How Afghanistan’s first lady is pushing for women’s rights

Her husband’s government has been excluded from peace talks but, as Amie Ferris-Rotman writes, Rula Ghani is rallying for Afghan women

Amie Ferris-Rotman
Kabul, Afghanistan
Saturday 27 April 2019 17:47
Ghani has become a focal voice for women's rights
Ghani has become a focal voice for women's rights

For many women in Afghanistan, peace talks between the United States and the Taliban are evoking the darkest days of their lives, when the group stripped women of their most basic rights.

The Taliban regime banned girls from going to school, women were forbidden from working, and they had to be covered head to toe when venturing outside and accompanied by a male relative, even if that meant their baby boy. Showing a wisp of hair would get them whipped by vigilantes.

The peace talks might return the Taliban to power, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has so far been excluded from the dialogue. But his wife, first lady Rula Ghani, has emerged as a powerful voice on the talks and women’s role in them. She is working to become, as she says, “the little stone you put under the urn so it will not fall. This is what I do for Afghan women”.

Her involvement has bolstered grass-roots movements around the country of women who insist, in the words of one popular hashtag, that Afghan women will not go back.

“I realised, that as first lady, I do have some privileges,” Rula Ghani says in an interview in her chambers within the sprawling presidential palace in the centre of Kabul, where security concerns have largely confined the 70-year-old to its scented gardens and cherry blossom line.

With women in government, women at universities, thriving rights groups and a capital city abuzz with young men and women in its cafes, the country has dramatically changed from the time of the Taliban in the late 1990s.

The first lady wants women’s voices in the peace process to be heard, pushing the dialogue beyond the unheeded calls by the United States and Nato for women to be at the table.

“We are not seeing any kind of real work being done to understand what women really want. What are their thoughts? What are their priorities? What do they see as obstacles to peace?” Ghani asks with a faint but recognisable French lilt, a nod to her upbringing in Lebanon and studies in Paris.

The first lady wants women’s voices in the peace process to be heard

Afghan women activists say the stated focus of the US peace talks – the withdrawal of foreign troops and efforts of counterterrorism – sideline them by definition. US-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, have been marked by all-male photo sessions. Talks in Moscow between Afghan power brokers and the Taliban recently included two Afghan women at a 42-seat table.

And when US envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, held a large high-level meeting in Kabul earlier this month with the Afghan president and the top US commander in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, not a single woman was present.

Even the Taliban says it now supports women’s rights, including education – as long as the rights comply with Islamic principles. Afghan women and men have chafed at this, saying that leaves much to interpretation.

To address women’s concerns, the first lady’s office and women’s organisations set out in August to survey 15,000 women in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including those contested or under Taliban control.

Each meeting was different. In southern Helmand Province, women said learning how to read and write was the only way to achieve peace. In central Samangan, participants burst into song, demanding their voices be heard by the international community. In Konar, in the east, where only a handful of those attending had their faces uncovered, women asked to be included “because it is a woman who has raised the Talib and a woman who has raised the soldier”, the women from the province wrote in a statement on Twitter.

Not all have embraced Ghani’s efforts, though. When her office distributed tens of thousands of dollars last month to impoverished women in eastern Nangahar Province, members of the Taliban seized the money and set it on fire. Local officials also viewed the move with suspicion, saying it was a political manoeuvre designed to benefit her husband, who is seeking re-election this year.

The six-month project culminated in an all-women conference in February in the Afghan capital, where 3,500 Afghan women gathered under the massive tent used for the loya jirga, a traditional gathering for debates and decision making – and the conventional domain of men.

Some parts of Afghanistan have shunned Ghani's efforts

“It was a little bit overwhelming,” Ghani says at the memory, a slight giggle lighting up her face.

There, alongside the first lady and the president, women demanded an immediate ceasefire and that their rights be protected going forward. Attendees later described the mood in the tent’s air as one of defiance.

But the event drew zero responses from the US government or the Taliban.

Now, as the next round of intra-Afghan talks gets underway, still without government representation, a group of 40 women belonging to the umbrella rights group Afghan Women’s Network are heading to Doha – even though only around five are officially invited to attend.

“We wanted more women. We were not content,” says Wazhma Frogh, a member of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, adding that all 40 have received their Qatari visas. “There is no clarity yet if we are going to be at the table, but we want to be physically there,” she says.

Women’s rights activists fear that US statements, including from Khalilzad, that women’s rights must be protected in any peace agreement, are no more than lip service.

“As we’ve seen, the Americans have their own politics, agenda and plan. But we have told them, a peace deal without women is not a deal at all,” says Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Network.

When Khalilzad’s American wife, the scholar Cheryl Benard, pens an op-ed about Afghan women, her views are widely seen as representing the US diplomat instead. Writing for the Centre for the National Interest, Benard says Afghan women should work hard for their rights, just as Western women did, and stop relying on foreign money and pity to do their bidding.

The Afghan backlash is indignant.

“We have been fighting for our rights long before the American military arrived and will continue long after it has withdrawn,” Palwasha Hassan, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center, writes in response in the same publication.

Afghan women could have their say at the upcoming loya jirga that the president has called, requesting that 30 per cent of delegates be women, or in presidential elections slated for September.

© Washington Post

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