Worldview: Rights of Afghan women must be considered in 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.

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.

"Now people come to me from my district asking for girls' schools," she told me. Girls walk two to three hours to get to school." And in bigger cities, she says, girls now "have options." Her 12- and 13-year-old daughters dream, respectively, of becoming Afghan president and a space engineer.

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.


E-mail Trudy Rubin