Eyebrows went up last month among diplomats working on a political settlement to end the long war in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders attending talks in Moscow gave interviews to female journalists. In the 1990s, when the Islamic radical group ruled the country, women were denied work outside the home. Girls could not go to school. In public, women had to be entirely covered in a burqa.
In rural areas they still control, the Taliban continue to deny many basic rights to women. And their forces often defeat those of the elected but weak government in Kabul. Yet not all wars are won in violent battles. Today, after 17 years of democratic gains and popular acceptance of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the Taliban may be compelled to show new views about women.
That would be a critical change for any peace negotiations to succeed. The United States and the Taliban began talks this year and Afghan women’s groups are demanding that any settlement not compromise the hard-won gains in rights made since the US-led ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.
The Taliban today face a mighty foe in public attitudes about and among Afghan women.
In October, for example, a record number of women stood for office in parliamentary elections. Around 1,700 women now work in the country’s news media. Women attend university in record numbers. In law enforcement, specialized units provide support to women in trouble. And this month, the first woman was appointed as a senior security official in the Interior Ministry.
Yet the most telling shift in thinking is revealed in the latest survey of some 15,000 Afghan citizens, conducted in July by the Asia Foundation.
In this deeply conservative and Muslim country, 8 out of 10 men now support education for girls, the highest level in years. A similar large majority of Afghans say they have “no sympathy” for the Taliban and that women should be allowed to work outside the home.
On two traditional practices involving women, attitudes are changing. Support for the practice of giving away a daughter to settle a debt or a dispute between families is now 9.5 percent, down from 18 percent in just two years. And the acceptance of another practice, a father trading off a daughter to gain a wife for a son, has fallen from 32 percent to 25 percent.
The Taliban can surely no longer go against this steady if slow progress in Afghanistan. Many issues are on the table as peace negotiations inch along, such as the Taliban accepting democracy. But the group’s archaic vision of women’s roles cannot be part of any settlement. If the Taliban are ever included in a coalition government, they will need to look at women in new ways, as some of their leaders did in Moscow.