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Ida Lichter, M.D. Headshot

Afghanistan: Taliban Talks Will Betray Women's Rights

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Violent attacks by the Taliban have been increasing. Last month, the principal of a girls' school near Kabul was assassinated. Yet some observers would have us believe the Taliban have changed their misogynist ideology and deserve another chance in negotiations and power sharing.

Last November, when US President Barack Obama tried to "reach out" to moderate voices among the Taliban, they replied, "We have no moderate voices."

A leading representative, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said freedoms won by women in the past few years were "corrupting" them, and men and women shouldn't be in the same room.

Working women have been receiving death threats by letter and phone and one who refused to be intimidated was murdered.

The Taliban now profess they were never opposed to girls' education, only co-education. This claim contradicts their systematic burning of girls' schools, the beating and killing of teachers, and throwing acid in the faces of little girls going to school. Moreover, a harder line of Taliban fighters is emerging from the tribal areas, having been recruited as teenagers.

Under the new Afghan constitution, women have equal rights but it seems unlikely the Taliban would honour this charter. Their brutal treatment of women, including public floggings, stoning executions for adultery and the mandatory burka, were widely condemned in the West. Less recognition was given to psychological injuries that manifested as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, self-harm and suicide.

Maltreatment is not limited to the Taliban. Bartering women and their rights is a widespread cultural practice in family, tribal and political deals, and includes the Afghan government itself.

In order to gain support from Islamists in the 2009 election, President Hamid Karzai approved family laws for the Shia community that sanctioned marital rape, forbade women leaving the house without their husbands' permission and allowed early marriage for girls. Coalition troops were not sent to Afghanistan to liberate women; their rights are not part of a border or strategic dispute, and no soldier would be expected to die for this cause.

However, women's rights are not a marginal issue and we cannot ignore the modest gains for which activists fought valiantly over the past 10 years. Their humble demands were limited to basic human rights such as education and employment opportunities.

They did not, for example, seek punishment or compensation for alleged sexual harassment by the chief executive of a department store or the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Women's rights would suffer a severe setback if the Taliban were given a share of power, possibly in the south of the country. Abandoning women to the Taliban would also spur imitation by extremists outside Afghanistan, including Britain, where the "London Taliban" has reportedly threatened to kill unveiled Muslim women. A Western failure in Afghanistan could stimulate more attacks from radicals, emboldened by their conviction that religious fervour was instrumental in defeating a second superpower.

Some women activists have sounded more conciliatory in recent times, attempting to thwart the punishment they anticipate when foreign troops leave. Most fear that a hasty drawdown of foreign troops could bring more chaos and violence, civil war, and even the return of jihadist training camps. The death of Osama bin Laden has also caused alarm, as the US could claim their mission to destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was complete.

In order to achieve a respectable exit, Afghan and Western negotiators might find it expedient to accept promises by the Taliban and go along with the view that gender culture in the country is too tribal to be changed and should be respected even if it is harsh on women.

Afghanistan will remain a backward, failed state if half the population is prevented from contributing to the social, economic and political fabric of society. In their opposition to misogyny, a pillar of radical Islam, women also provide a challenge to extremism.

What can be done to safeguard women's rights? Taliban guarantees to promote rights for women and girls should be considered worthless, due to lack of coalition leverage.

Women should be included in all talks with the Taliban and gender issues incorporated in documents for discussion.

US aid could be contingent on protecting the human rights of Afghan women, and the pace of withdrawal made dependent on the extent to which the Taliban keep to their word.

Women and children are the main casualties in the war zone, and security will not improve unless the Pakistani government is prepared to stop the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network and Hezb-e Islami from manufacturing improvised explosive devices on their soil.

Another requirement is a comprehensive settlement of reconciliation and de-radicalisation that goes beyond the Taliban to include other paramilitaries and power brokers. Rather than defend the Taliban, it would be more productive, and consistent with the democratic values of the Arab Spring, to support the victims of violence, the women's movement and other reformers in Afghanistan, so that human rights and civil society can seed and grow.

Ida Lichter is the author of' Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression,' published by Prometheus Books, New York. Originally published in 'The Australian'.