By Jane Ferguson – December 19, 2019
In 2015, a young girl claiming to be running away from an abusive brother arrived at a women’s shelter in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. The manager of the facility, Benafsha Efaf, was skeptical of the girl and her story. The girl answered few questions, and said she was sixteen years old. Efaf let her stay anyway.
After several days at the shelter, the girl came to Efaf’s office in tears and confessed. Isis had sent her there, she said, sobbing, to spy on the home for women, report back, and help the group plan an attack. The girl felt guilty about her undercover mission; it wasn’t true what they say about the place, Efaf recalled her saying.
For years, religious conservatives in Afghanistan have spread rumors that shelters for women are, in fact, secret brothels. Efaf has grown used to dealing with such smears and threats. When fighting broke out across Kunduz in 2015, the Taliban temporarily took control of parts of the city, and the shelter was deliberately targeted by the Taliban and local civilians. “Even the neighbors threatened us,” she told me, rolling her eyes.
Today, Efaf manages all the shelters in Kabul Province for the U.S.-based nonprofit organization Women for Afghan Women. For safety reasons, the location of each facility is kept secret. Nothing outside the buildings identifies them as sanctuaries. During a recent visit, a young woman who said she had fled her violent, drug-addicted husband told me, “We are like sisters to each other here.”
During the past year, Afghan women have begun anxiously monitoring news reports for threats to their safety from a new source: a peace deal with the Taliban. The Trump Administration’s launch of negotiations with the Taliban, last year, startled many women in Afghanistan. For more than nine months, talks in Doha, Qatar, took place behind closed doors, and the Afghan government, at the Taliban’s request, was barred from participating.
Women were largely excluded, forced to watch the news each night for snippets and rumored details regarding their future. Afghan women say they still have little idea about what a future government might look like. “From the time that the peace negotiation started, I was searching but haven’t found anyone who is representing Afghan women, who is really aware of Afghan women’s concerns and [the] problems they are facing,” Efaf told me.
Now Afghan women fear that their new, hard-fought rights could be sacrificed for a politically expedient U.S.-troop withdrawal that has more to do with an American President’s reëlection campaign than with securing their future. In September, Trump abruptly cut short the peace talks—and cancelled a proposed Taliban trip to Camp David—after an insurgent attack in the capital, Kabul, killed an American soldier and eleven Afghans.
The talks resumed earlier this month, with little indication that either side’s position had changed. During a Thanksgiving visit to Kabul, Trump said that there would be a Taliban ceasefire. That has not happened.
The White House’s special envoy to the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, presented the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, with a copy of the proposed September agreement but did not allow him to keep it. The basis of the agreement, according to news reports, is a timetable for a U.S.-troop withdrawal in exchange for the Taliban promising never again to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Vague mentions have been made by the Taliban of women being granted rights “according to Islamic principles.”
Ultimately, after nearly two decades of war, both the U.S. and Afghan governments are desperate to strike a peace deal with the Taliban. Currently, government forces control most large cities and the Taliban controls much of the countryside. Afghans in Kabul told me that, while watching coverage of the talks in Qatar, they were startled by how confident the Taliban’s delegates seemed, as they were welcomed in hotel lobbies with warm handshakes and interviewed by journalists from international television networks. Afghan government forces, meanwhile, are besieged by Taliban attacks, in which they have lost a staggering forty-five thousand soldiers and police officers in the past five years. Recent U.S. and Afghan government offensives have pressured the group but hardly shifted the military stalemate.
Last week, the Washington Post published hundreds of private interviews with American officials, diplomats, and commanders who expressed deep pessimism about the war. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served in both the Bush and Obama Administrations, was quoted as saying, in a 2015 interview. An unidentified American official who served as a liaison to nato forces said in an interview that the U.S. never set clear goals in Afghanistan. “What were we actually doing in that country?” the official asked, according to the documents. “What are our objectives? Nation building? Women’s rights?”
With the Taliban already acting like victors in this war, there seems to be little chance of gaining concessions for women’s rights in a peace agreement. Life for women in Afghanistan’s cities, though, has dramatically improved since U.S. and Afghan forces drove the Taliban from power, eighteen years ago. Women are members of parliament, government ministers, and business owners. Across Kabul, young women are particularly visible, smoking hookah pipes in Turkish restaurants and shopping together in small groups at malls. The stereotypical image of an Afghan woman clad in a pale-blue burqa, walking the city’s dusty streets, is less and less reflective of life today in Afghanistan’s urban centers. A younger generation of women wears pants and long shirts, with brightly colored shawls and head scarves loosely tossed over their hair as a nod to religious tenets.
Nearly three-quarters of Afghans are under the age of thirty, meaning that most young women today grew up hearing of the horrors of life under the Taliban from their mothers rather than experiencing them firsthand. Their grandmothers also weaned them on nostalgic tales of the good days before the 1979 Soviet invasion. For younger Afghan women, the Taliban is a haunting presence that menaces major cities with car bombs and suicide attacks. They understand what they would face if the Taliban was to return to power.
At a recent garden party in a middle-class Afghan home in Kabul, a twenty-five-year-old Afghan woman, who asked not to be named, sat on a cushion, cradling a whiskey in one hand and a slim cigarette in the other. Born and raised in Kabul, she said that she worked for a civil-society organization and has no plans to flee the country if the worst happens. “It dominates conversation for young women now: What will we do if the Taliban come back?” she told me. “For me, I really think I would join a fighting group, if I could.”
This young woman, like other members of her generation of Afghan women, grabbed the opportunities presented to them after the fall of the Taliban, such as scholarships to study abroad, improved educational opportunities domestically, and an increased number of professional jobs. In another major change, this is a generation of women living modern lives who do not come from the old upper class of wealthy élites. Middle-class women who advanced themselves through a combination of education and supportive parents are becoming the face of modern Afghanistan. While young Afghan men often talk of moving abroad and making a life for themselves in the West, young women often talk about staying in-country to pursue careers in education, health, and government that contribute to domestic development, despite its enormous challenges.
Shaharzad Akbar, the new head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, won a scholarship to study at Smith College, in Massachusetts, and returned to Kabul after completing her masters at Oxford. “On days when the violence hits very close and you have these cases where we lose a lot of civilians and young people—those days, it’s hard to believe in the possibility of a better future,” she told me. “But then you take a break, you mourn, you grieve, you do whatever you need to do, and for real peace to come it’s essential to continue doing this work.”
Akbar, who is thirty-one, met with me in her office in a modern building on the outskirts of Kabul. Poised yet passionate, she talked about the pressures of running Afghanistan’s largest human-rights organization at a young age. She pointed out that for many women in Afghanistan the dangers lurk closer to home than people imagine. Regardless of whether they live in Taliban- or government-controlled areas, she said, Afghan women are much more likely to be injured or killed by their own family members than by the war. “I talk about this as a national shame,” Akbar told me. “The status of women in their homes, the lack of safety from violence and abuse in their own families, is absolutely unacceptable, but it is the reality. We see more reporting—we don’t see more justice. And this is something I struggle with every day.”
Women are also subject to a patchy and unfair enforcement of Afghanistan’s Sharia-based legal system. What sort of treatment they receive from judges often depends on where in the country they live. Some are simply accused of adultery and thrown into jail, without trial, for “moral crimes.” Journalists are banned from visiting the wings of women’s prisons to talk to them.
In the burn unit of the Istiklal Hospital in Kabul, four dazed young women sat on beds, staring into space. The ward smelled of filth and rotting flesh. Patches of skin not covered with bandages were raw pink or charred black. A cockroach scurried across the floor under one patient’s feet. There was no electricity on the day I visited. The staff stared blankly at me when I asked why.
One young woman sat on a small metal bed in silence, her legs dangling over the edge. She was twenty-two years old. “I was engaged,” she whispered, when I asked if she was married. She had a massive cut across her throat, with bloodied bandages half fallen off. The doctor on duty said that she had initially claimed she was injured during an accident at home, but later had quietly confessed that she had set fire to herself. (No clear explanation was offered for the gash on her throat.)
Medical staff here estimate that eighty-five per cent of the cases they see are accidents with cooking gas and electricity, but the rest are self-immolations. The head nurse on the ward, a stout, motherly woman dressed in pink scrubs, told me that she had worked in the hospital for thirty years. Young female patients occasionally confide in her, explaining why they would choose to hurt themselves. “Sometimes they don’t tell us, but mostly it’s because of economic stresses, and, for some, husbands and marriage problems,” she said. “It’s different family problems.”
After the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence was declared illegal in Afghanistan and women’s rights were enshrined in new laws. Sixty-eight parliamentary seats out of two hundred and fifty, for example, are reserved for women. But Akbar, the head of the human-rights commission, said that turning laws into concrete changes in women’s lives has been a massive challenge. She opposed a peace deal with the Taliban that does not include tangible guarantees for women’s rights. “If we have a spot settlement government that disregards the current legal framework, especially when it comes to issues of women’s rights and human rights, then you are asking Afghan women to start their struggle from scratch, again,” she said. “And it would be a much longer struggle.”
To some women, the solution is simply to take the reins completely and run for high office. Hassina Syed, an Afghan businesswoman, said the reason women haven’t ascended to the top level of Afghan politics is corruption. Powerful men are able to find financial backing through patronage networks and strike backroom deals with one another. The longer one has been in politics in Afghanistan, typically, the more access one has to money through bribery and corruption. Women have been shut out of this system, and therefore cannot buy political support like men can. “The men sit in the gathering. They give each other bribes,” Syed said. “But the women don’t have money. They can’t do that.”
Taliban leaders assert that they are not the same group that flogged and stoned women in the nineteen-nineties. They say the Taliban no longer opposes female education. But many Afghans suspect the group is simply paying lip service to the international community. In the country’s conservative rural areas, it would take a colossal shift in culture for the Taliban and for rural men to accept the freedoms that women in cities currently enjoy.
At the least, it would require a peace deal that compels the Taliban to respect these freedoms. Without Afghan women at the table, such terms are unlikely to make it into any peace deal. Efaf, the shelter manager, told me that women crave peace but don’t want to pay for it with everything that they have gained over the past seventeen years. “It is my wish, it is everyone’s wish, that at least for a moment we feel peace in our country,” she told me. “But we don’t want such peace that we lose all our achievements, especially the ladies that have worked so hard.”
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