Women and Afghan Peace Talks: ‘Peace consensus’ gathering left Afghan women without reassurance
Author: Thomas Ruttig
Afghanistan Analysts Network
Date: 15 April 2019
One of the recurrent themes around the US-Taleban negotiations to end the Afghan war (so far without participation of the Afghan government) is the demand of Afghan women for “meaningfully participation” in the preparations for inclusive peace talks. This expectation also figured at a national consensus gathering (ejma) in Kabul in late February this year. The ejma – shortened from a two to a half day event – fell short of being an actual consultation. Nevertheless, the women’s broader campaign has influenced the Afghan and US’s messaging, although so far this has not resulted in any concrete steps. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, who observed the ejma’s proceedings, looks back at the gathering and summarises the arguments (with input from AAN’s Rohullah Sorush who participated in the event and Sari Kouvo).
Demands for “meaningful participation”
Around 3,000 women came together after months of preparations for the National Women’s Consensus for Peace (Ejma-ye Melli-ye Zanan bara-ye Solh, or ejma for short) held in Kabul’s Loya Jirga tenton 28 February. 700 of them – according to President Ashraf Ghani (the original text of his speech alternating between Pashto and Dari can be found here) – attended from the provinces. (1) The event was a response to widespread demands – from within government and outside – for “meaningful participation” of women in the hoped-for peace talks with the Taleban (for the demands, see, for example, this statement by AWN; for background about Taleban, US and Afghan government politicking around the talks, read this AAN dispatch).
The notion of meaningful participation goes beyond merely being consulted about, or having token representation in, possible peace negotiations. As stated by Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) chairwoman Sima Samar, when launching AIHRC’s ongoing survey on the peace process, Afghan women need “a meaningful and greater participation at all stages of the peace efforts.” She warned against continuing “the system of impunity” (for media reporting about the AIHRC’s survey, see here and here).
The Afghan Women’s Network’s six point statement published before the so-called intra-Afghan dialogue meeting held in Moscow in February 2019 (more about the meeting here), provides further guidance about the concrete demands of Afghan women, asking to:
- bring Afghan women to the table
- not choose peace without human rights
- be direct about women’s rights
- not change the political order
- not compromise law and order in the country and
- not cut it off from the international community.
The statement appreciated the participation of “some women” in talks like those in Moscow, but made it clear that this was not yet what they considered “meaningful” participation of “all strata of society.” It further said that “Afghan women would not accept peace bought at the cost of their hard-gained freedoms and rights” and that “temporary restrictions on women’s rights in the name of peace and security [were] utterly unacceptable.” The latter is a reference to the often-heard Taleban claim (during their 1996-2001 rule and in some areas currently under their control) that the suspension of girls’ education, for example, was due to the security situation and could be lifted once conditions allowed. (Read also this recent AAN guest dispatch about the discussion about the Afghan constitution in the context of the peace talks.)
So far, Afghan women have been under-represented in all key peace-related meetings and bodies. In the November 2018 Moscow conference on Afghanistan (see AAN background here), only one Afghan woman sat at the table. She was Habiba Sarabi who, as deputy of the High Peace Council (HPC), was one of its four-member delegation. At the February 2019 ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’, also in Moscow, only two women were invited, out of a total 70-100 participants (numbers varied from day to day). They were former members of parliament, Fauzia Kufi, and HPC member, Hawa Nuristani, who is now head of the Independent Electoral Commission. Women’s participation in the HPC when it was newly composed in 2018 by President Ashraf Ghani has been expanded. However, since the council has now been tasked with mainly focussing on consensus building within Afghanistan by the president – who also appoints its members –, it has lost its role as an active participant in potential negotiations (AAN analysis here and here). (2)
The current government team for future negotiations with the Taleban includes three women among its 12 members: Hasina Safi, Minister of Information and Culture; Dr Alema (one name only), Deputy Minister of Refugees and Repatriation and Shahgul Rezayi, a former member of parliament (see media report on the team here and AAN analysis here). This one quarter representation is a better-than-usual percentage, but is lower than the quota for women in parliament (one third). It is considerable lower than the 50 percent demanded by women activists in the run-up to the ejma gathering, as women comprise half of the population. When President Ghani discussed peace efforts with a group of ‘prominent political leaders’ on 3 April, and, on the same day, US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad also discussed with Afghan top politicians, as he tweeted, “the necessity of an inclusive #Afghan negotiating team”, women were entirely missing at the table, as photos showed (on Ghani’s meeting here, and here in Khalilzad’s tweet).
It is important to note that, even if there were women’s representation at all stages of the peace process and, even if efforts were made to collect women’s views, this, in itself, is insufficient to guarantee that compromises are not made on women’s rights in any peace agreement. The ejma fell short on all counts, as will be shown below. It did not ensure women would be meaningfully represented in a peace process, or that the government would consult with them, or that it would ensure their rights would not be compromised and their interests taken into account.
Who organised the ejma and who participated?
The organisers of the National Women’s Consensus for Peace, or ejma, were the Office of the First Lady, Rula Ghani; the Ministry for Women’s Affairs; the High Peace Council, with Habiba Sarabi, its deputy chair and one of the country’s most high-ranking women in a central role; and, the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), one of the most well-connected and influential umbrella organisations in Afghan civil society. These organisations had joined hands under an umbrella called Afghan Women for Peace(AWP) (on social media here). Government presence in the AWP campaign was strong with Hasina Safi, the former head of AWN and current acting minister of culture and information; Dr Alema, deputy ministry of refugees; Marjan Matin, deputy minister of education; and Shafiqa Qadiri and Aseya Akhundzada, two more members of the government-appointed HPC.
The first gathering was held in Kabul on 24 Assad 1397 (15 August 2018), according to the speech of Rula Ghani at the ejma. She said “we went to the provinces, held meetings with women and listened to them (…) because the situation in provinces and villages is different from that in Kabul city. (…) We collected the ideas from all the provinces.” HPC member Malalai Shinwari, one of the organisers, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that “delegations of women” from Kabul had spoken with 15,000 women across the country in preparation for the event.
Zohra Yosuf, media advisor to Rula Ghani and the ejma’s announcer, reported a total of 3,000 women participated in the gathering. This means the 700 provincial representatives were outnumbered by over 2,000 other women, many of whom, as participants confirmed to AAN, had been personally invited by the organising bodies and, in particular, the First Lady’s office.
The ejma had been preceded by a large gathering the week before at the presidential palace, with 1,300 participants from women’s organisations and other sectors of civil society. According to Negina Yari from Maidan-Wardak province, head of the non-governmental organisation Afghanistan for Tomorrow (A4T) who attended: “We were told that it was a meeting of civil society activists and youth [to] collect women’s demands and submit them to the government, after which the government would consider those demands in negotiations with the Taleban. (…) There were 1,300 people, but only few from civil society. Most of the [participating] women were from the Office of Administrative Affairs, the Ministry of Finance and other government employees. (…) Certainly, such women [alone] cannot represent civil society and all women in Afghanistan.” At the end, Yari said the president joined the meeting but he “emphasised more on the intra-Afghan talks and that the government should have a delegation to talk to the Taleban.” (Rula Ghani was not present.) Yari added that she felt that the duplication of meetings – by both the palace and the Afghan Women for Peace – reflected a lack of organisation between the Arg and those who were on the ejma’s consultative board.
The ejma: a two-day consultation becomes an event of speeches
The ejma had originally been planned as a two-day event on 25-26 February, but it ended up being both delayed and cut short to a mere three-and-a-half hour event. This obviously seriously limited the time and opportunities for the women gathered to express themselves. The choice of a Thursday for the event was also poor (possibly deliberately so). As AAN’s researcher at the scene witnessed, most of those present were keen to have lunch quickly after the morning session and leave for the weekend. This was somewhat surprising given the importance of the subject and the number of usually dedicated women activists present, but it may have been as a result of the responsibilities many women faced with the weekend just around the corner.
The ejma’s proceedings were framed by the speeches of Rula Ghani, who opened with brief remarks, and her husband, the president, who closed with a longer speech in which he switched between his Pashto mother tongue and Dari, a practice established by his predecessor, Hamed Karzai. After the speech, there was a final photo op for the president with prominent women activists in uniform wearing peace-blue headscarves. However, crucially, his speech fell short of giving any assurances that the women would get meaningful participation in the negotiations with the Taleban – what was their main demand. Instead, he repeated the promise that women would make up 30 per cent of the representatives of the planned consultative loya jirga on peace (originally scheduled before the Persian/Afghan new year, Nawruz, on 21 March, but now delayed until late April 2019).
Although Ghani said in his speech that the women would sit together with representatives of 26 other “social groups” (aqshar) in the jirga, there was no mention of how they would be selected. There was no attempt to use the opportunity provided by the ejma to choose them from among the participants (a Kunar delegate, among others, told AAN she had thought that would happen). The selection for the peace loya jirga remains in the hands of the organising committee which former interior minister Omar Daudzai leads. Deputy women’s affairs minister, Nahid Sarabi, among others, was added to the committee as head of political affairs in late March 2019.
In between the presidential speeches, there was a role-play by women about peace, some poetry and a video with scenes of pre-mujahedin and pre-Taleban Afghanistan with some women dressed in the then latest fashions, juxtaposed with a recent image of the bloody aftermath of a suicide bombing. In what was expected to be the main part of the agenda, only six participants spoke. Most of them were from Kabul and all of them were preselected. There was no opportunity for spontaneous contributions.
The first was a lengthy speech by Zainab Movahed, a university lecturer with religious education, a member of Jamiat-e Islami party and an unsuccessful candidate in the 2018 parliamentary elections. She spoke about women’s roles in politics, economy and peace during the life of the prophet and their historical role in peace-making in Afghanistan. (3) The other speakers were deputy minister of justice, Dr Zakia Adeli (also a writer and poet); journalist and well-known women activist, Shafiqa Habibi; Gita Said, a former high school teacher and head of women’s affairs in Almar district in Faryab province (she also ran in the 2018 parliamentary elections and is close to Jombesh-e Melli party); and two lesser known women, Shafiqa Sadat, and Atefa Nuristani.
In all the speeches, starting with Rula Ghani, the Quran was much quoted – clearly an attempt to bolster the government’s Islamic credentials and demonstrate to the Taleban that the women’s demands were not ‘un-Islamic.’
There was also ample reference to the constitution, which the Taleban reject and want to change. Announcer Zohra Yosuf insisted on the constitutionally equal rights of women and insisted, “I am a citizen of Afghanistan and I have my own role to play for peace in my country.” Roshan Tseran of the Afghan Women‘s Human Rights Study Centre (AWHRSC) summarised the argument most clearly to AAN: “We do not demand more than what the law and Islam give us.”
Apart from the main speakers, five representatives of war victims’ families were given the floor. They all spoke of their suffering and highlighted that, in the words of one, women and girls were “more tired of the war than anybody else.” But they also said they wanted “a peace in which women’s rights and the rights for war victims are not lost … not at any cost … and not at the cost of sacrificing justice.” They demanded that perpetrators should at least apologise to the people. One woman who tried to speak outside the schedule was cut short by the announcer when, according to the New York Times, she “spoke sharply” to President Ghani before his speech urging him to “put killers in prison, not make peace with them.” The Times gave her name as Narges Qurbani, 48, and said the Taleban had killed her husband in 1997 and later wounded her son, a soldier. As the Times wrote, president Ghani did not respond.
Announcer Zohra Yosuf was later quoted by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Times as criticising leading male politicians for not attending the ejma, despite being invited. She particularly singled out Qiamuddin Kashaf, the head of the ulema council, senate chairman, Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, attorney general, Farid Hamidi, and peace jirga organiser, Omar Daudzai.
The gathering’s final declaration
The ejma’s final declaration (full text here) was not as strongly worded as the February AWN statement. The declaration was largely a reiteration of the government’s position on peace and peace talks. This is not surprising, given the way the gathering proceeded and the fact that the statement had been pre-drafted by the organisers, who were mostly government bodies. The only new demand in the statement was for an immediate “unconditional ceasefire” to be announced by all warring parties.
Moreover, the draft statement had not been distributed during the meeting and participants told AAN it had merely been read out to the audience. There was no time to suggest amendments and, although there was a vote, this was only symbolic.
The declaration supported “a peace process led by the Afghan government [and] in compliance with the [current] Constitution” and demanded that negotiations between Afghans must be “under the leadership of the government.” This is a reflection of the fact that the government feels – and has so far been – excluded from the US-Taleban talks and the intra-Afghan dialogues. The declaration’s authors also took the government’s position in condemning any plans to establish an interim government.
The initial key demand of activists – for meaningful participation of women in all future talks – did not make it into the final declaration. There was not even any reference to the promised ‘guaranteed’ participation in the peace jirga. The statement only urged the international community – not the Afghan government – to protect the country’s democratic, civil and human rights and requested the government negotiating team to “prevent any type of compromise that undermines the achievements of women.”
So far, President Ghani has given regular assurances that “basic” rights will be protected (see, for example, here). But he has also repeatedly signalled to the Taleban that he is open to debating constitutional changes with the Taleban (see AAN reporting here).
Expectations, criticism and defiance
Not many people in Kabul (including AAN) had heard about the ejma, until just a week before it started. There had been no reports or announcements in the Afghan or international media or on relevant websites. The first public sign that is was to be held was an open letter signed by 600 Afghan women and other activists published in The Guardian two days before the gathering. In the letter, the signatories voiced their “concerns” about a peace deal being negotiated between the US and the Taleban that could lead to the loss of gains from their “battles (…) to bring women’s voices and interests into Afghanistan’s political, social and cultural institutions.” It was co-signed by three Nobel Peace Prize winners who declared their support – Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Tawakkol Karman – as well as well-known artists and activists, such as Margaret Atwood, Khalid Hosseini, Ken Loach, Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Gloria Steinem and Roger Waters.
Women from the provinces who had been part of the preparations complained to AAN, during the ejma or over the phone, that many of the participants had been “handpicked” or directly invited and that the large number of invitees from Kabul had crowded out delegates from the provinces. Negina Yari from Maidan Wardak, who was one of the few who was prepared to go on record (4), told AAN that “mostly female government employees participated [in the pre-meetings in her province] and the women who were introduced for the working committees of the ejma were selected via the office of the first lady and the president’s office.” Yari also said that her organisation, and around 350 other groups, who are part of their khana-ye solh (house of peace) initiative, had not been consulted about the agenda, nor did they get the chance to contribute ideas for the ejma.
Sozan Behbudzade, a long-standing women’s activist in Herat, head of the local Madar (Mother) Social Association and candidate in the 2018 parliamentary elections, told AAN in her office that she thought the Herat selection was relatively representative, but (indirectly) admitted that urban women were over-represented. Another woman from Herat working in government said that, to her surprise, many of those who had originally been chosen to travel to the ejma in Kabul, had not received a ticket. An ejma participant from Kunar, and another who did not want her province to be mentioned, told AAN that the women attending the ejma “are the same women who always attend meetings. There should be other women from remote areas and districts. Women from remote areas also have the right to attend such gatherings.”
Yari remarked that, in general, the Palace does “not allocate enough time for an issue to allow everybody to speak.“ This echoed the experiences AAN had heard from many political and civil society activists who had been invited to the Palace ‘for consultations’ on other issues over past years.
Roshan Tseran, who runs her own NGO – the Afghan Women‘s Human Rights Study Centre (AWHRSC), also an AWN member organisation – defended the composition of the gathering in a lengthy interview with AAN in Kabul. She said, “it was problematic for many rural women to come to Kabul for the gathering, due to security problems and because their families would not let them travel.” She said she was “confident that those who attended could also speak for the rural women, as they had been extensively consulted beforehand.”
The dominance of educated urban women in the meeting is also reflected by the fact that the main initiatives in the follow-up to the ejma seemed to concentrate largely on social media campaigns, such as “#AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack“ and “#MyRedLine.” Although studies have found a “growing number of internet users in rural areas,” (see two from 2017 and 2018 here and here), “areas and entire provinces (Nuristan, Nimruz, Ghor, Daykundi, and Uruzgan) are still isolated” and “[r]ural, older, and illiterate Afghans are left out of conversations happening online.” (The same will surely be the case for poor rural women.)
Despite the limited participation and concrete results, there was still hope, even among those participants who were critical, that the ejma could have a positive effect. One participant told AAN:
To be honest, I am not hopeful with regard to such Jirgas [a reference to the planned ‘consultative’ loya jirga on peace] and ejmas. It is somewhat organised [top down], more like a presidential election campaign. You know for the presidential election; they want to see the women’s presence. However, I still think because women have been deprived so much, it can be somewhat useful.
Behbudzada from Herat told AAN before the gathering: “I want this women ejma not to be a project and a show. I demand it to act differently and have achievements for more women’s presence in politics, the peace talks and then in high ranking government positions.” One woman from Bamian told AAN off the record, “I want women to have an active and diverse presence in peace talks, but I am not optimistic that the government will have us represented in the peace talks.”
Negina Yari stated that “all women (…) said they were not ready to lose anything for peace.”
Possible direct talks and follow-up activity
Before the ejma, women participants – including from AWN, but also others – had announced that they would, if needed, seek their own access to the Taleban, if the government did not give them a significant place at the negotiating table. Afghan women have held direct meetings with Taleban representatives earlier: for example, female members of parliament and other women talked to them during meetings in Oslo in 2016 (see here) and, as AAN heard from them, found it useful to convey their message directly to them.
Recently, there has been another concrete attempt to do so, when AWN and other civil society groups attempted to send a delegation of 40 to the US-Taleban talks in Doha that took place between 25 February and mid-March 2019 (see an Afghan media report here). The group finally did not go; it seems for two reasons (although all sides remain relatively tight-lipped about the episode and everyone AAN talked to did so on the condition of strict confidentiality). First of all, there were difficulties in obtaining visas, as Qatar has no embassy in Afghanistan and the Afghan foreign ministry apparently did not facilitate the obtaining of visas elsewhere (this, in turn, might have been driven by government concerns over uncoordinated initiatives and fears that some participants might have wanted to discuss the establishment of an interim government, even though ejma organiser, acting minister Hasina Safi, explicitly had condemned such a plan – see here). There was also, apparently, a problem that the members of the prospective group had not informed the negotiating sides of their wish to meet them.
Calls for separate meetings between women and civil society activists and the Taleban have continued since the ejma, including by the AWN’s Wazhma Frogh (see her 12 March tweet here). Other activists continued deliberations about the peace process in other fora, such as during a “National Civil Society and Media Conference on Peace Negotiations” held on 2 April 2019 in Kabul and attended both by President Ghani and Chief executive Abdullah. Organised by the Salah Peace Consortium that brings together five established NGOs working on peace building, it gathered “400 Afghan men and women (young and old) from across Afghanistan” and established a Media/Civil Society Advocacy Group (see their 19-point declaration linked in the annex).
At the same time, the women activists’ publicity offensive has forced diverse actors, such as the US and the Afghan government, to react to their demands. US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad was quoted as saying after meeting “Kabul and provincial representatives of the Afghan Women’s Network” in Kabul in early April that “while Afghans alone would decide the composition of their delegation for talks, women must be at the table during all negotiations about peace and Afghanistan’s future.” This was echoed by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, in a speech when visiting Helmand on 7 April where he reminded the Afghan government of its obligation as a UN member and under various international human rights treaties. In particular, he referred to the UN’s Resolution 1325 that “has placed women’s meaningful participation at the core of peacebuilding, conflict prevention and recovery.” He emphasised that “many studies show that when women are included in peace processes, peace agreements are more likely to be more durable, [… the] UN strongly believes in an inclusive [peace] process” and that “[w]omen’s rights, and indeed all human rights, must not be traded away in any peace process.” The Afghan government reacted indirectly. The Chief Executive’s office rejected a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that had expressed concerns over women’s rights in the peace process. It said, “No right would be violated in the peace process and achievements that were gained in the recent years, will not face challenge or annihilation. These achievements and women’s rights are important to us.”
The women’s peace ejma did not become the two-day, nation-wide consultation it was originally meant to be. Instead, it became a much more ambivalent gathering. Still, it was a chance for educated and organised women to, through their representation, emphasise the importance of women’s representation in the peace process and peace talks. The main message – that peace with the Taleban should not be achieved at the cost of women’s and human rights were reflected in all speeches and in the final declaration, but not much more.
The meeting did not deliver the desired assurances by the president and government that there will be meaningful women’s participation in the negotiations. President Ghani did not mention this in his speech, nor did the ejma outcome document demand this.
The ejma was not fully representative, given the obvious dominance of urban and educated women. Urban and educated women do, of course, represent an important segment of Afghan women and society overall. However, women from rural and remote communities may have very different experiences and concerns and as of yet, these have not been expressed in any national consultation. Issues that may have come up in a broader consultation are the widespread rural poverty and the lack of (safe) access to services, particularly of women, as a rights issue. Women in rural areas suffer disproportionally from conflict-related diminishing access to health, education and other services (this was underlined again by a recent Afghan government report about multidimensional poverty (see media report here, and also this AAN analysis from 2014 ).
The event seemed a missed opportunity, given its potential for discussion and debate. Although a well-known non-governmental umbrella body (the Afghan Women Network) was among the organisers, the governmental institutions had set the agenda, handpicked most speakers and participants, and had dominated the proceedings. The preparations seemed almost secretive, as was reflected in the negligible media reporting in its run-up, while the ejma itself was clearly choreographed and had its time span reduced. This did not leave room for spontaneity, and many participants appeared uninspired, having seemingly lost the urge for a debate. This made the ejma more of an event than an open forum – an outcome most probably by design. The government’s fear of dissent, even if only in the details, was difficult to overlook.
The top-down steering of the ejma seems to reflect a broader government style of trying to control public voices. Consensus had been declared ex ante. There had been no room for discussion of where ‘red lines’ might lie and where there could be room for compromise in any possible future talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban (or women’s representatives and the Taleban). If the ejma had kept to its initial two-days format, there would have been space to discuss such issues in more depth and in a wider and more representative circle, through working groups or other smaller formats. In this sense, the ejma provided an indicator of what probably can be expected for the rescheduled consultative Loya Jirga on peace in terms of government pre-cooking and massaging the outcome.
At the same time, women like Roshan Tseran make an important point when they ask: “Why should it always be us women to pay the bill?” Although peace negotiations require compromises, they do not need to be one-sided and they do not need to come at the expense of the rights, safety and livelihoods of such a large part of the population.
Edited by Sari Kouvo and Martine van Bijlert
(1) Initially organisers had said that 25 women had been ‘elected’ in each pre-gathering in every of the country’s 34 provinces. If there were indeed 25 women per province, the total number should have been 850.
(3) The US Institute of Peace (USIP) has published figures about the current role of women in Afghan society. These include:
As of 2019:
- Millions of women have voted in local and national elections. Of parliament’s 320 members, 63 are women, while women hold 18 seats as ministers or deputy ministers and four serve as ambassadors.
- Schools and universities employ more than 68,000 women instructors including 800 university professors in both private and public institutions.
- More than 6,000 women serve as judges, prosecutors, defence attorneys, police and army personnel.
- Government data counts about 10,000 women among the country’s doctors, nurses and health professionals.
- Female journalists number 1,070, working throughout Afghanistan.
- Some 1,150 women entrepreneurs have invested $77 million in their businesses, providing job opportunities for 77,000 Afghan women and men.
(4) It also brings to mind what a leading civil society activist told AAN earlier this year – that s/he and colleagues had received warnings over the phone from the NDS and the NSC to refrain from publicly criticising the government.
Annex: links to ejma-related documents
- Dari version of the ejma’s final declaration:
- Afghan Women Six Point Agenda for Moscow Peace Talks (4 February 2019; the meeting was officially called “intra-Afghan dialogue not ‘peace talks’)
- AWN statement on Doha peace talks (not dated; Feb. 2019)
- President Ghani’s speech at the ejma:
https://president.gov.af/fa/1/3/2/19 (no English version available)
- 19-Point Joint Declaration of Afghan Civil Society and Media on the Afghan Peace Negotiations