The Imperative of Involving Afghan Women

As American forces hand off control to the Afghan National Army and state police, women, as half of the population, should have an equal role in the transition process that will define society and politics to a significant degree. However, Afghan women are being excluded from peace talks with the Taliban. Modern research has shown that engaging women in society and politics positively impacts national security as “the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.”

When the Taliban took power in 1996, it instituted a hard-line interpretation of Sharia law, which reversed any advances in women’s civil and political rights. Women were subjected to new rules of comportment and dress and were suddenly dependent on their husbands, fathers and brothers. Most detrimentally, female education was abolished. Activities that make women valuable – work and education – were legally prohibited, putting women and girls at greater physical risk. Female education is a major factor in female agency that also leads to their physical security and nation-wide development.

In Afghanistan, the average mother is 20 years old at her first child’s birth, and the average birth rate is 5.1 children per woman. Afghanistan has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world. Only 17.6 percent of females in the total population older than 15 can read and write, with an average of seven years of schooling. Afghan girls attempting to attend school are at physical risk from the Taliban who target female education. Honor killings, threatening women if they defy their families or have relations – anything from speaking to eloping – with a man, and virginity tests are used to punish and deter girls and women fleeing violence, leaving suicide as a method of escaping strictures and economic desperation.

As the international community engages with the Taliban to discuss peaceful policy options, the conversation must recognize that male Afghan politicians have not made efforts to address these issues of physical security. If the ensuing compromise allows the Taliban’s version of Sharia law to be reinstituted, women could once again lose any sort of agency in Afghanistan. Further, women have been excluded from the peace talks, rendering an entire gender unable to advocate for itself. Not one of the eleven talks between the international community and the Taliban has included women.

Possible reconciliation with the Taliban is worrisome to many women: Fawzia Koofi, former Deputy Speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament said, “Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved.” The lack of women in the peace talks is not promising. The international community needs to insist on greater female participation, just as it helped establish the quota system in the Afghan parliament. In an ironic twist, international actors frequently use personal rights, especially the mistreatment of women, as a reason for intervention, but are allowing female involvement to have secondary importance in peace talks.

While societal values may move more slowly, the Afghan government can institute changes and attempt to enforce laws protecting education, property rights, marriage rights and control of finances. The international community has a considerable amount of influence and control over the Afghan economy and goals: Afghanistan is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Its prerogative should therefore be one that advances the status of women, both through educational initiatives and economic rights.

It is imperative that women are included in political decision-making and societally respected. Currently, 27 percent of seats in the Afghan Parliament’s lower house are reserved for women, but they face significant challenges from their peers. Many proponents of democracy cite the democratic peace theory as evidence that democracies are inherently more peaceful, yet another correlation is that democracies tend to also be more feminized than authoritarian states, controlling aggressive impulses through societal norms and laws. Certain phenomena – such as aggression, violence, war and intense competition for dominance – are tied more closely to men than women. There are many feel-good arguments that letting women rule would bring about world peace, but that is what the research actually points to.

Women have been, and will be, important actors in economic development and an “active civil society.” Their inclusion on all levels of society is a determining factor of prosperity and security, not just for themselves but for the nation as whole. Subjecting women to asymmetrical or unfair marriage practices, inheritance or property laws and inability to attend school costs the public in direct and indirect ways. The men of Afghanistan are paying – literally – to keep women out of power. This needs to change for their own good and Afghanistan’s future.