering Afghanistan had earlier approved a draft statement calling for the formation of a coalition government to replace the Taliban.

Brahimi’s plan calls for the UN to convene a meeting of Afghan representatives to negotiate “the process of political transition” and to convene a Provisional Council “drawn from all ethnic and regional communities.” While Brahimi did not directly call for women to be included on the council, he did note that the “credibility and legitimacy of the Provisional Council would be enhanced, if particular attention were to be given to the participation of individuals and groups, including women, who have not been engaged in armed conflict.”

Even if Brahimi’s recommendations are supported by diplomats at the UN, it remains unclear whether the emerging power brokers in Afghanistan, particularly the leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, will follow suit. Afghan women’s rights activists say they are not going to wait quietly as the diplomatic process unfolds.

“The players in Afghanistan, including the US and United Nations, all talk about women’s rights but when it comes to action, there is nothing,” says Zieba Shorish, a Washington-based Afghan exile and veteran women’s rights activist.

The cofounder and executive director of the Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, Shorish had been helping to organize a December meeting of Afghan women’s rights leaders, which she hopes will result in a unified message which all Afghan women’s groups can support.

“We’ve got to push on this issue,” says Shorish. “We need to be involved. We need to have our rights fully restored.”

The last time women had any significant say in Afghan affairs was when they were included in a 1963 constitutional drafting committee. That committee was convened by Mohammed Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan, who has emerged as a possible figurehead around whom a multiethnic coalition government could be formed.

The Afghan constitution, enacted in 1964 but disregarded during the past 22 years of war, guarantees equality for men and women under the law. The Taliban regime, which seized Kabul in 1996, has ignored that constitution completely. Its laws are made by Islamic clerics. Under Taliban law, women have been forced to wear the burqa, a full-body veil which covers the face in a thick mesh, have been all but barred from working outside the home, and barred from attending state schools.

As they have seized territory across northern Afghanistan, Northern Alliance officials have announced that women would no longer be forced to live under such severe limitations. Women, they announced, are free to return to work and girls would be allowed to attend schools once more. Still, it remains unclear whether the Alliance will actively protect and ensure women’s freedoms.

Given that most women’s groups have little if any political clout, their political concerns may be largely ignored by foreign diplomats and Afghan politicians alike. Some moderate female activists, however, could find themselves thrust into the negotiations — particularly as the UN searches for Afghans untainted by the nation’s bloody conflict.

If women are given a role in a transitional government, one of the likeliest candidates is Fatana Gailani, director of the moderate Afghanistan Women’s Council. A member of a politically powerful Afghan family — she is the daughter-in-law of Sayed Salman Gailani, an advisor to Zahir Shah — Fatana Gailani says she does not expect deeper issues of women’s rights and social change to be addressed until after a stable government is in place.

“Let the men get along first, then we will get involved,” she says. “Until our country has been rescued, the women’s issue is a non-issue.”

Supporters of the deposed king have proposed the formation of a broad-based council, known as a loya jirga, to choose members of a post-Taliban government. Advisors to Zahir Shah say they plan to include women in the 120-member loya jirga, but are still searching for representatives.

Leading women’s activists, however, are unimpressed by the promises. They have reason. Led by Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, the politically powerful clan’s patriarch, some 1,200 men representing Afghanistan’s diverse ethnicities, religious sects and political factions convened for a peace and unity conference in Peshawar three weeks ago. No women were invited.

With little coordination among the various women’s activists, the emergence of a unified, broad-based women’s movement appears unlikely. While united in their concern about the future of women’s freedoms in Afghanistan and their frustration over their exclusion from the ongoing negotiations, Afghan women’s groups are deeply divided on numerous other issues.

There remain deep disagreements between those activists pursuing a radical transformation of Afghanistan’s male-dominated society and those wanting protection of women’s freedoms without significant changes in traditional gender roles.