A key question is what demands and priorities would women actually take to the peace table? There is currently no clear narrative from Afghan women on a peace process with the Taliban. Discussions have consistently centred around: fear of betrayal by male politicians; fear of loss of what has been achieved on behalf of women, particularly provisions for the basic rights of women in the constitution; and fear of a reversal of some rights which were returned to women after the fall of the Taliban.
There is also often an assertion that gains from a peace process absent of women would not be sustainable. But it is not clear how women’s participation would guarantee sustainability if women participants are in any case disempowered and must be granted space and permission to engage in the first place. This comes across as fearful and anxious rather than a proactive approach to entering the peace marketplace and seeing what is on offer. On the other hand, proactive approaches to peacebuilding on a small scale and at a local level have been fruitful, as a woman activist working with local shuras to reduce civilian casualties recently told me.
Many would argue that women’s rights defenders and the Taliban have nothing to discuss. But attitudes among some Taliban leaders have been changing in relation to some issues affecting women, although as the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organisation reported in 2015, such shifts in opinion among some Taliban leaders are not highly publicised:
‘The Taliban leadership and the Ulema associated with it believe that they have gone as far as possible in nuancing their positions on women’s rights and education without completely alienating their ranks and file, whose views about women and education are typically much more restrictive than the more progressive elements in the leadership. However, the Taliban have not been very effective or proactive in communicating their more moderate positions and are probably waiting for talks to begin before going more public with them.’
Despite the lack of publicity, this does show movement in the right direction. Women’s rights defenders, however, remain rooted in grievances of the past. They neither invite the Taliban to engage on the issues that the movement seems to be willing to give ground on, nor challenge the Taliban to a dialogue on more contentious subjects.
Safeguarding education, employment and health offer potentially productive entry points for women advocates and activists to talk to the Taliban. Provision of basic services has always been a practical and constructive point for engaging the Taliban on women’s issues. During Taliban rule, women working in the health sector were often exempted from bans on employment and in spite of myriad accounts of the ban on education, the Taliban turned a blind eye to home schools and even the construction of girls’ schools in certain provinces.
Interactions with Taliban pre-2001 revealed in some areas they gave limited access to education and health services for women, although escalations in fighting resulted in marked downturns in access to such services. The Taliban have also held shuras on access to education for women, with discussions centring around the hijab, segregation of the sexes, the role of Islamic education and topics suitable for women. There are also potential points of engagement on legal issues. The Taliban have been known to forcibly return inheritance shares to women when these were wrongfully allocated to male relatives as a result of pressure from traditional elders. There are other legal issues where the Taliban’s approach has more in common with the aspirations of activists than supporters of Pashtunwali (Pashtun traditional ethical code).