Wazhma Frogh is a lifetime campaigner for Afghan women and girls. She co-founded the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan in 2011 and is a member of the Afghan Women’s Network. In 2009, the United States State Department granted her the International Women of Courage Award.
Frogh recently spoke with PassBlue through a Facebook Live event during the final days of a national consensus-seeking loya jirga in Afghanistan and a few weeks after a limited political agreement between the US and the Taliban, held in Doha, Qatar, to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Those talks recently ended, with no announcement about another round and as the Taliban have increased their attacks in Afghanistan.
The conversation with Frogh was held on May 2 at the Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Canada, where Frogh is living temporarily. The interview with her was co-hosted by The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, Afghan Women’s Network, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Women’s March Global, Ms. Magazine, Oxfam and Refinery29.
For the last 22 years, Frogh has been trying to make sure that Afghan women have a voice and can get into crucial decision-making structures. She started this work in the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with children and young women by creating education and literacy programs. When she returned to Afghanistan with her family in 2001, she started working with the Afghan Women’s Network, a leading organization in the country. She attended the loya lirga in 2010, where she was often the only female member in the working committees.
“Every time that I wanted to speak,” said Frogh, “I would be told by the men, ‘You women are not part of the war, you’re not killing, you’re not doing any suicide bombings and attacks, you’re not part of the war, so what makes you part of the peace?’ So, I started the Women and Peace Studies Organization with a colleague of mine. We address that question, what makes women part of the peace process.”
Gambale: There are a number of different talks on different axes going on in the past few months regarding peace in Afghanistan and some coming up. Can you introduce what is happening right now?
Frogh: The US special envoy [Zalmay Khalilzad] started direct talks with the Taliban in September 2018. And the whole purpose, as we see it, is for the US to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan as soon as possible.
While this is going on, Afghans inside Afghanistan have been working to reach some sort of consensus. In 2010, the government created a national peace reintegration program and established a peace council, and there has been regional and international consensus that the Afghan conflict needs a political settlement, not a military one. This past week, the government drew together 3,500 representatives from around the country in a national loya jirga to create a consensus for moving forward.
What the US is doing in Doha does not match what has been going on inside Afghanistan, because their political settlement is not part of a larger peace process. Peace is not just being able to sign a deal. Reconciliation and justice are needed, and reintegration of combatants.
My biggest worry is that these thousands of young Afghans who have taken up arms — how will they be content by a peace deal that will be signed in Doha? What are the reasons why they have become violent extremists in their own communities? If we do not deal with these root causes, yes, a deal might be signed in Doha. But Afghanistan again will be another hub for terrorism.
Gambale: What’s the hoped-for outcome from the current loya jirga? Are you hopeful about its outcome?
Frogh: The jirga is very positive, even just in terms of bringing people together; 3,500 people have come together. And 30 percent of them are women. And ultimately it mandated that the government push for a cease-fire in any peace talks. People are demanding the end of bloodshed. So, I think that’s a positive impact. And that dialogue itself does put pressure on the Taliban. Because when all Afghans come together and say we want an end of the conflict, the Taliban have to agree with it. Who are they representing? They have to respond to this question, they need the public support.
Gambale: What impact can women have when they are involved in peace processes?
Frogh: I’ve been part of so many consultations and engagements in Afghanistan. And the biggest impact is that it becomes inclusive. And when it becomes inclusive, it doesn’t only bring women, it brings so many men who haven’t had an opportunity to be heard.
For example, look at local conflicts on water. When we bring in women, the women point out other groups who are impacted, who were considered minorities and weren’t being listened to. When we bring in women, everyone has a chance to be included.
And when you bring in women, it’s not just about power sharing. It becomes about responsibility sharing. So when women engage in the process, we talk about the needs of the communities, about justice, about schools, about health, about education. It becomes about communities and issues, not just about men deciding which power positions to hold.
Gambale: What do you see as obstacles women specifically face in being part of the peace process, whether specific to Afghanistan or worldwide?
Frogh: Women are pushing to be included in the process. They are very strong. The challenge is always that they are told this is not the time for women. When we ask the US envoy why women are not part of their talks, he says he’s only talking to the Taliban about the US withdrawal, and that when Afghans talk with the Taliban, then women’s rights can be discussed. So, that’s the major challenge, that we do not have the opportunity yet.
But we keep pushing. We send letters to the US envoy. We do social media campaigns, like #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack. In in the past two months, the Afghan Women’s Network has mobilized more than two million women across the country. Wazhma Frogh with the author, who interviewed her at Conrad Grebel University College on May 2, 2019, in Waterloo, Canada. Frogh was inspired to advocate for women’s participation in peace talks after she was told: You’re not part of the war, so what makes you part of the peace?
Gambale: And has there been a response to your campaigns?
Frogh: Well, yes, the US envoy references the women’s movement, he references the women’s networks and the women’s work. But at the same time, they have not been able to create a platform where people can come together.
Like last month, we were supposed to have talks in Doha between Afghans and the Taliban. A long list of women was proposed by the Afghan government to be part of the delegation. But eventually the Taliban did not agree with that. And so the talks were delayed, maybe canceled. So, we need a third-party mediator like the UN or Norway, who can actually facilitate the process and play an important role to ensure that women also have a voice.
Gambale: Can you share a recent success story of a women-led peace effort in Afghanistan?
Frogh: One of the local peace-builders that I work with; she works in the south, which is a very difficult part of the country. And together with her, we set up these mothers’ groups. The mothers have started coming together to come up with ways on how to prevent their sons from becoming suicide bombers. So, they start with recognizing initial signs that a son has been approached by the Taliban, to be a suicide bomber or become engaged in the insurgency. Like she reads some notes in her pockets, because it’s the mother who washes his clothes. Or he’s coming home late, because it’s mother who gives him food.
With this group, she has been able to actually prevent many suicide bombings. There are so many women like her who are peace-builders, who don’t get any attention.
Gambale: How can women from other countries help you and other Afghan women who want peace?
Frogh: If Afghan women are actually provided an opportunity to be a meaningful part of the formal talks and any eventual agreement, this will become a groundbreaking reference for the rest of the world. It’s always been said Afghanistan is so patriarchal and traditional, and women can’t have rights. But all that has been actually a myth.
So what I actually look for is global women’s solidarity. If women are connected with each other, if they share experiences, if they share expertise, this will strengthen the momentum, this will strengthen the women’s movement. It’s a litmus test for the world, what’s going on in Afghanistan.
Maria Luisa Gambale