Women's Rights and the Rush for the Exit in Afghanistan

05/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently a slew of pieces have noted -- and sometimes bemoaned -- the fast-approaching fact that Afghan women are likely to see their rights recede in the rush to reach a deal with the Taliban. The latest of these notes in the Financial Times that:

Nato is openly looking for an exit strategy for western troops. This could well involve dealing with those elements of the Taliban that are not committed to a global jihad -- and so making some accommodation with their ferociously reactionary social values. Sadly, these do have roots in Afghan society. Things would be much easier if western views of women's rights were indeed "universal values" -- but they are not, at least not among Pashtun tribesmen. It is significant that Mr Karzai is thought initially to have approved of this new law as an electioneering gambit, ahead of the presidential poll in August.

The problem is that the "Pashtun tribesment" so blithely referred to by so many do not form a numeric majority in the country. Nor do all Pashtun tribesmen believe that women should necessarily be deprived of the right to study and to work simply by dint of their gender. This surface-level vision of Afghan society, however, ignores the far less visible but equally potent force of women fighting to share their education and their livelihoods with their communities. With help from supportive fathers, brothers, and husbands, they are contributing to their families while struggling to protect the fragile gains they have made since the Taliban fell in 2001. And they are watching nervously as the United States edges nearer to a deal with those who would send them back to a time in which they were banished from the schools, the streets and the offices of their own cities.

It is worth noting that for many Afghans, particularly women living in the country's urban areas, the Taliban years marked a forced return to a past they had never known. Taliban rule did not signify a homecoming to a "tribal history" of which we now read so much; instead, it enforced a mandatory march backward toward an idealized version of the country as the Taliban envisioned it had looked 1000 years earlier. That is the Kalashnikov-enforced utopia to which we would consign Afghanistan -- and its women -- if we were to craft a deal with too much haste or too little thought.

Certainly Afghans in general and women in particular want a country in which security is a daily reality rather than a campaign slogan or the focus of drive-by speeches from diplomats dropping in for the day. At a time when women cannot go to work without fear of kidnapping and girls cannot go to school without fear of acid attacks, a guarantee of safety would be a most welcome change. A concerted push to address Afghanistan's violence and force insurgents from their provincial strongholds would be embraced by women determined to raise their boys and girls in a peaceful, functioning country whose future is theirs to decide.

Yet all signs point in the opposite direction. The Taliban attacks with increasing bravado and success. The international community's fear is growing. Expatriates speak openly over pricey dinners in foreigner-friendly restaurants about how long the current security destruction can continue before wholesale collapse becomes inevitable. United Nations staff and members of the aid community, including the Americans, are retreating farther and farther behind cement pylons, armed check points, and ever-taller barbed wire, symbols of their growing removal from the population they are there to support. Development workers venture out only rarely in Kabul, and even less in the remainder of the country, seeing little of the projects they are funding.

Against this increasingly gloomy backdrop, talk of Washington policy right-sizing leaves Afghan women wondering what will come next. Are reporters correct? Will the international community trade women's rights for the mirage of stability? Will their futures be sacrificed in the rush to reach a politically palatable agreement?

They hope not. They hope we understand that women's voices must be part of any discussion about how and whether to include the Taliban in a future Afghan government. They hope we realize that the successful development of their broken country's depends on all, not half, of its citizens' contributions. And they hope we now admit that an Afghanistan left behind under the Taliban will not long remain a domestic problem as it plays host to those with ambitions reaching far beyond the Hindu Kush. All of this they hope we have learned.

For our sake and for the sake of the mothers, wives, and daughters fighting each day for their country's future, let us hope they are right.