One of the women honored for her courage at the US State Department on Wednesday made a personal appeal to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to safeguard women’s rights in Afghanistan amid an uncertain future in the wake of the US-Taliban agreement.
Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of the Afghan town of Maidan Shar, directly implored the top US diplomat to ensure that the Afghan peace process upholds the rights of women.
“Women of my generation have not forgotten the reign of the Taliban and we are as always worried for the future,” she said at the event, where she was being honored as one of the 2020 International Women of Courage.
“Therefore, let me ask for your continued support to ensure that [the] Afghan peace process does not erase the gains that have been made since the dark days of the Taliban regime,” Ghafari said, turning to Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump, who were seated behind her as she delivered remarks onstage.
Ghafari thanked the US and Afghan governments, particularly that of President Ashraf Ghani, for their support of women’s rights.
She recounted being run out of the conservative town where she is mayor by an angry mob, “but I came back, I came back, and I stood my ground.” However, she noted that progress was not guaranteed.
“Whatever we women of war may have already achieved, let us not take it for granted,” she said. “It could be taken back from [us] if we are not vigilant and strong.”
The US-Taliban agreement signed Saturday in Doha, Qatar, makes no explicit mention of women in its text.
Trump administration officials have promised to use their voice to protect the role of women in Afghan society, but the US is punting any formal decisions about Afghan women to the intra-Afghan negotiations that are set to occur among the Afghan government, members of Afghan civil society and the Taliban later this month. If successful, the Taliban would included in the coming government.
‘There’s so much at stake here’
Under the harsh fundamentalist rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women were prevented from attending school or working outside of their homes, made to wear head-to-toe coverings and forbidden to travel alone.
During the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, US officials were clear that upholding the Afghan Constitution — which protects the rights of women — was a requirement for the US.
Critics have expressed concerns that those rights could be diminished under the terms of the agreement, particularly if the United States moves forward with the full withdrawal of troops outlined in the deal. US officials have said that a withdrawal will be “conditions-based.”
“The reality is we, the United States and the international community, let alone the Afghan women, have made enormous progress over the last many, many years,” Melanne Verveer, the former US ambassador for global women’s issues, told CNN. “Women are playing a truly vital role in that society, in terms of elected office, government participation, economic participation, etc., really critical to the functioning of Afghanistan, and their rights have been chiseled in this constitutional framework.” “There’s so much at stake here,” Verveer said.
Asked last week why the US believes the rights of Afghan women will be maintained once the intra-Afghan negotiating process takes root, a senior administration official pointed to the fact that women would have a role in that process.
“They’ll have a seat at the table during the negotiations,” the official said. “I can’t prejudge the outcome of this agreement, but a very high priority for us will be absolutely the protection of women’s rights, and we aren’t without influence in the process going forward; the United States is still a major presence in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Roya Rahmani, reiterated that women will be key players in the negotiations. “Women are a central part of that,” Rahmani, the first female ambassador from Afghanistan to the US, told reporters on Monday.
Pompeo, in his remarks in Doha, called on the Taliban to “embrace the historic progress obtained for women and girls, and build on it for the benefit of all Afghans.”
“The future of Afghanistan ought to draw on the God-given potential of every person,” the secretary of state said. ‘The Taliban will have to come to understand the country as it actually is’ However, some argue that the failure to codify the issue into the deal suggests that it is not a priority.
“What matters is going to be in that document,” said Bill Roggio, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Long War Journal. “The fact that women’s rights is not mentioned at all in the document shows that it is a non-issue. The US will give lip service to this issue but it is not going to be something that is going to cause the deal to be canceled. It shows the US has conceded at this point.”
Verveer, who is now the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, said it was “unfortunate that there was no reference to this critical element in the deal.”
She pointed to the fact that President Donald Trump in 2017 signed into law the Women, Peace and Security Act, which stresses the critical role women play in conflict prevention and resolution.
“What does it mean if we’re not going to be actively engaged in supporting the efforts going forward to ensure that women are at the table, that their expertise is being felt, that they are being communicated with across the country, because they have a critical role to play,” she told CNN. “What happens to them will say whether or not there can be a sustainable peace.”
But Annie Pforzheimer, the former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Kabul, views women’s exclusion from the agreement as more of a reflection of the reality. She notes that the American people want the US out of Afghanistan.
“What it shows is a belief that this is an issue for Afghans themselves to determine and that the role of the international community on a very basic question relating to protections under Afghanistan’s Constitution going forward is going to be that of friends and allies,” Pforzheimer said. “The political will is such that people are calling on all sides of the US political system for our engagement in Afghanistan to be reduced, and if that is the case it is hard for us to put ourselves in the position of guaranteeing certain outcomes of the political dialogue because the US government would be making a promise we couldn’t keep.”
If the political process turns out to be a long one — in which the US “makes it clear that they are not rushing for the exit” and the Taliban are given enough time to process just how changed the country is — the rights of women will likely be protected, Pforzheimer believes.
“The vast majority of Afghans want the Constitution to stay the way it is. The Taliban will have to come to understand the country as it actually is, not as they would like it to be,” Pforzheimer said.