Many Afghan women worry that peace talks do not include safeguards for their rights
By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, April 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Afghanistan's "fragile gains" in women's rights are at risk unless women play a key role in peace talks with the Taliban, one of the few female members of the government's negotiating team has said.
Lawmaker Fawzia Koofi, a vocal critic of the Taliban, is one of five women on the 21-member team announced by the government last week to hold historic talks with the Islamist militant group that once banished women from public life.
She pledged to fight for the hard-won gains made by Afghan women since the era of Taliban rule, from education to freedom of movement, as the country seeks to draw a line under more than 40 years of war.
"Women's role at this critical time in our history is very crucial and pivotal," said Koofi, 45, a single mother of two daughters and the first woman to set up a political party in Afghanistan.
"They have been victims of war. It is time women start playing their role as peace builders," she said, warning their "fragile gains" would otherwise be at risk.
The Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that included public lashings, flogging and stonings.
Under their rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women were obliged to cover their faces and could not study, work or leave the house without a male relative.
The group, which controls or contests more than 40% of Afghan territory, has said it would now allow women to be educated and employed, but within the limits of Islamic law and Afghan culture.
The United States and the Taliban reached a peace deal in February, but many Afghan women are concerned that it does not include adequate safeguards for their rights.
They fear a U.S. troop withdrawal, the winding down of international engagement and re-emergence of the Taliban in politics could destroy the progress women have made since 2001.
It is not clear when negotiations with the Afghan government will begin. A Taliban team arrived in Kabul on Tuesday to start the process of exchanging prisoners, a precondition to the talks.
Meanwhile, Koofi said she had even struggled to get her own, mostly male team to support women's causes in informal rounds of dialogue with the group last year.
"Narrow-mindedness would be a small, yet gigantic step back," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We want and expect men to stand for women's rights."
Women have made huge strides since the Taliban were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, with growing numbers now finishing their education and finding work in previously male bastions including politics, the police and the judiciary.
A quota reserves 68 of 250 seats in the lower house of parliament for women, higher representation than the global average of 24.5%, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
But some still face cultural barriers and hostility from conservative family members and radical Islamists as they pursue greater independence.
Koofi had her childhood dream of becoming a doctor thwarted by the Taliban, who went on to imprison her husband. He later died of tuberculosis, which he contracted in jail.
She entered politics in 2005, becoming Afghanistan's first female deputy speaker of parliament in the first of two terms as a lawmaker, during which the Taliban attacked her convoy and tried to kill her.
She set up her own party after she was banned from running for re-election in 2018, and has said she wants to be part of creating a more equal, just and stable future for her country after four decades of war that have left it mired in poverty.
"If the 40-year war ends with engagement of all citizens, including women, it would be historic," she said.
"I hope to be part of Afghanistan's future." (Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif; Editing by Annie Banerji and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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