How will Afghan women fare if Kabul and the Taliban reconcile?

June 13, 2011

(Schoolgirls listen to a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul March 23, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

The gaggles of giggling schoolgirls in their black uniforms and flowing white hijabs seen across Afghanistan’s cities have become symbolic of how far women’s rights have come since the austere rule of the Taliban was toppled a decade ago. While women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work, considered un-Islamic by the Taliban, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks.

The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan’s constitution, which says the two sexes are equal. But President Hamid Karzai’s reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects of equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.

“I am not optimistic at all,” said Suraya Parlika, 66, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament. “We do not know the agenda of the talks and this worries all women in Afghanistan.”

“Women are at risk of losing everything they have regained,” she told Reuters in her office at the All Afghan Women’s Union, the country’s most prominent women’s rights group that she set up 20 years ago.

The dangerous business of fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan highlights just how precarious their situation is. Parlika said Taliban militants have tried to kill her eight times. In the latest attempt, gunmen tried to shoot her through a window at her home but missed and blew a hole in the wall.

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