The historic deal between the US and the Taliban leaves unresolved the fate of Afghan women, whose fragile gains could come under threat as the brutally repressive insurgents seek to expand their influence.
Strictly patriarchal Afghanistan has long been one of the world’s worst places for women, but for a relatively small group – mainly in urban cores like Kabul – key freedoms such as education and the right to work proliferated after the Taliban fell in 2001.
Several pioneering women around the Afghan capital have deep fears about what comes next.
‘Taliban haven’t changed’
Suraya Pakzad directs a women’s empowerment group and runs various shelters, educational centers and job training workshops across Afghanistan.
She said Afghan women had made tremendous advances over the past 17-plus years, including in politics and business. But for her, the coming months pose a grave danger. And once again, it is mainly men who are deciding women’s fate.
“We don’t know what the Taliban have in mind for us, but we know the Taliban have not changed,” she said, recalling the days when the insurgents were in power and frequently stoned women to death, banned them from school and forced them out of public spaces.
“Peace is good to silence the sound of guns, but the fear is a bad deal may also silence all voices,” said the 48-year-old Kabul resident, whom Time magazine named as one of the world’s most influential people in 2009.
‘Women will suffer’
Zahra, a 24-year-old artist and designer who only gave her first name, has had to overcome many hurdles to follow her dream.
“When I started working as an artist, instead of receiving encouragement, many people told me it was not a good profession, especially for a woman,” she recalled.
They told her: “You cannot have a good income from doing art and told me to quit before it is too late,” she said.
Zahra, who was only a child when the Taliban were in power, said if the militants return to Kabul, most women will quickly lose their jobs.
“We, the women, have struggled a lot to gain our rights, and we cannot afford to lose them. I believe the war will not end, even if there is a peace deal,” Zahra said.
For her, many Afghans’ views of women’s rights have evolved since 2001, but by no means to the extent where men see women as having equal rights.
‘We won’t accept them’
Haida Essazada, 23, is head of Afghanistan Youth Network, a resource for young people in a country where more than 62 percent of the population is under 25.
“We are working every single day to bring change to this society,” Essazada said. “We want it and we mean it, and if Taliban are not going to accept our rights, we won’t accept them either.”
She doubted whether the Taliban could ever really adapt their views. While the insurgents paid lip service to women’s rights during negotiations with the US, they always framed them in the context of “Islamic values” – which are open to broad interpretation.
If the Taliban become “part of our government, the only concern I have is that they will not accept women’s rights as fully as they should,” Essazada said. “I’m really worried about our future because the current generation, my generation, is a totally different generation.”
Marghuba Safi, 40, has since 2016 run a Kabul business that makes soaps and creams, many of whose ingredients are sourced from an organic farm.
“We are happy to have peace in our country, it is our big dream but we have concerns,” she said, expressing doubts that women like her could continue working if Taliban influence grows. “I am a single mum, I am responsible for my whole family, for my children, for my house,” she said.
Safi employs about 20 women, most of them recovering drug addicts, to help run her farm. If they are no longer allowed to work, it would be like an “explosion”, she said.
Fawzia Amin owns a beauty salon in Kabul and employs about 15 women on her staff. She fears her business would be devastated by any surge in the influence of the Taliban, who barred women from leaving their homes and punished women who resisted wearing an all-covering burqa.
“All the women in Afghanistan, they are really afraid,” Amin said. “We are very tired right now … [but] I have to fight.”
Loyalists cheering deal
Meanwhile, Taliban loyalists are cheering the prospect of a deal with the US that after 18 years of grueling conflict will see “defeated” American “invaders” finally go home.
While details of the deal have not been announced, it is widely expected the Pentagon will slash its troop presence in Afghanistan in return for various Taliban commitments.
Taliban fighters and supporters in and around Kandahar, the southern Afghan province that is the birthplace of the Islamist movement and a key stronghold.
Mohammad Manzoor Hussaini, who previously fought for the Taliban, was until two years ago hiding out in Pakistan but returned to Kandahar as the group’s influence strengthened.
All Afghans want is a peace founded on “Islamic values”, he said, using the same stock phrase the Taliban have used in talks with the United States.
The term is seen as contentious because it is open to broad interpretation, and the Taliban are known for pushing some of the most extreme views of the Islamic faith, including an almost total denial of all freedoms for women.
“Afghans wish for peace, moreover they want a dignified peace based on Islamic values, and peace among all Afghans,” Hussaini said. “Afghans should trust each other, and should be honest to each other, and should not pay attention to any foreigners”.
But if things are handled poorly, the war could go on for another 20 years and spread to other countries too, Hussaini warned.
Leaving with ‘shame’
Hafiz Mohammad Wali, a gardener from the Shahjoy district of Zabul province, which neighbors Kandahar, was delighted at news that a deal is likely to see the US military draw down its forces.
“For nearly 20 years, we have been hoping for this news, to see the Americans leave Afghanistan with shame,” he said. “People now are praying for peace in the country. We have fought a lot, and the fighting still continues today.”
Like most of Taliban supporters, Wali worried about whether the group would be able to make a separate agreement with the Afghan government.
“Our main concern is how the Taliban and the Afghan government make peace,” he said. “Afghans have been fighting with each other for years in the villages and districts. Will they sit together? This is not just my concern, but other villagers are also worried about it.”
Until now, the Taliban have refused to talk to the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, whom they view as a US stooge. The upcoming withdrawal deal with the Taliban is expected to require “intra-Afghan” talks between the insurgents and Kabul.
Mullah Gul Agha, a Taliban commander from the Marja district of Helmand province, another insurgent stronghold, said Afghans would never accept foreigners as their “masters”.
“The Afghans have been fighting invaders for decades, once it was the Russians, today it is the Americans and the British,” Agha said. “With the Help of Almighty Allah, we have defeated them again.”
The toll the war has taken on the US military – more than 2,400 US troops killed in combat and thousands more with horrendous wounds – would make America think twice before invading other countries, he said.
“Afghans accept a poor, humble life, but never anybody as their masters,” he said.
Mullah Rauf, who was once a Taliban commander in central Ghazni province, was optimistic that peace might finally come to Afghanistan after 18 years of conflict. “Both sides in this war are tired,” he said.
“I am very happy America is leaving, because they didn’t give Afghans anything but war and destruction, and thousands of Afghans were killed… If Afghans join hands, they can prevent more destruction and bloodshed.”