Little is understood about the experiences of women living in areas under Taliban influence or control. It is difficult for outsiders to talk to women in these highly conservative areas. Although there is a danger in drawing generalizations from a relatively small set of interviews, this research nevertheless provides insight that is otherwise absent from discussions about peace talks.11
Many women viewed the Taliban pragmatically—but, of course, the Taliban have had a very different impact on women than on men. Even when they expressed positive sentiments about the sense of security and justice that the Taliban were able to provide, they voiced strong objections to the restrictions that Taliban control placed on women. Women consistently listed the same restrictions. Their freedom of movement was greatly curtailed: they were no longer allowed to go to the bazaar without permission or unaccompanied, and they could not attend weddings or gatherings with other women without permission or unaccompanied. Bride prices were capped, limiting the social capital women traditionally derived from that practice.
The Taliban also exercised tight control over female education, as girls’ access to primary schools was variable, and they were generally forbidden to continue schooling once they reached puberty. At first, these restrictions on women, such as the closure of girls’ schools, had been gradual, and they could not be fully enforced until the Taliban had near total control. The lack of education for girls beyond puberty was a common grievance. Most women believed that education was important and bitterly objected to Taliban restrictions. Prohibitions on visiting the bazaar or health facilities, either because of Taliban restrictions or ongoing fighting (or both), were also common complaints.
From a geographical perspective, the views of women in Helmand and the women in Wardak and Logar differed in this respect, reflecting regional differences in attitudes and gender roles. Women in Wardak and Logar had more freedoms to begin with, and have more sharply felt the effect of Taliban restrictions. The Taliban saw these restrictions on women as linked to notions of honor and Islam, but also used them to demonstrate power and social control.
Even women married to Taliban men believed that women should have greater freedoms than the Taliban in their area allowed. A widow of a Taliban fighter from Logar’s Charkh District said that “when the Taliban came, our lives were ruined.” Of those interviewed, only two women, both older and more broadly conservative in their views, agreed with the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s mobility and participation in life outside the home.
When asked about the conflict, women described it in different terms than men, with greater emphasis on the human toll of the suffering and less on its causes or political dimensions. One woman from Wardak recounted a long list of violent episodes and losses before she stopped, as though there were too many traumas to relive, and said, “We spend every moment of our lives in grief, and the war has destroyed our lives.” Women with husbands or family in the Taliban or government forces described constant anxiety during periods of heavy fighting, not knowing if they would see loved ones again. One woman from Logar, the widow of a Taliban fighter, said that “people are tired of both the Taliban and the government, and the Taliban and their families are tired of fighting.” Nonetheless, she, like most women, believed the fighting would end only if US forces left Afghanistan.
Women did not feel that they could have much, if any, role in making peace. They pointed out that women are not fighting the war and are not involved in political discussions. Involvement in peace also implied participation in public life. A woman from Nad Ali, in Helmand, expressed a typical sentiment: “How can women play any role for peace since we cannot go outside our homes?” A few women felt it was inappropriate for women to be doing such things, while others lamented that they are not allowed or included in such discussions. Most simply thought that, given the norms and traditions in their areas, they would have no opportunity to play any part in peace talks.
These sentiments, however, did not mean that the interviewees believed that women had no role in peace talks writ large. As one woman in Wardak’s Saydabad District said, “Women who have access to the media have to raise their voice about these issues. . . . Women in this rural area are not able to do anything, but the women living in the cities have to raise their voice.” As this fieldwork and other research like it have indicated, the rural-urban divide regarding women’s roles is vast, and restrictions on women are most extreme in places like Helmand.12 This is not to suggest, as media debates around peace talks occasionally imply, that women in these areas do not have social power or conceive of themselves as not having rights. Instead, many of these women genuinely wanted to see their rights restored or respected.
Like most noncombatants, women’s hopes for peace were primarily that the violence and uncertainty would end, and that peace would improve their lives in other ways. Many women expressed a desire to live under a “truly” Islamic government that implemented sharia. However, in contrast to men’s views of sharia, which largely limited women’s freedoms, women’s views of the restoration of sharia law gave them greater rights and security. Above all else, women emphasized the importance of education. Like many women, the wife of a Taliban fighter in Wardak hoped that all of “the restrictions that had been placed on women by the Taliban would be lifted” and women would have access to education.
Read original SPECIAL REPORT on Perspectives on Peace from
Taliban Areas of Afghanistan HERE.