As It Happens

The Taliban can no longer ignore women's rights, says Afghan peace talks delegate

​​​​​​​The Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban met in Doha this weekend to begin negotiating peace. Among the most contentious issues is women's rights, which were severely restricted under Taliban rule. Habiba Sarabi is one of four female delegates at the talks.

Former provincial governor Habiba Sarabi is one of four female delegates at the talks

Habiba Sarabi, centre, talks to supporters during her vice-presidential campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistant, March 26, 2014. Sarabi was one of four female delegates to take part in peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban on the weekend. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
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The Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban met in Doha this weekend to begin negotiating peace.

It was a historic moment, years in the making.

After decades of war, the two sides started hammering out a deal to put an end to the bloodshed. But these peace talks won't be easy.

Among the most contentious issues is women's rights. Women's lives were extremely restricted under Taliban rule. They could not go to school or, for the most part, work. During that time, Habiba Sarabi had to flee to Pakistan with her children. 

She's now one of the four female delegates at the talks. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off from Doha about how the conversation around women's rights is unfolding in this negotiation. Here is part of their conversation.

What was it like to sit down in the same room with the Taliban to talk peace?

It's not the first time for me because I have sat down with them before, first in Moscow, and then in Doha for an intra-Afghan dialogue.This is the third time. But the first time was a little strange for me. It was good. [Taliban political chief] Abbas Stanikzai welcomed me. He was charming, smiling and greeting. So that broke the ice.

Journalists asked Taliban leaders why they had no women among their own delegates. Why do you think that's the case? Why did they have no women?

This is the same question that I asked him in Moscow. And he told me that I'll be the representative of women in their delegation as well. They said it again when we asked the same question at the last intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha.

I think they don't believe in women's rights — that women are equal to them to sit at the table and talk. Some of them, of course, not all. Even when we go in to say hello or "salam," they ignore that there's a woman there to talk with them. Their behaviour towards women is quite different.

Despite having come a long way since the reign of the Taliban forced Afghan women indoors and out of schools, many believe the government's commitment to advancing women's rights is waning. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

The Taliban say they respect women's rights. But those rights, if any, for women must be a part of Islamic law. They can't be in conflict with how they interpret Islamic law. What do you think that's going to mean?

This is something that we want a clear interpretation [of] from them. In the future, we have to go into detail: what does it mean for Islamic law? Because every country has its own interpretation. We have [many] Islamic countries around the world like Malaysia, Turkey, Saudi [Arabia], Iran and Pakistan.

Even in Pakistan, they have been good on [this issue]. They can see Pakistani women [who are] so prominent — human rights activists, journalists, filmmakers and singers and so many others. So how can they ignore that and not see all the activity of these women?

Afghan member of parliament Fawzia Kofi looks on as she attends a political gathering in Kabul on September 26, 2013. Kofi attended the peace talks despite an attempt on her life last month. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

We saw what happened in 1996 when the Taliban took power. What was it like for you to live in Afghanistan under their rule?

It was very toug h; remembering that time is difficult for me. In 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul ... my daughter was in the seventh grade. I have one daughter and two sons; they stayed at home and they couldn't go to school. So I took my children and went to Peshawar in Pakistan. They went to school for education and language.

My daughter now has two master degrees. The situation has changed a lot. This is a new Afghanistan. A new generation with a lot of hope and higher education, with a different view of the world…. It is very difficult and tough, but we don't have any other choice. We have to sit together to talk to find the solution for this long conflict in Afghanistan.

Is there any reason to believe that the Taliban has changed at all since the time it had power in Afghanistan?

From my point of view, their mentality hasn't changed. But some of them, they recognize that the world and the situation has changed. The women of Afghanistan [now] are not like those in the '90s. So they cannot stay or govern without the support of the international community. They have to understand that Afghanistan and Afghan people are a part of the international community. So this is something that they have to understand.

Fawzia Koofi was among your delegation. After someone tried to kill her, she attended these talks with her arm in a cast. We can see from her story what a threat it is for women to have a voice in Afghanistan. Do you think that it's possible that you and the other women can influence how these talks go?

We are here because we want to convey the voice of Afghan women [at these talks]. We can unite together to have a stronger voice at the table. Fawzia Koofi is here even after someone wanted to kill her…. She will not forget that. But she is here to forgive things that happened in the past. And we have to go for a new and bright future.

Since 9/11, since the war began in the fall of 2001, 150,000 Afghans have been killed, about a third of them civilians. So many people have left your country and there's so much suffering. Do you worry that because of that, people will say, let's just go along with the Taliban. Let's sacrifice some of these things like women's rights in order to get an agreement from them to stop the killings?

No, I don't think so, because all of the people want peace. 

Why should a woman sacrifice again? We're always there to sacrifice? No. 

And fortunately, the delegation, the whole team, they stand with us and they say that we have to protect women's rights.


Written by Tahiat Mahboob. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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