A coalition of Afghan women and youth, civil society groups, activists, and supporters.

Afghanistan deal: Don't trade away women's rights to the Taliban. Put us at the table.

Mary Akrami, Sahar Halaimzai and Rahela Sidiqi Opinion contributors

Published 2:16 PM EST Mar 1, 2020

Afghan women have been working to build peace for decades. We have spent years fighting for basic rights and, over the past year, for a seat at the table in talks between the United States and the Taliban. We are not reassured by the agreement signed Saturday by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban’s Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, or by the process that led up to it.

This is a critical moment for our country. The window of opportunity to ensure that all Afghans are protected in the next phase of the peace talks is narrow. Despite the significant progress made in women’s political participation in Afghanistan, Afghan women still face huge obstacles in representation.

For a start, Afghan women and representatives from civil society and other minority groups should have been at the table for the U.S.-Taliban talks that led to this agreement, but we were not. History has shown us that women and minorities stand to lose the most from any deal made behind closed doors and by a room full of men.

Doublespeak puts our rights at risk

Saturday's agreement lays the groundwork for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. We were not surprised to read recently that while Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is tired of bloodshed and war, he opposes preconditions to these talks. Instead of guaranteeing to protect the provisions in the Afghan Constitution that grant women equality, he suggested in a New York Times op-ed that this issue can be resolved through "consensus among Afghans."

This is doublespeak for reopening negotiations on the hard-won legal rights that Afghan women have secured through years of blood, sweat and tears. We have faced unimaginable odds and made enormous sacrifices in our battle for basic rights and freedoms.

Over 100,000 Afghans have been injured or killed in the past 10 years since the United Nations began systematic documentation of civilian casualties, and there is not a single Afghan citizen whose life has not been affected by this war.

Three Afghan women in burqas in 1996 after the Taliban religious army took over Kabul.

Santiago Lyon/AP

Afghan women are desperate for an end to the violence and a durable peace, but we fear that negotiators will trade away our rights for a deal. Just last week, in order to preserve its own negotiations with the Taliban, the United States signaled President Ashraf Ghani to delay his second-term inauguration, and he did.

How can we expect the Taliban and the warlords to treat us as equals when the lead negotiators have refused to give us a seat at the table? We know from previous experience that without a seated, elected, inclusive government based on the results of the elections, this peace deal will be little more than a division of power and resources among the Taliban, the warlords and the political strongmen.

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Women and girls make up about half of the Afghan population, and 64% of the population is under the age of 25. A sustainable peace simply cannot be built without us.

On Sunday, more than 40 Afghan civil society organizations from across the country released an open letter calling for "an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-maintained peace."

Preserving all rights is nonnegotiable

They have advanced proposals to address the real issues that continue to drive the conflict, like inclusive governance, restorative justice, local grievances and refugees stranded across Europe. Their demands are clear: Elected representatives must lead the negotiations, the constitution must be preserved and efforts must be made to reduce violence across the entire country.

The new U.S.- Taliban agreement and the ensuing intra-Afghan negotiations must address our rights in specific terms, not broad generalizations. Preserving the constitutional rights of women and all Afghan citizens must be a nonnegotiable demand on the agenda of every political party and group.

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Any peace deal, if it is to succeed, will have to include the protection of our human and civil rights, including freedom of speech and religion, the right to assembly, protection for our human rights defenders, and a mechanism of restorative justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims of this long war.

Afghan women are not asking anyone to grant us our rights. Our rights are clearly enshrined in our country’s constitution, our national laws, international law and sharia law. Our message to Mr. Haqqani and other Taliban negotiators is simple: Our rights are guaranteed, and we have a right to sit at any table you do.

Mary Akrami is director of Afghan Women’s Network and founder of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center. Sahar Halaimzai, an Afghan writer, advocate and human rights campaigner, leads the Afghan peace campaign Time4RealPeace. Rahela Sidiqi, founding director of Farkhunda Trust for Afghan Women's Education, is a former senior adviser of the Afghanistan Civil Service Commission and a senior social development adviser of the United Nations-Habitat Afghanistan.