Afghanistan’s women leaders persist despite exile — the US must follow their lead
Women parliamentarians around the world are leading in extraordinary ways. No more so than in Athens, where Afghan women members of Parliament (MP) who were evacuated to Greece, announced that they are forming a women’s parliament in exile.
Before the Taliban takeover, women made up 27 percent of the Afghan Parliament, known locally as the Wolesi Jirga (House of People). Following the withdrawal, women MPs went straight to the top of the Taliban’s kill lists. They became targets for kidnapping, torture, and assassination by Taliban forces. Those who have not yet managed to escape live in constant fear of Taliban reprisal.
The women have not been cowed. They feel that they still wear the mantle of leadership, even if they are thousands of miles away from their home and the people they serve. They have set an ambitious agenda for themselves — they will advocate for the human rights of women and girls still in Afghanistan as well as for humanitarian aid to reach those who need it most during this time of acute crisis. They will also seek to work in coordination with Afghan women leaders still in the country.
And they need support from other world leaders, especially parliamentarians. Last month all 24 U.S. women senators signed a bipartisan letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to protect the rights of Afghan women and girls. They told him, “You have committed to press the Taliban to uphold the rights of women and girls… Afghan women and girls need our action now.”
This is not the first time that the women of the U.S. Congress have supported their Afghan sisters. When Afghan women leaders were sidelined during the peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. in February 2020, they warned the world that a hasty and unconditional withdrawal of international troops, without a sustainable peace agreement in place, could lead to a Taliban takeover and the loss of their rights.
The women’s hopes were raised again last year that the newly elected Biden administration would follow through on its promises of leadership on what is known as the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Enshrined by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and implemented in U.S. policy through the Women, Peace, and Security Act, it recognizes the central role that women play in the prevention of conflict, peace negotiations, and post-conflict stability.
Once the Biden administration announced it would fast-track the Afghan peace process and gather all parties to the conflict in Istanbul in April 2021 to reach an agreement, Mina’s List and a consortium of international and Afghanistan-based partners planned a parallel peace process for women leaders. We gathered over 100 diverse women delegates from 25 provinces across Afghanistan who were known peacebuilders and activists in their communities. The delegates were prepared to develop recommendations and conditions on each of the topic areas to be discussed by the official negotiators, then meet with them to deliver their demands. The initiative was supported by civil society in both the U.S. and Afghanistan, as well as the highest levels of the U.S. government and other key international players.
It never happened. The Taliban boycotted the official talks and Biden announced the non-conditional withdrawal of troops, effectively ending the peace process. However, even though the 100 delegates did not get a chance to make their demands of the peace negotiation teams, the women of the U.S. Congress were still interested in hearing their recommendations for peace. To their credit, the Democratic Women’s Caucus hosted all 100 peace delegates for a virtual roundtable and based much of their advocacy to the administration on how to protect women and girls in Afghanistan on the Afghan women’s recommendations.
We failed the women of Afghanistan in August. Today, they are under attack as their rights are being rolled back and the progress of the past 20 years is erased. They are facing increasing violence while experiencing the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the political and economic collapse of the country.
And yet, despite losing everything, Afghan women are still leading, both inside Afghanistan and in exile. The women’s Parliament in Athens is just one example of how the leaders are fighting to protect the rights of Afghans everywhere. Women leaders on other refugee bases around the world are also organizing to ensure their needs are met amidst enormous challenges.
Going forward, the international community, led by the U.S., needs to remind itself of its commitments under the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, and the values that led to its adoption in the first place. It should apply maximum diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to allow for full human rights for women and girls, including the right to education, employment, freedom of movement, and participation in public life and leadership. It should bring women back to the table so that they can speak directly with the Taliban and help rebuild a more equal and stable country. And importantly, it should ensure women’s groups in Afghanistan are funded and supported to address the growing humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.
The letter from the U.S. Congress applying pressure on the Biden administration is a welcome example of the importance of women’s substantive leadership, i.e., women using their leadership platforms to support other women. But much more needs to be done. Supporting the women’s parliament in exile is one such move.
As Cynthia Enloe said last month to Mina’s List: “Women are smart… They have learned what armed conflict does to men, what it does to women, what it does to boys, what it does to girls, and what it does to the relationships of every one of those to armed groups and to governments. That’s why women have to be included; because they have knowledge without which you cannot create sustainable or even temporarily effective peace.”
Teresa Casale is the policy & advocacy director for Mina’s List, which has worked in Afghanistan since 2014 on advancing women’s participation in political leadership and the peace process.