HERAT, Afghanistan -- Jamila Azimi says her hopes of seeing an end to her country’s four-decade war are fading a year after the peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States led many to believe that peace in Afghanistan was around the corner.
"All our hopes have been dashed,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan while reflecting on how during last year’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 8 last year in hometown Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, women were brimming with expectations.
“We had just witnessed the signing of a peace agreement and were very hopeful and there was some enthusiasm to celebrate it,” she added, alluding to the February 29, 2020, agreement that requires Washington to withdraw troops in return for Taliban counterterrorism guarantees, power-sharing talks with the Afghan government, and discussions on a comprehensive cease-fire.
“But once again, we are in a state of war and crisis,” Azimi noted. She vividly remembers life under the hard-line Taliban, which closed schools for girls and severely restricted mobility for Afghan women after overrunning Herat in September 1995.
"I was a fourth grader but had to comply with restrictions imposed on adult women,” she said of life under the Taliban. "When I went to the market with my mother, I was constantly stared at and repeatedly threatened. After several trips, my mother stopped taking me outside the house.”
Like many Afghan women, Azimi was married off as a teenager and soon became a mother. Today, she feels the Taliban’s closure of schools denied her key opportunities in life.
Manizheh Bahareh, another Herat resident, was also deprived of education during the Taliban rule in the late 1990s. But she returned to school soon after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001 and never looked back. She now holds a master’s degree in sociology from Turkey and represents the educated middle class that has thrived since the fall of the Taliban thanks to international aid and government support for education and women’s rights.
Bahareh is also worried about the increasing violence against targeted professional women. She hopes the Afghan government and the Taliban can find a way to reduce violence and preserve the achievements of the past two decades.
"The right to education, employment, key freedoms, and other political and social rights of women are part of our red lines that should not be crossed,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We would also like to see more attention to the empowerment and development of women.”
While the Afghan government celebrates women’s empowerment, education, careers, and rights as its key achievements, the Taliban has offered only vague promises of granting women rights in accordance with Islamic injunctions. The hard-line Islamist movement has no female leaders, and no women work at its political office in Qatar or as field commanders. Likewise, its shadow government in Afghanistan and vast network there and in Pakistan -- where the movement has largely sheltered since being routed from Afghanistan in late 2001 – solely comprises men.
This deeply troubles Afghan women’s rights advocates who fear their achievements and rights will be sacrificed for the sake of making peace with the Taliban, whose military machine has made large territorial gains since 2014 but has showed little interest in abandoning its ultraconservative worldview.
Maria Bashir, a lawyer and rights defender in Herat, says she is optimistic about the progress Afghan women have made during the past two decades but peace should not come at the cost of abandoning them.
"If a [new] government is formed hastily and does not take into account half of the Afghanistan’s population, it is likely that our achievements will be reversed,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Amid a stalemate in peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Washington now appears to be pushing to jump-start the peace process. But its new alleged peace proposals, outlined in a reported plan distributed to Afghan leaders and an alleged leaked letter by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, calls for the formation of an interim power-sharing government with the Taliban, a cease-fire, and a conference of Kabul’s neighbors and regional powers.
Kabul has strongly opposed the proposals while Western diplomats and independent experts have questioned whether they can really help restore peace in Afghanistan or will serve to further complicate the worsening conditions of a possible U.S. military withdrawal by May 1 as stipulated by Washington’s agreement with the Taliban.
Shaharzad Akbar, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), says sustainable peace in Afghanistan will require that women be heard and given a say in the peace process.
“Everything affects women. The economy, politics, the fate of the political system, the proposed cease-fire, and a reintegration of the insurgents all impact the lives of women,” she told a gathering in Kabul on March 8.
One year after the landmark deal, Afghans and women in particular have not seen a respite from violence. In recent months, female journalists, activists, and government workers have become the main target of an insurgent assassination campaign that officials and observers say aims to weaken the media and civil society.
With high-profile diplomatic conferences expected to be held in Turkey and Moscow this month, Afghanistan will be at the center of heightened international diplomacy. The prospects for preserving the rights of Afghan women now loom large over such diplomatic initiatives and the larger peace process aimed at ending the Afghan war.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents in Herat and Kabul.