Women's rights hang in the balance in Afghanistan — along with its chance for peace

Observers say they're seeing a new openness to the idea of women's rights in peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban — and they're suggesting western nations stay out of the way for now.

The experts watching the talks in Doha say they see reasons for hope

Youth release balloons and pigeons as they celebrate a drop in violence in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2020. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

When the grizzled leaders of the Afghan government sat across a table for the first time from the equally hard-bitten commanders of the Taliban last week, there was air of collegiality no one was expecting.

Those observing the moment recognized that the two sides saw — perhaps to their own surprise — how much they share. 

"I think there was a collective sense or recognition of, 'We actually are all Afghans and we have so much in common at the end of the day,'" said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The ease with which the two sides referred to "the same idioms" and to one another, he said, demonstrated that these old enemies are close to being on the "same cultural wavelength."

But Watkins also warned that no one should read too much into this early atmosphere of cooperation — especially since it played out against a backdrop of violence that saw dozens killed Thursday in clashes in three of the war-torn country's eastern districts.

Women's rights and Canada's war

What unfolded in the talks between the two sides in Doha, Qatar this week is about as far removed from Canadians' political consciousness as you can get in this age of coronavirus, eye-popping deficits, charity scandals and election threats.

That's not surprising, given how the political and social establishment of Ottawa checked out of Afghanistan long ago. But it's still curious.

Hanging in the balance at these talks is something that was supposed to be one of Canada's principal war aims during its time in the Afghan conflict, and one of the cherished foreign policy goals of the current Liberal government: gender equality.

Members of a Taliban delegation leave after peace talks with senior Afghan politicians in Moscow on May 30, 2019. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

It was the former Conservative government that made the war about, among other things, getting little girls to school and improving the lives of women in the wake of the Taliban's brutal, oppressive and misogynistic rule.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have made gender a focus of their political and policy identity, stitching it into the fabric of the federal government and building it into their approach to everything from cabinet composition to trade deals.

Tying aid to human rights

Other western nations that have shed blood for the same aim have lined up to lay down some serious markers for the Afghans.

While the United States remains fixated on keeping Afghanistan al-Qaida and ISIS-free, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the breadth of U.S. financial assistance in the future would depend upon the "choices and conduct" of Afghans, including their respect for the rights of women and minorities.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne's approach to the same question has been, perhaps surprisingly, more discreet.

He issued a statement last Sunday saying only that Canada stands willing to assist and that an "effective peace process will require the meaningful inclusion of all parts of Afghan society, including women, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups."

It's not what you would expect from a government whose prime minister has declared himself a feminist.

A very dangerous place to be a woman

The European Union, in contrast, issued a clear statement of "principles and conditionality of future aid" that Watkins said was predicated on the expectation that women's rights in Afghanistan would "be upheld, at the very least, to the standard they are today."

That may not be saying very much.

Much of Afghanistan has been transfixed over the last several weeks by an online video showing a woman being viciously beaten — not by a Taliban mullah but (allegedly) by the bodyguard of a former head of the country's intelligence agency.

Afghan women sit in an ambulance after being rescued by security forces during an attack and gunfire at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan May 12, 2020. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

It's fair to say women still face an uphill struggle in Afghanistan, regardless of the outcome of the peace talks, said Watkins.

Even the head of Afghanistan's peace council, Abdullah Abdullah, has been timid. While nodding to diversity in his opening remarks, he said a week ago that even if the two sides could not agree on all points, they should compromise.

Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund said that Afghanistan should "have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood."

Is Afghanistan changing?

What may have gone unnoticed prior to the conference is how the Taliban have compromised already on women's rights, said Nipa Banerjee, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of international development at the University of Ottawa.

"Some of the things, like women's right to work, the Taliban have accepted already," said Banerjee, who ran Canada's aid and development programs in Afghanistan in the early part of the war.

"They said that the right to work will be acceptable, and the right to education. They don't have any objections. [Women] can even be in politics — but they cannot be the president."

Afghan women walk at Kabul University, Afghanistan, Oct. 19, 2015. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Banerjee said she remains guardedly optimistic and warned that western nations need to show flexibility, because Afghanistan's future government will have some form of Taliban involvement. The West also needs to demonstrate patience, she said — especially when it comes to the issue of gender equality.

In Bangladesh, the introduction of women's rights into rural regions (not dissimilar to Afghanistan's hinterlands) has been handled subtly and with finesse, she said.

When western development groups arrive in Bangladeshi villages, she said, "they don't talk about feminist principles and the fundamentals of women's rights." They introduce the concept into the conversation slowly, she said, rather than hitting local patriarchs over the head with values that they'll see as being imposed by foreigners.

Perhaps that is what's behind the "air of collegiality" and the sense of common misfortune at the start of the conference.

Being a geopolitical pawn for the better part of the last half century is not what Afghans wanted for themselves. Finding a way out of the blood feuds — and the entrenched political and economic interests associated with Afghanistan's wars — is an enormous challenge.

Still, it's evident to anyone who knows the country that there are those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of hostility. Some of those people were at the table in Doha.

It's one of the reasons Banerjee counsels patience.

Ending the bloodshed is the "absolute highest priority" right now, she said, and the Afghans "have to think of this as almost the last chance to make peace."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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