No peace without women: Afghan activists on why women's representation matters
The Taliban takeover of Kabul on 15 August 2021 erased years of hard-won progress towards national peace and security. In the year since, the regime has systematically erased women from Afghan society, too: mandating face coverings in public, excluding women from most jobs, banning girls from high school and dismantling all institutions that protected and promoted the rights of women and girls. And yet, in the face of these innumerable human rights violations, Afghan women continue to resist and to work towards lasting peace and security for their country.
Fawzia Koofi, Habiba Sarabi and Maryam Rayed have devoted their careers to building peace in their home country. Fawzia and Habiba represented the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during peace talks with the Taliban in 2020—two of four women to take part in the breakthrough negotiations. Maryam headed a department in the State Ministry of Peace. All three are now in exile.
Their first-hand accounts showcase the importance of women’s representation and leadership in peace and security processes—and what their absence from these processes can mean for a country.
Fawzia Koofi: Women will never give up
The first girl in her family to go to school, Fawzia Koofi went on to become the first woman Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Afghanistan, as well as one of the four women negotiators sitting face-to-face with the Taliban to negotiate the country’s future in 2020. A life-long fighter for democracy and the rights of Afghan women and girls, Fawzia is now in exile.
I was a member of the Parliament of Afghanistan for fifteen years. Every day, I was campaigning for women’s participation in public decision-making and in the peace process: organising gatherings, working with political leaders, international organisations and civil society to ensure that women were included. And eventually they were. For the Intra-Afghan talks, launched in the aftermath of the Doha Agreement, four out of the 21 members of the Islamic Republic’s Negotiation Team were women. I was one of them.
As most wars are led by men, it is men who believe they are the only ones who can talk about peace. Seeing a woman in the negotiations room—and sometimes I was the only woman in the room—was something neither of the sides of the table were used to seeing. Every day, my presence was a form of resistance, emphasizing that women have a rightful place in all decisions impacting their country.
But it was not enough that I was in the room; it is not enough that we are at the table. We also need to be included in all conversations affecting our country, and our views must be meaningfully considered. As a woman, I saw first-hand how women can bring diverse views to the peace table, how women can enrich discussions. As somebody who grew up politically in the last 20 years, who has access to information, who knew what happened to our country, I had more knowledge about the economy, security, institutions, and democracy. The gap between the women negotiators and the Taliban was not only a generation gap, but it was also an information gap. And this makes women’s participation in peace processes even more important.
Since the take-over of Kabul, I cannot adjust to the fact that in the twenty-first century we still have to talk about women’s education or their right to work. But I must. And over the last year, along with my sisters, I focused on ensuring Afghan women are united and have platforms they can use to continue advocating for all their rights – beyond education and work. Last year, we advocated for the inclusion of women in the design and distribution of aid in Afghanistan, and now women are part of these structures. We worked with UN Member States to make UNAMA’s mandate stronger, to ensure it included a strong focus on Women, Peace, and Security. We worked with the Human Rights Council to create a Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan to monitor human rights violations in Afghanistan. We worked to ensure the travel ban continues to be imposed on the Taliban. I have been working with women inside of Afghanistan and with those who are in the region to see how we can be their voice. I have established an Afghan Woman Coalition for Change, which is an advocacy platform for women inside and outside the country to work together.
The world can learn from Afghanistan’s experience on Women, Peace, and Security. Women must be involved from the beginning in any peace negotiation, and they must be involved in a meaningful way. And women will never give up. They will continue to resist, to ask for their demands, to ask for their liberty. The international community must continue to use their leverage to advocate for the return of the women’s right to political participation, for the return of the rule of law, for the return of the democracy we lost. People around the world should continue to stand in solidarity with us, to use their platforms to raise our voices, to push their government to do more for the people of Afghanistan.
I am no longer in my country. I lost my political and social status; I lost my identity. I did not lose my hope. We are a very hopeful nation. It is the constant demand of our people for a better life that gives me hope.
Habiba Sarabi: I believe we can get our country back
Habiba Sarabi is a pharmacist by profession and a politician by choice. After serving as Afghanistan’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, she became the country’s first woman governor. During peace negotiations with the Taliban, Habiba was appointed Deputy Chair for the High Peace Council—alongside four other women negotiators. Now in exile, she is focused on motivating the younger generation to finish the fight.
My family has been involved in politics for the past 50 years. During the first rule of the Taliban, I fled to Pakistan where I was working with Afghan immigrant children on education. I had to come back to Afghanistan and return to politics and work for the women in my country. I was first Minister of Women’s Affairs, then I was appointed as the first woman governor. Then I was the Deputy Chair of the High Peace Council and ultimately appointed to negotiate peace with the Taliban in the Doha peace process.
I was in Doha when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. And I could not go back to Kabul. At the beginning, I was disappointed. I was depressed. But I soon realized that the fighting is not over. I realized I must motivate our new generation of young Afghan women to fight back. I soon became busy again—advocating, networking: not only for women, but also for the Hazara minority, my community. When faced with violence, when faced with discrimination, when faced with genocide, I had to rise and advocate—for my rights as a woman, for my rights as a Hazara woman.
When the National Action Plan 1325 was launched, civil society in Afghanistan was very active. Their advocacy for women, peace and security, and especially for having more women in the peace process, resulted in thirteen women members of the High-Peace Council—and I was the Deputy Chair. It also resulted in four women appointed as negotiators on behalf of the Republic in the intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban—and I was one of these four women. Our role as peace negotiators was to both advocate for women’s rights and to represent the whole population of women in Afghanistan. Our role was also to be present in every part of the negotiations, from the economy to security. In our advocacy, we were using the constitution a lot—women’s rights are granted in the Constitution—and we wanted the Taliban to accept the Constitution as it is. They never did.
Talking to the Taliban was not easy, but we were tolerant. As women, we were often ignored: sometimes the doors would be shut for us, sometimes we were left out. But the four of us had a rule—to make sure we represented women in every single part of the negotiations, in every single meeting. We also had another rule—to engage with civil society inside Afghanistan. Every time we had a break from the negotiations, we would go back to Kabul and consult with civil society, consult with women. It was our responsibility to take their views from inside the country to the negotiations table.
I experienced the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan twice. But last year it was different. Before, we did not know what the Taliban could do, what their ideology was. But this time we did. And this time we had everything we so hard worked for: institutions, hundreds of women-led NGOs. Our government was far from perfect, but we had a system in place—a system we could fix and work within. This time, we lost everything. It felt like our work for decades was in vain; it felt like the time, the energy, the hard work, everything just vanished. For weeks, I could not work, eat, think—above all, I could not go back home. As for millions of Afghans who are suffering right now, the impact of the takeover was huge on me.
The women who are taking to the streets and shouting for their rights have given me hope and reminded me that when there is commitment, impossible is possible. And they are not shouting for women only—they are also shouting for the men who cannot raise their voice; they are shouting for all of us, for all Afghans.
I believe we can get our country back. First, we need to make sure women’s voices are never silenced. We need to tighten the connections—the networks between women inside the country and women outside the country. We need to document everything that is happening to women; we need to put an end to violence in all forms, especially violence against women.
Many people left Afghanistan, but the voice inside the country—kept alive by brave women across the provinces—is louder than ever. Throughout my lifetime, I have heard many people say Afghanistan cannot be changed. Our history has proved this wrong. During the time of our King, women could go to universities. For the last twenty years, Afghan women leaders brought a lot of change to our society. As Governor of Bamiyan, I doubled the presence of girls in schools—this was a huge change in the mindset of our community. People were accepting that women can be mayors, can be governors, can be ministers.
And a woman will be President of Afghanistan one day.
Maryam Rayed: Now is the time for solidarity
Born during the Taliban’s first rule, Maryam Rayed is a human rights advocate who once served as the Deputy-Director for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights at the State Ministry for Peace in Afghanistan. Now in exile, Maryam is a Fulbright Scholar studying governance and democracy at Georgetown University.
Women's rights are at the forefront of my work—be it my research or my activism. In the State Ministry for Peace, my job was to bring peace to a country that suffered decades of war. I was building a shared narrative of what peace could look like within Afghanistan. During my work, I noticed that when people talked about peace, women’s rights were always sidelined. Every day, I was trying to make sure Afghan women’s voices were heard. If you talk about peace and justice, you must make sure that half of the country's population is part of that process. It is not just common sense: There is research that shows that when women are engaged in decision making processes, in leadership roles, countries are more peaceful. We cannot ignore this research.
Even back in those days, things were not easy: women who were vocal, women who were visible and present in public spaces—like activists, journalists and government employees—were targeted and killed daily. Every day, I had this fear that that might be my last day working in Kabul. But back in those days, the cause we were working for kept us going; back in those days the hope for a better future was never in short supply. I worked for peace in Afghanistan until the last day I was in the country.
When Afghanistan collapsed, I had just left the country to pursue my education as a Fulbright scholar in the United States; to arm myself with knowledge and skills that would help me better serve my troubled but beautiful motherland. I could not even imagine that this educational journey would turn into a political exile and that returning to home would become a dream. For the first six months, I focused on making sure that many of the women who were vocal, who were critical of the wrongdoings of the Taliban—activists, politicians, journalists and women judges—were safe. I knew Afghanistan was not safe for them anymore; I knew that in the best-case scenario they would lose their strong voice.
When it comes to the women’s movement, there is a global tendency to believe things are moving forward. What happened to Afghanistan is a lesson to the world: that progress on women’s rights is fragile everywhere. We lost everything in one night. But abandoning Afghanistan was never an option for me. From the US, where I am now living, I started supporting the women’s organizations still working in Afghanistan. Some involved with these organizations have been questioned; some have been beaten; some have been arrested; many are fearlessly still resisting.
No peace brought by compromise is ever sustainable. Why we should include women in decision-making processes should not even be a question anymore. And this is why, under the Taliban, the Women, Peace, and Security agenda is more needed and more urgent than ever. All elements of the agenda are crucial: without protection and participation, you cannot prevent conflict. While the world focuses on opening schools for girls—which is one of the most urgent needs—they must remember that Afghan women did not fight for a place in classrooms only. They fought for their full rights: they fought for a place in politics, they fought for a place as leaders of organizations, as leaders of their communities. They took part in rebuilding the country with pride—risking their lives—and have had remarkable achievements. Let us not decrease the cause of Afghan women to just classrooms. The full range of women’s rights must be returned.
I came to the US as a young woman from a democratic country I was representing. Working to elevate Afghan women’s calls for peace was a noble calling for me; it was my main motivation. As a young woman in a leadership position, I was also representing the younger generation in Afghanistan and making sure that their values were not compromised for the sake of peace. Two thirds of the population in Afghanistan is under the age of 25—a generation that is different in their way of thinking, that shares common values and interests with youth around the world, that believes in democracy and freedom and is ready to do their part in building that world.
Overnight, I lost my identity and everything I was once proud of. I lost my hometown. I lost my country. I am now stateless, soon to become a refugee. What happened to me, what happened to Afghanistan, is not a women’s struggle alone; It is not a country’s struggle alone—it is a shared responsibility. If history taught us one lesson, it is that what happens in one part of the world will impact the whole world. What we were fighting for, it was not just out fight, it was a fight for democracy, for values that have global applicability. Now is also the time for solidarity: a global sisterhood. Women’s movements around the world should stand in solidarity with women in Afghanistan and with all women living under authoritarian regimes and raise awareness about what these women are going through.