President Biden’s recent announcement of American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may suggest that peace is in sight at the end of a long war. But activists have raised concerns over its potential effects on women’s rights and quality of life.
Biden announced all American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The deal focuses on foreign troop withdrawal and preventing Taliban support for international terrorism. The threat of the Taliban to the United States is deemed no longer to require military presence and NATO members have agreed no military solution can fix Afghanistan’s present challenges. However, there are mounting concerns among U.S. lawmakers that women’s rights could be diminished with U.S. withdrawal. The co-chairs of the Women, Peace, and Security Caucus―Congressman Michael Waltz and Congresswoman Lois Frankel―have emphasized the need to protect the gains of Afghan women since Taliban rule was ousted in 2001. Senator Jeanne Shaheen expressed similar worries, saying the Taliban is still unwilling to consider the protection of women’s rights.
Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have also raised significant concerns. Fawzia Koofi, a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan who has survived two assassination attempts, is one of the few women in the Afghan delegation negotiating with the Taliban. She has said, “if the U.S. leaves now, it will not result in peace,” and pointed to the gender imbalance at peace negotiations. “Everyone wants to have peace,” Koofi told the BBC, but not a peace deal at any cost. Along with other activists, Koofi has stressed that the Taliban still pose a very real threat to Afghan women.
During the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan from 1996-2001, girls could not attend school and women were not allowed to work, were forced to wear burkas in public and could not leave home without a male relative. There were horrific and often deadly punishments for transgressions, including public stoning. While there has been some Taliban moderation since 2001, they have still attacked girls’ schools and broadly oppose gender equality. The Taliban’s official position now is that women may work and go to school but only within the boundaries of their extreme interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic law. The Taliban’s restrictions significantly limit women’s rights, leading to strong skepticism that they will be protected if the U.S. leaves.
In the last two decades, Afghan women have fought to earn increased participation in public life, the workforce and as politicians. Their quality of life, attendance in secondary school and life expectancy have dramatically increased. A hasty or unfair peace deal could lead to worsening instability, threatening the rights of women. Without a durable peace in place before the U.S. withdraws, there is the possibility of a resurgence of violence which could empower the Taliban as well as al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The peace agreements must be conditions-based to ensure that women’s rights are actively protected.
Beyond being a fundamental humanitarian imperative, protecting women’s rights promotes national stability. Ensuring basic rights, including education and healthcare, as well as enabling women’s participation in society and leadership positions, improves development and promotes durable peace. Empowering women also helps deter terrorism, which means protecting the rights of Afghan women is in America’s security interest.
In a BBC interview, Fatima Gailani, a women’s rights activist in the Afghan delegation negotiating with the Taliban, summed up the concerns. She isn’t worried about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; she is worried about the withdrawal of troops before peace is intact. She and other activists are calling for cooperation within Afghanistan and with other governments, even after they leave, through support and international aid. Gailani emphasized that Afghan women are not a small or weak presence; they will stand and fight for their rights, but they also deserve the help of actors on all sides of this peace process.