By Taylor Bloch
Global attention has turned to Afghanistan, as over 100 international political leaders and 400 Afghan women’s rights activists have called for the incorporation of women’s rights into the potential peace agreement between the Government and the Taliban. At the core of this movement lies a particular demographic: young people. According to the United Nations Population Fund, youth under the age of 25 make up over 63% of Afghanistan’s total population. Over the past two decades of violent conflict, youth have emerged as a prominent voice for social and political change within the country, including mobilizing for women’s rights.
Women’s Rights and Afghan Government-Taliban Peace Talks
Elevating women’s voices is crucial now more than ever, as the ongoing peace talks aim to end 41 years of war between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, a militarized, Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political organization notorious for its repressive perceptions of women’s rights. The future of women’s rights is a hot topic at these negotiations, and predictions of whether gender equality will progress or regress remain uncertain.
As Jamile Bigio, a senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Delphi Cleaveland, a Masters graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, recently highlighted in their CNN article, “Many Afghan women fear that in this mix of contentious priorities, their rights could be traded for a chance at ending the conflict.”
To promote gender equality in these peace talks, it is key that women’s voices are not only heard, but that they are also actively incorporated into a peace agreement and implemented thereafter. Unfortunately, such an outcome is difficult given that women represent only 4 of the 21 Afghan Government negotiators. With few women physically present at the negotiating table, Afghanis must emphasize strategic and targeted activism to elevate their demands for gender equality.
How Are Youth Reacting?
One young woman, Sveto Muhammad Ishoq, who has worked as a volunteer with Every Woman Treaty since 2016, has uplifted women’s voices in Afghanistan this year by jumpstarting Chadari, a story-telling initiative that amplifies the diverse voices of Afghan women to a global audience. To deconstruct the singular image of Afghan women often portrayed by media and film, Ms. Ishoq shares stories and poems and hosts online events and trainings for women to share their personal experiences—from dealing with COVID-19 to surviving terrorist attacks to personal and professional success stories.
Rather than the stereotypical image of a singular veiled woman, Ms. Ishoq explains that Afghan women represent a world of “dualities.” She highlights the lives of educated and uneducated women, as well as experiences of heartwarming success and tragic realities. While these stories are not for the limited purpose of impacting the peace talks, Ms. Ishoq empowers women’s voices at a time when they often are silenced yet are urgently in need of being heard.
Ms. Ishoq emphasizes that she is not alone in her work to empower Afghan women’s voices. “Youth open the doors for other people and inspire. They are the changemakers,” states Ms. Ishoq. She notes that recent terrorist attacks, such as the tragic events at Kabul University in early November, have targeted Afghanistan’s young people, alluding to how political and social opponents aim to quell their appeals for human rights. As mentioned in a recent article published by Al Jazeera, Sami Mahdi, a professor at Kabul University, recalls that his students were “getting an education to better Afghanistan or fight for women’s rights, while others just wanted a secure life in a country racked by 20 years of bloody conflict.”
Due to the risk of physical harm they face by speaking out, young people increasingly turn to social media to voice their political aspirations for equality, criticism of the Taliban, and demands from the government in the ongoing peace talks, according to one Foreign Policy article. Recently, young Afghan activists sparked a Twitter social media campaign titled “Feminine Perspectives” to bring attention to what women demand from the peace negotiations. Beginning with women’s and girls’ education rights, the campaign highlights a different women’s rights issue each week and is succeeding in increasing the dialogue around gender equality.
Ms. Ishoq and the “Feminine Perspectives” campaign reflect only a small fraction of the political and social activism by Afghan youth gaining traction this year. Rather, they are accompanied by the built-up political dissatisfaction of millions of young people, many of whom are likely watching with keen eyes which direction their country takes regarding women’s rights. By sharing the stories of women in Afghanistan, their experiences hopefully will translate into a peace agreement that acknowledges the need for immediate initiatives to incorporate women into all sectors of Afghan society. However, the fate of gender equality now lies in the hands of the male-dominated negotiators.
While Ms. Ishoq notes that the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan remains a “question mark,” she also states, “I try to stay positive. I always want to portray a positive story [of Afghanistan].” The stakes are high for gender equality at this negotiation table, but Afghan youth are putting their best efforts forward to ensure women’s voices are heard.
About the Author
Taylor Bloch interned with Every Woman Treaty during the Summer of 2020. Bloch is a third-year student in the Honors Program at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She studies International Affairs, Political Science, and Spanish. She is a gender activist and aspires to apply her skills to a future career working at the intersection of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, foreign policy, and international development.