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Combating Extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan | Full Coverage

Afghan women fear loss of hard-won progress

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By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

LAGHMAN, AFGHANISTAN -- The head-to-toe burqas that made women a faceless symbol of the Taliban's violently repressive rule are no longer required here. But many Afghan women say they still feel voiceless eight years into a war-torn democracy, and they point to government plans to forge peace with the Taliban as a prime example.

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Gender activists say they have been pressing the administration of President Hamid Karzai for a part in any deal-making with Taliban fighters and leaders, which is scheduled to be finalized at a summit in April. Instead, they said, they have been met with a silence that they see as a dispiriting reminder of the limits of progress Afghan women have made since 2001.

"We have not been approached by the government -- they never do," said Samira Hamidi, country director of the Afghan Women's Network, an umbrella group. "The belief is that women are not important,'' she said, describing a mind-set that she said "has not been changed in the past eight years."

The Taliban's repressive treatment of women helped galvanize international opposition in the 1990s, and by some measures democracy has revolutionized Afghan women's lives. Their worry now is not about a Taliban takeover, Hamidi said, but that male leaders, behind closed doors and desperate for peace, might not force Taliban leaders to accept, however grudgingly, that women's roles have changed.

Those concerns share roots with the misgivings voiced by many observers, including some U.S. officials, about Afghan efforts to forge a settlement with the Taliban, whose leaders promote an Islamist ideology that seems wholly at odds with rights the Afghan constitution guarantees.

The unease about such a settlement stretches from Kabul to the mountain-ringed valleys of Laghman, a scrappy town in a province still stalked at night by Taliban fighters. As a young girl here, Malalay Jan studied in a private home, hidden from the Taliban regime that forbade her education. Four years ago, her girls' school was torched in a rash of suspected Taliban attacks. Now, she said, she is sure of one thing: Afghan women should have a spot at the negotiating table.

"We don't want them to stop us from getting an education or working in an office," said Jan, 18, wearing a rhinestone-studded head scarf at her rebuilt school. Women, she said, should be "the first priority."

Karzai, the Afghan president, has endorsed the idea of talking with all levels of the Taliban, and his aides insist that women need not worry about the equal rights the Afghan constitution guarantees them. But they also say they are performing a difficult balancing act, and suggest that making bold statements about the sanctity of such topics as women's rights might kill talks before they start.

"We will act from a position of principle. And that principle is that half the public wants these rights to be protected," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, who is drafting Karzai's reconciliation plan. "It is not the authority of a group of people in government or a group of people in the insurgency to decide the fate of a whole nation."

In today's Afghanistan, females make up one-quarter of parliament, fill one-third of the nation's classrooms and even compete on "Afghan Idol."

But violence against women remains "endemic," according to the State Department. The percentage of female civil servants is steadily dropping. Just one of 25 cabinet members is a woman, and female lawmakers say their opinions are often ignored.

That point was underscored in January, many observers said, when the women's affairs minister was not invited to an international conference in London on reconciliation and reintegration.


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