Najia Zewari, a member of the council appointed to negotiate with the Taliban,  says female members were marginalized in initial talks. (Kevin Sieff/Washington Post)

KABUL — The nine women appointed last year to negotiate with the Taliban were ready to confront the architects of Afghanistan’s most repressive regime. But they were not prepared for a slew of unlikely critics: the very women they claim to represent.

The Afghan government, along with the United States and other foreign powers, has shifted its focus toward an endgame for the war that could involve a deal with insurgents. That strategy has created a rift between President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council — whose nine women and 60 men are charged with directing Taliban negotiations — and the leaders of Afghanistan’s nascent women’s rights movement.

At the heart of the debate: how to preserve the gains of the past 10 years during talks with the notoriously ruthless group.

Since the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001, girls’ schools here have reopened, women have won public office and the burqa is no longer part of a state-enforced dress code. But with the Taliban expected to join a negotiating table where women are vastly outnumbered and outranked, many fear for the future. Female Peace Council members, like Najia Zewari, find themselves on the defensive.

“The women on the council — we want to know that the Taliban will respect our rights, that progress will continue,” Zewari said. “We also want the women of Afghanistan to know that we can be their voice.”

The women of Afghanistan are not convinced.

The men Karzai appointed to the council in October include former warlords and onetime Taliban members. The women are former teachers, activists and politicians, each with horror stories about life under Taliban rule from 1996 until 2001, and injustices they hope to relegate to the past. Together, Karzai said, they could help integrate “our Taliban brothers” into a coalition government.

The presence of women on the panel is further proof, Western officials have said, that the panel is concerned with the rights of all Afghans.

But when the council first met, the nine female members were quickly marginalized.

“The men said ‘Hi, how are you?’ And then they ignored us. We had no voice,” Zewari said.

Members of the High Peace Council have had several conversations with Taliban officials, but negotiations have not formally begun, according to several members of the panel. The Taliban, for its part, publicly denies that such talks have occurred.

“We’re trying to get to a point where both sides can agree on the framework of reconciliation,” one senior member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The  council’s female members have not been allowed to take part in the initial talks, leaving them exposed to allegations by their fellow women that their presence on the council is merely for show.

“These people do not represent the women of Afghanistan. They're negotiating for our rights — for my rights, for the rights of my daughters — from a position of weakness,” said Fauzia Kofi, a member of parliament.

Many women support the idea of talks with the Taliban, but not without sufficient preconditions and substantial representation, according to Kofi and other prominent female politicians and activists.

Karzai has said that women’s rights would not be sacrificed in the peace process. But the lopsided composition of the High Peace Council and the early experience of its female members have cast doubt on that assurance.

“With the current negotiations, the Karzai government is compromising our rights,” said Suraya Parlika, head of the All Afghan Women’s Union, an advocacy group. “The talks are too soon. They’re too rushed. The women on the council are his pawns.”

Leading men on the council say their female counterparts have unrealistic expectations.

“They want to go as a group of women to meet with Mullah Omar. But that’s just not possible. If they go, they will be killed,” said Ataullah Luddin, the council's deputy director.

“And anyway, we all know that women can’t keep a secret for more than 34 hours,” he said, laughing.

Under the Taliban, Zewari, the female council member, worked discretely with impoverished Afghan women. She was harassed, robbed and beaten.

“I told myself I would not give up. I would work for a peaceful Afghanistan where there’s room for women,” Zewari said. “That means sitting down with the Taliban.”

Many see danger in such reasoning. Once in power, the Taliban could resume its horrific treatment of women, regardless of the terms of any peace deal..

“Some kind of negotiating process with the Taliban is going to be necessary to resolve the conflict. And it is going to endanger women’s rights,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “It's better to face that squarely and to do everything possible to minimize the harm, than to imagine that the Taliban are going to stop believing or acting as they do.”

During the past year, the women of the High Peace Council gained a key ally in their pursuit of reconciliation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, once skeptical of what Taliban negotiations might mean for women’s rights, endorsed the peace process.

The United States has its own Taliban contacts, and any substantive negotiation will likely be guided by foreign diplomats.

Posters and photos of Clinton pepper the walls of women’s right organizations in Kabul. But some are starting to doubt the pledge that she and other Western officials have made to uphold women’s rights even amid an effort to bring a negotiated end to the war.

“It makes me concerned and confused about the promises made by world leaders," said Kofi. “They’ve always given assurances to Afghan women, but in practice it doesn’t seem that there's much protection.”