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Afghan Women Wary Of Taliban Talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai shakes hands with a female student during a university graduation ceremony in Kabul.
Afghan women are demanding that their voices be heard in the ongoing international dialogue over Afghanistan's future after 2014, when foreign troops leave amid hopes that a peace settlement can be reached with the Taliban.

As the United States and its NATO allies prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, women fear that their newfound rights may be undermined in peace talks with the Taliban -- which denied women the right to work, receive an education, or even leave their homes during the militia's five-year rule.

Shukria Barakzai, a prominent female member of the current Afghan parliament, believes women must be involved in the peace process, while adding that the international community must provide assurances that women's rights will not be used as bargaining chips in any negotiations.

"At that time [after the Taliban was ousted in 2001], they only accepted and talked about women's rights," she said, adding that "this is the time that they should tell us by which way and under which conditions they will support Afghan women politically, economically, and socially."

Barakzai, who is wary of reconciliation with the Taliban, adds that the Afghan population would only accept the group's return to the political fold if it were to lay down its weapons, accept the Afghan Constitution, and join the political process as a national political party.

"There is no chance of the Taliban itself [coming] back as a regime, to be back and take power as the way they were before," she said.

'Token Representation'

Barakzai bemoans the lack of women's participation in international gatherings like the Bonn II conference on December 5. Only a handful of female delegates attended the one-day conference held to map out Afghanistan's future.

Afghan parliamentary deputy Shukria Barakzai
Afghan parliamentary deputy Shukria Barakzai
Barakzai insists that women not only participate in the peace process but that all discussions regarding the peace and reconciliation process -- at both the domestic and international level -- should involve women.

"[It] is important for us as women to be in every single corner and to be very active," she said. "In the meantime, I don't think anybody should use women as a [token] showpiece for local and international gatherings."

Barakzai added that Afghan women's voices are indispensable and that lasting peace and prosperity cannot be reached without them.

"You can't be ignoring half the population," she said. "Even if they want to ignore [women], tomorrow they have to reach out to us because whenever there are elections everybody knocks on the doors of women."

Significant Inroads

In the past decade, women have made significant inroads in Afghan society.

The end of Taliban rule coincided with greater opportunities for women. Millions of girls are now back in school. Women are working, particularly in the major cities, as professionals in various fields. The country has a female provincial governor, while dozens of women serve as members of parliament and the senate.

Afghan women during a demonstration condemning domestic violence, held in Kabul earlier this year
Afghan women during a demonstration condemning domestic violence, held in Kabul earlier this year
But those initial gains are under threat, according to a recently published UN report, which said that Afghan women still face widespread restrictions on their freedom of movement, while their access to work and rights have steadily tightened and violence against them has soared.

The report said the Afghan government has "not yet succeeded" in implementing a 2-year-old law intended to protect women from abuse, including rape, forced marriage, and the trading of women to settle disputes.

The report says the law is enforced by authorities in only a small percentage of cases.

This document was published as the case of a 19-year-old Afghan rape victim hit the headlines around the world.

'Forced To Marry' Her Rapist

Gulnaz, who only goes by one name, was imprisoned in 2009 for adultery after being raped by a relative. She says her husband's cousin bound her hands while she was alone one day at home and raped her.

She initially kept quiet about the crime due to fear, but soon found out that she was pregnant with the rapist's child. When she went to the police, they arrested the rapist but also detained Gulnaz for adultery.

Her child, now 9 months old, was born inside prison. Gulnaz received a 12-year sentence but was pardoned last week by President Hamid Karzai.

Although there have been no reported conditions for her release, Gulnaz was quoted as saying, "I am obliged to marry him, even though I can't look at him."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.