U.S.-Taliban talks worry Afghan women

February 25, 2012


Fawzia Koofi, the 19th of her father’s 23 children by seven wives, was put outside to die after she was born, because she was female.

Badly burned by the sun, she survived. Backed by her strong-willed, illiterate mother, she overcame the horrors of civil war and Taliban rule to become a leading member of the Afghan parliament and a probable 2014 presidential candidate. Her gripping new memoir, “The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan Into the Future,” details how a determined girl surmounted impossible odds to become a voice for Afghan women and children.

So there are few better qualified than Koofi to warn about the danger that U.S. talks with the Taliban pose for Afghan women. “I have a fear,” she said by phone from Kabul this week, “that we will lose the gains we have made over the past 10 years.”

As Americans tire of the endless Afghan conflict, talks with the Taliban seem to offer a way out. Preliminary meetings between U.S. officials and Taliban officials have been held in recent weeks.

But given the White House commitment to bring most troops home by 2014, there seems little reason for the Taliban to compromise on core principles, including repression of women. Nor have Afghan women been given a say in setting the agenda for talks.

That gives Afghan women good reason to worry. A recent poll by the international humanitarian agency ActionAid found 86 percent of women questioned were deeply concerned at the prospect of a Taliban-influenced government. Koofi’s memoir shows how much they have to lose.

She was raised in the remote province of Badakhshan, bordering China and Tajikistan, where her father was a respected political leader who was murdered at the onset of decades of Afghan civil war. Taken by her widowed mother to Kabul, she managed to get an education, only to watch her liberal-minded husband dragged off to a gruesome jail by the Taliban shortly after their marriage. In prison he contracted the tuberculosis that ultimately killed him.

“I lived in Kabul under the Taliban and I know what their attitude is like,” she told me. The Taliban’s return, she says, would mean “depriving women of education, forbidding them to go out of their houses.” She is dubious about rumors that Taliban leaders have changed their minds about allowing girls’ schools.

Koofi lives in a walled compound in Kabul (she faces constant Taliban death threats). When I visited last year, a line of desperate women waited inside to ask for her help.

Yet, despite the limits still imposed on women by a conservative Afghan culture (female literacy is only 13 percent), enormous strides have been made since the Taliban fell. As of September, 2.7 million Afghan girls were enrolled in school, compared with just 5,000 in 2001. Sixty nine women serve in parliament (27 percent of the total); Koofi was elected from remote Badakhshan, where she received a huge percentage of votes from men as well as women.

These gains must not be thrown away.

Indeed, says Koofi, most Afghans are not eager for talks with the Taliban. Their priorities are more basic: schools, jobs, and services. But if Afghan President Hamid Karzai or the Americans seek talks with the Taliban, the process must change.

Right now, she says, the Afghan peace process is totally untransparent. “Women are not included. Civil society and the political opponents of the government aren’t included. Even parliament is not included.”

These sectors of society must be consulted before the process goes any further, she says. Afghans must all agree on certain red lines to which the Taliban must assent before being permitted into the political system. One of those red lines would be the preservation of women’s rights.

Now it is true that the Obama administration has set forth red lines for the Taliban, which include respect for the Afghan constitution. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says that “for many of us [that red line] means they have to respect the rights of women.”

But no one knows if Clinton’s stance will be the final word in peace talks, which is why Koofi is rightly nervous. “If the Taliban returns,” she wrote in her book, “these little girls will once again be forced back indoors and silenced underneath their burqas and a set of … laws that accord women fewer rights than dogs. To allow this to happen would be a betrayal of the highest order.”

Those who oppose such a betrayal should keep watch on any talks with the Taliban.

Fawzia Koofi, the 19th of her father’s 23 children by seven wives, was put outside to die after she was born, because she was female

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the


Richard Heckler 3 years, 11 months ago

Afghan women might need to relocate say to England or maybe Australia. The USA cannot guarantee their safety or women's rights.

StirrrThePot 3 years, 11 months ago

You say this as though it is something they can do very easily. This really isn't the case. We can't make the mistake of looking at their human rights issues from behind the protective veil of freedom that we enjoy. While I do not believe it is the USA's job to remain there for however many decades to ensure the protection of women and children, there has to be something we can do while we're still there to do it. If that means help them get out, well ok, but then what? Uproot a bunch of women, send them to other countries where they are safe, then wave goodbye and say "enjoy your new life!" No, now they have a new set of problems. They need to be safe in their own country and continue to life they began when we took the Taliban down. How that happens, I don't know, there is no simple answer such as "they need to get out of there".

StirrrThePot 3 years, 11 months ago

Thinking back to recent poll here about what feminism means, wouldn't it be nice if we could just sick our most militant, forceful, and persuasive womens rights troops on them over there? Now THAT would be a worthy cause for them to take on...

But seriously though--if NOW and other womens groups could create a global coalition to help these women in their own country that would be something. Not to "westernize" or take them away from the good things about their religion or culture, but to help them ensure they have the tools to keep their rights and utilize their resources whether that means they stay and build on that foundation in their own country, or flourish someplace else.

verity 3 years, 11 months ago

This is the third time I'm asking you. What is this Party of Atheists?

verity 3 years, 11 months ago

So---the atheists who post on this site are the Party of Atheists? Got it.

Where's my card?

Funny thing, BAA, is that I have often supported religion in my posts. I haven't kept track of who the other atheists are, so can't speak for them. We don't need to have a "Party" to support each other. We are what we are.

verity 3 years, 11 months ago

Everybody wants an easy answer and there is no easy answer. I'm not even sure there is a hard or complex answer. If we could go back and change the past, perhaps we might have a better outcome. If nothing else good comes of this, we should at least try to learn not to repeat our mistakes.

One, and perhaps the most important, would be not to support bad guys just because they happen to be on our side at the time. They are going to switch sides when it seems convenient to them.

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