A real war on women is brewing in Afghanistan.
Women there are worried that the freedoms they have won since U.S. forces toppled the brutal Taliban regime 10 years ago will be squandered if the Islamic hard-liners return to power through a U.S.-led peace process.
"Dark days are in Afghanistan's future," said Manizha Naderi, who heads the civil rights group Women for Afghan Women.
U.S. and Afghan officials and the Taliban have been engaged for several months in an effort to initiate peace talks that could lead to the militants playing a role in government.
"If there are negotiations with the Taliban, women's rights will be the first to go, and women will be forced to stay at home all over again," Ms. Naderi said in a phone interview from Kabul.
Afghan women bore the brunt of the Taliban's strict enforcement of Islamic law until U.S. forces overthrew the regime for sheltering al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Taliban regrouped as a militant force and claimed credit this week for coordinated suicide bombings in Kabul and other cities.
Under the Taliban regime, girls were banned from going to school and women's educational institutions were closed. Many women were forced to quit their jobs and required to wear burqas.
Taliban fighters perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction and forced marriage, according to a 2001 report by the State Department.
Unmarried women who were caught with unrelated men were whipped in stadiums full of people. Married women in similar circumstances were stoned to death.
Now schools across Afghanistan brim with girls. Access to health care has reduced the female mortality rate. Women play a role in politics and public life, and the Afghan Constitution criminalizes violence against women.
The Taliban still routinely threaten women who have taken on public roles in society. In some instances, female politicians and social workers have been killed.
In an attack Tuesday that officials blamed on extremists opposed to female education, about 140 Afghan girls and teachers were poisoned by contaminated drinking water at a high school in the northern Takhar province. Some remained in critical condition at a hospital, while others were treated and released.
"We all are afraid of the Taliban coming back in any shape, whether in power in government or as an independent political party," said Nilofar Sakhi, chairwoman of Women's Activities and Social Services Association, based in Afghanistan's western city of Herat.
The Taliban suspended peace talks with the United States last month, setting back the Obama administration's efforts to end the war in Afghanistan before U.S. combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014.
The U.S. and Afghan governments have laid down three conditions for the peace process. The Taliban must renounce al Qaeda, disarm and respect the Afghan Constitution.
The Taliban have refused to recognize Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, which they refer to as a "puppet," and have shown no inclination to abide by the Afghan Constitution.
"By not respecting the Afghan Constitution, the Taliban will undermine the gains made by women," Ms. Sakhi said.
Karzai's commitment questioned
There is a risk that the gains made by women "can be traded off for short-term political gain," said Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Mr. Karzai's own commitment to these freedoms is also a cause of concern for some women.
He has signed laws that protect women's rights but also has made comments that have alarmed defenders of those rights.
Mr. Karzai ignited a firestorm last year when he attempted to bring all women's shelters in Afghanistan under government control.
"This was, in our opinion, a hint to the Taliban that when they have a role in the government women's rights will be on the table," said Esther Hyneman, a board member at Women for Afghan Women.
"Mr. Karzai abandoned the effort in the face of international pressure, but he had made his point: to illustrate to the Taliban that women's rights can be disposed of."
Last month, Mr. Karzai endorsed a statement from the country's top religious council that women should not interact with men in schools, offices, universities and shopping centers.
The council also said that women should not travel without male relatives and must respect the right of men to polygamy.
"It is Talibanism all over again, and Karzai did nothing to fight it," said Ms. Hyneman. "He was supportive of rules against women's freedom that go totally backwards."
The Karzai administration has set up a High Peace Council to lead the reconciliation process with the militants. Nine of the 69 council members are women, but critics complain that the women's presence has been largely symbolic.
"The nine women on the peace council are not part of any negotiations with the Taliban," said Asila Wardak Jamal, director of Human Rights and Women's International Affairs in the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
The international community can safeguard hard-won rights and freedoms by supporting the women on the council, she added.
The challenge will be to ensure that the international community protects women's rights in Afghanistan in any peace process.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton assured a meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council in Washington last month of the U.S. commitment.
"Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all," she said. "It is a figment that will not last."
Two top reasons Afghan women are apprehensive about reconciliation with the Taliban are a lack of transparency and inclusivity in the process.
"We have to push for a more meaningful role for women," Ms. Sakhi said.
While some women, like Ms. Naderi, say peace cannot be achieved through negotiations with terrorists, others, like Ms. Sakhi, say women's groups need to be less rigid in their stances on reconciliation.
What all women can agree on is that peace in Afghanistan must not come at the cost of their newfound freedoms.
"Women would like to bring peace to this country and put an end to this war, but will not agree to pay any price," Ms. Jamal said.
"Nobody would like to go back to the period of the Taliban."
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