Afghanistan

Between Hope and Fear: Rural Afghan women talk about peace and war

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Martine van Bijlert • AAN Team

As the United States pushes ahead with the rapid and unconditional withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, an unrelenting Taleban offensive has driven the Afghan government out of scores of districts across the country. Many Afghans are seeing their fears about the fallout from the ill-considered US-driven peace process come true. Against this backdrop, AAN’s new report by Martine van Bijlert probes the views and experiences, fears about war and hopes for peace of rural women across Afghanistan. Through in-depth conversations, ‘Between Hope and Fear: Rural Afghan women talk about peace and war’ provides a poignant and intimate context to what is happening, as large parts of the country are currently contested or have recently changed hands (again), making the report even more relevant today than when we embarked on it.

This report was inspired by Afghan women activists and their unrelenting and articulate push for greater and more meaningful representation in the peace process. In their campaigns and advocacy they made it clear that their struggle was not ‘just’ for the protection of women’s rights, but rather for a sustainable peace that would not lead to an unravelling of the political system, would ensure that violence was reduced, if not ended, and would not curtail the rights and freedoms of large parts of the population.

While the demands have often been met with sympathy, they have yielded very little action. Women’s rights activists are, in particular, often dismissed as representing only a small and privileged subset of the Afghan population – although curiously, male Afghan activists or politicians are generally not challenged in the same way. Still, the reasoning goes, they do not represent the majority of Afghan women, especially those living in rural areas, who, it is said, may have very different priorities. Furthermore, politicians and diplomats argued, sometimes explicitly, that women’s rights and basic freedoms, though important, may need to be the price paid for achieving peace and ending the hardships of war.

For these reasons – the downplaying of Afghan women and their rights in the negotiations, the accusation that activists do not speak for the many, and the readiness of some to sacrifice women’s rights for the sake of peace – we decided to talk to women in more remote places. We felt that if Afghan women, in general, are more talked about than heard from, then this will be even more so for women living in rural areas, who are probably the segment of the population least likely to get the chance, space or time to speak for themselves.

Therefore, in this qualitative study, we asked a wide range of rural women about their daily lives and how they were affected by the security situation in their areas, their knowledge and views of the ongoing peace process and what they imagined peace would look like if it did come.

The conversations revealed that most of the women were more well-informed than might be expected. Their answers, particularly in the light of the recent events (throughout the month of June 2021, the Taleban overran at least six of the nineteen districts included in the report), are poignant, insightful and often heartbreaking.

When asked how they felt about the US-Taleban agreement, a relatively recent development at the time of most of the interviews, a considerable number of women said they were happy about it. They said it had made them hopeful – because peace was better than war and because they hoped the deal would lead to a ceasefire. Others were much more sceptical, expressing deep misgivings about the intentions of the parties to the talks – the Taleban, the government and the Americans. A few women said they thought the deal showed the Americans had been defeated.

Looking beyond the almost dreamlike descriptions of what peace might look like, very few women were genuinely optimistic that the peace process could bring the desired combination of an end to the conflict, security and freedom of movement. Yet nearly all, even the most pessimistic, found their negativity and hesitations tempered by a stubborn hope that there was a chance, if not for outright peace, then at least for a lessening of the violence.

The anxieties the women expressed have, in the meantime, turned out to be all too well-placed. Many were explicitly worried that things would probably stay the same or get worse. They worried the situation would unravel or that ‘peace’ would result in greater Taleban control, more restrictions or a higher level of violence. Several women struggled with the possibility that there would be no accountability for those who had inflicted suffering on so many families.

The report further illustrates how conflict and political decisions made elsewhere – in this case, the US-Taleban agreement – directly and intricately affect the lives of women in remote places in a multitude of ways. In this light, it is important to note what their hopes were. They hoped that peace, real peace, would allow them to move around more freely, safely visit relatives, attend family gatherings, pursue work or education, travel and see the country and even go sightseeing. They hoped for greater peace of mind, more income and better investment opportunities, better health facilities and a greater feeling of safety.

Several mentioned that they hoped peace would give women and girls more access to their rights, including the right to education, employment and to choose whom they marry. Others hoped they would be better positioned to help their neighbours and communities, that peace would afford them the possibility to plan and look ahead, have more energy and patience to take care of their homes and children and improve their relationships with the men in their households. Almost all imagined that the absence of the noise and news of war would allow them to be less anxious, maybe even happy.

Most of all, the conversations challenged the idea that women in rural areas are satisfied by what is often portrayed as ‘normal’ by the Taleban or other Afghan conservatives. Almost every woman we spoke to, regardless of the political stance and level of conservatism that could be gleaned from the answers, expressed a longing for greater freedom of movement, education for their children (and sometimes themselves) and a greater role in their families and wider social circles. In that respect, this report makes it clear that dreams of greater agency for Afghan women are not the exclusive domain of those who can speak up publicly. The priorities of rural women are not that different from those put forward by the more well-connected women activists and the concerns these activists raise are indeed deeply-felt and urgent.