Advancing Women’s Rights During Afghanistan's Negotiations: A Discussion
The Honorable Jane Harman, President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center, moderated a discussion of the importance of the role of women leaders at the intra-Afghan negotiating table and in peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The mission of these women has been, and continues to be, ensuring that women’s rights are not only safeguarded but amplified in Afghanistan – especially their right to education, to work, and to move freely.
On December 14, the Wilson Center and the Doha Forum co-hosted “Advancing Women’s Rights During Afghanistan’s Negotiations: A Discussion.” The panel, moderated by the Honorable Jane Harman, President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center, discussed the importance of the role of women leaders at the intra-Afghan negotiating table and in peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The mission of these women has been, and continues to be, ensuring that women’s rights are not only safeguarded but amplified in Afghanistan – especially their right to education, to work, and to move freely.
Fatima Gailani, Member of the Negotiating Team of the Afghanistan government, former President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, stressed that achieving peace in Afghanistan means more than “not having war. Peace has to be clear, inclusive, and include men and women from all languages and religious sects.” Women’s freedoms and rights in Afghanistan have experienced significant fluctuations, most of which due to the impact of war. Gailani strives to ensure Afghanistan’s new constitution survives and enshrines both Islamic law and human rights.
Habiba Sarābi, Former Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs and former Minister of Culture and Education, put forth her pride in the diversity of the negotiations team: “men and women, young and old, Islamic and other ethnic religions, geographically and politically different people. When it comes to inclusion, it was our idea the whole team would be inclusive to ensure sustainable peace.”
Roya Mahboob, Afghan businesswoman and entrepreneur, emphasized the progress in advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan prior to the negotiations. This includes progress towards empowering women and improving access to healthcare and education. But going forward, Mahboob argues, “the young population wants to be involved in political and economic life. More than half of the country’s population is younger than 25.”
Women’s Role as negotiators
Gailani and Sarābi highlighted three responsibilities of their role on the negotiation team: as women, they represent half of the society; as Afghans, they represent the population; and as delegates, they represent their constituency. Sarābi believes women are effective negotiators because of, “the responsibility we feel from the community. Women carry the load of the war, losing their husbands, fathers, brothers, and children. The family comes to the shoulder of women.” Gailani added historical context, noting women historically played a principal role in negotiations between tribes and kings. “Women have always been a source of unity between males. It has always been one of our roles.”
Guaranteeing women’s rights
Both the Afghan and international community are concerned the negotiated agreement, and the rights it grants to women, will not survive. Mahboob reflected that women’s rights were not always so vulnerable: “I look at my mom’s generation, when women could go to school and university. Today that is not happening for the girls where she came from. Peace is a commitment to how we will treat and respect each other. We cannot have lasting peace if there is injustice.” She added that even though women are half of the population, 75 percent are not adequately educated. 50 percent of the entire population lives below the poverty line, and only 20 percent have access to the internet. “With these statistics, it is easy to see how we are ripe for armed conflict and instability. These factors are more important than political and religious differences.”
The three panelists agreed, education is the key to peace and the protection of women’s rights. Specifically, women must be educated about their rights and protections to know what opportunities are available: “When you are aware of the things around you, it will help achieve many things, including peace” stated Gailani, adding “we are in awe of women who know what they want and how they want it.” Mahboob stressed the importance of investing in high-quality education to “unlock multi-generation potential.” She believes jobs are the pathway to economic inclusion, and “young women in Afghanistan must have opportunities to learn about their high economic potential.”
The role of Islam
The negotiators strive to achieve an Islamic Afghanistan yet are wary of acts of brutality and injustice in the name of Islam that would spread fear of what that will look like. For women in particular, the stakes are incredibly high: Afghan women have been murdered, beaten, and marginalized to their homes with supposed religious justification. This perpetuates a culture of tolerance towards violence against women, and fundamentally changes the way men view women. These abuses further divide the society over how to achieve a peaceful Afghanistan and overcome deeply entrenched cultural practices that are unfavorable to women.
Gailani, who received an Islamic education, stated that Islam is a peaceful religion and historically upholds the rights and freedoms of women. For example, Islam was the first religion to grant inheritance rights to women. This emphasizes the need to recognize accurate interpretations of Islam, moving away from policies and atrocities falsely justified in the name of Islam. Sarābi states, “What makes us united is what we think divides us. Islam unites us, Afghanistan unites us. Experiencing the fatigue of war and living under peace and one rule unite us.”
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Middle East Women's Initiative
The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research. Read more