For generations, women across Afghanistan have suffered in silence as their men engaged in war and violence, often leaving them as widows and orphans.
But hundreds of female officials, activists, and lawmakers in a conservative remote Afghan province now want to change that by pioneering an innovative peace effort.
Based in the eastern province of Kunar, a historic hotbed of successive insurgencies, the initiative makes use of local traditions to directly approach insurgent fighters and persuade them to renounce violence.
“Our suffering is beyond imagination. We’ve lost our sons in suicide attacks. Many of our brothers never returned from fighting in the mountains,” says Sohaila Babar, head of the women’s affairs department in Kunar. “We want to approach our enemies with a simple message: Please stop killing our children.”
Babar says an August 8 gathering of women in Kunar’s capital, Asadabad, decided to send a representative delegation, or Jirga, of elderly women (for whom the insurgents would have more respect) to the houses, trenches, and known hideouts of the disparate factions fighting in Kunar’s complex insurgency.
“We are determined to see it through,” Babar said. “From now on, we want to create a peace camp so we can protect ourselves from the insecurity we have lived in.”
The initiative runs counter to most approaches where peace is sought through negotiations between the Afghan government and the insurgents or through re-integrating militants into the political mainstream.
Such approaches have yielded few results. Efforts to jumpstart peace negotiations between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban -- the largest centralized insurgent organization -- have never taken off. The Taliban have long insisted on the complete withdrawal of international troops and said they would only talk directly to Washington, and not Kabul, because of its status as the real power involved.
For its part, Kabul sees the Taliban as proxies fighting for the the interests of its eastern neighbor, Pakistan. Since assuming office nearly three years ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has maintained his country is the victim of an “undeclared war of aggression” waged by Pakistan.
But the women of Kunar are not concerned with politicking. Instead, they believe old-age traditions and customs can help bring about peace with the militants, many of whom subscribe to hard-line Islamist ideologies to justify waging jihad against Afghan forces or the civilians who back the government.
Wagma Safai represents Kunar in the Ulasi Jirga, or lower house of the Afghan Parliament. She sees great potential in a delegation of notable female elders visiting insurgents who subscribe to the Taliban, Islamic State, and a host of smaller Salafist factions in the mountainous region.
“They are only human, and their hearts would surely melt when approached by women who could be their sisters, mothers, or grandmothers beseeching them to stop fighting,” she said. “I am sure it will help cool down tempers and convince hotheaded fighters to renounce fighting.”
Safai says such an approach is rooted in the traditions of Kunar’s predominantly Pashtun clans, where nanawati, or seeking forgiveness, is ritualized. As non-combatants, women used to play a key role in ending lengthy blood feuds between clans and families -- often by appealing directly to the enemy.
Safai says their initiative is likely to be backed by men, particularly Pashtun tribal leaders and clerics who typically have roles in political and social leadership.
“The sons and fathers of Kunar are our backers. I’m sure they will answer our call to end this fratricidal war,” she said, alluding to the nature of Kunar’s insurgency where most combatants are local even though their leaders operate from safe havens across the border in Pakistan. “I call on all our brothers to unite for a peaceful life with their sisters, mothers, and the rest of their families.”
Najibullah Haqyar, a leading Kunar cleric, says they are ready to back the women’s initiative.
“Working for peace contributes to the greater good. We have many examples of longstanding feuds being resolved with women’s help,” he said. “Pashtun combatants fight on both sides. I am sure they will respond positively to a sincere peace effort.”
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Kunar, Afghanistan.