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As US Meets with Taliban, Afghan-Canadians Watch and Worry

Expats fear hard-won gains for women will be sacrificed in peace talks.

By Aria Nasimi 26 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Aria Nasimi is completing a practicum at The Tyee. He is doing his masters in journalism at the University of British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter @Aria_Nasimi.

Shahnaz Qayumi fled Afghanistan 35 years ago, but she continues to follow events in her home country from Vancouver.

And she’s worried.

Qayumi fears that hard-won women’s rights will be sacrificed in negotiations as the U.S. pushes to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban and end its 20-year war in Afghanistan. The talks in Doha, Qatar, began in February.

Qayumi said her fears have grown as she monitors the “questionable” peace negotiations under way in the Gulf state.

She questions the U.S. motives, and fears that they will sacrifice the rights of Afghan women to reach a deal.

“We want peace in Afghanistan. But we don’t want a peace that as a result, Afghans, particularly Afghan women, lose the achievements they had in the last 18 years,” said Qayumi, who teaches at Langara College and is chief operating officer of Partnership Afghanistan Canada.

“Afghan women have sacrificed tremendously to get to the position they are now,” she said. “For me, Afghan women are leaders, and their hard-earned achievements should not be lost for peace. It is very important.”

The Taliban governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and Afghan women were stripped of their basic rights, including the right to work, study or access health care. The regime even banned women from appearing in public without a male chaperone.

After the overthrow of the Taliban regime by a U.S.-led invasion that included Canadian Forces, Afghan women’s rights were reinstated. The country’s constitution, which passed in 2004, guarantees women’s rights including their rights to study, work, vote and run for office.

The World Bank says Afghan women have made encouraging progress and are working in all sectors of the economy. USAID reports that 40 per cent of the nine million students are girls.

Qayumi, a women’s rights and education rights activist who has been working to support long-term, sustainable peace and development in Afghanistan, said the Taliban has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement.

According to a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, 46 per cent of the country’s territory is either under the control of the Taliban or being contested.

“And in every area that is controlled by the Taliban, girls schools are closed there,” Qayumi said. “Women who are living in Taliban-controlled areas cannot leave their homes and go shopping by themselves.”

“How can you trust the Taliban that still continue to impose their strict religious policies on people?”

Fatima Shaikzada Agha, an Afghan-Canadian whose family fled Afghanistan when she was a child, said the idea that the Taliban may one day return to power is dreadful for Afghan women.

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Afghan-Canadian Fatima Shaikhzada Agha said countries like Canada play a crucial role in putting diplomatic pressure on the US to preserve Afghanistan’s hard-earned achievements during the peace talks with the Taliban. Photo submitted.

“I’m very scared that one day Taliban may come back to power in Afghanistan,” said Agha, who now lives in Burnaby, B.C. “I know as a woman that if the Taliban returns to power, the Afghan women’s condition will be even worse than before.”

The U.S. and Taliban have held five rounds of talks in Doha. The next round is scheduled for early next month.

So far, the Taliban has refused to have direct talks with the Afghan government. A meeting that was scheduled between the Taliban and government representatives last week was cancelled over the size and make-up of the delegation from Kabul.

The Afghan government repeatedly maintained that preserving the country’s achievements, including women’s rights, is essential in any peace agreement.

Mohammad Omar Daudzai is Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s senior advisor in reconciliation affairs.

“Women’s participation is crucial for sustainable peace,” he said at a Women’s Day event in Kabul March 5.

Daudzai said Afghanistan won’t go back to the past when the country was ruled by the Taliban.

As the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have intensified, the Afghan government have asked a Grand Consultative Jirga — a gathering of leaders from across the country — to discuss the next steps.

The government hopes the Grand Jirga, scheduled for Monday, will develop a “unified pathway” towards peace.

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Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani visits the site of the Grand Consultative Jirga in Kabul on April 23. Photo via ARG (Afghanistan President Office Facebook page).

Almost 3,000 delegates will attend the Jirga, and at least 30 per cent will be women, said President Ghani.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad promises to defend Afghanistan’s hard-earned achievements during the peace talks.

“It is the time that this war should end,” Khalilzad said in a recent video statement. “The time has come that the achievements have to be defended and preserved. Those achievements must be used as a base for peace... in Afghanistan. My mission is to help Afghans to end this war. To achieve that, we have started dialogues with the Afghan government and other groups in Afghanistan and the Taliban to reach and finalize a peace deal.”

Khalilzad has embarked on a multi-nation trip on Afghan peace efforts. He’s visiting Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia and the U.K. from April 21 to May 11, the U.S. State Department said.

“In Doha, he will continue to press forward on negotiations with the Taliban to reach a consensus on core national security issues and urge their participation in an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue,” the statement reads.  [Tyee]

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