For Afghan women, talks with Taliban threaten newfound freedom

KABUL, Afghanistan

On a late afternoon in November, the young men lounging in the park under evergreen trees stare when a mother and her daughter stride past, swinging badminton rackets.

Women in the park? Playing sports in public? Unheard of — even nine years after the fall of the Taliban.

But Farida Momand and 14-year-old Miriam don’t care. They duck and swing. They jump and kick up dust, confident and carefree.

A few minutes into the game, Miriam’s father and brothers join in and the game becomes even more lively. With a mean backhand, Miriam slams the shuttlecock at her father, who slams it back. After the game, Labib Rayed tells his daughter that she’s “a fierce competitor.” “

If we lived in America,” complains Miriam, “that would be a good thing.” “Let’s hope it will soon be a good thing here,” her father replies.

What Rayed, 53, does not tell his only daughter is that he fears things will get worse for her in Kabul, not better. He does not say that he is holding his breath, worried about what will happen when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, a withdrawal that is scheduled to begin in January.

In the nine years since the religiously conservative Taliban fighters were forced from power, Afghan women have emerged from hiding. Today, women are visible everywhere on the dusty roads of the capital, on their way to work and school, striding past donkey carts loaded with key limes and pomegranates, making their way past Toyotas and SUVs. But secret peace negotiations now under way with the Taliban could mean a reversal of the freedoms that Afghan women have come to enjoy.

For Momand and Rayed, such a development would affect more than whether they can play in the park with their daughter. It could determine whether they are forced into exile in Pakistan.

In 1996 when the Taliban took over Kabul, Farida Momand was a promising young pediatrician on the faculty of Kabul Medical University. Her husband was a spokesman for the Northern Alliance, which fought unsuccessfully to keep the Taliban from power.

In 1997, after death threats, the Rayed-Momand family fled to Pakistan. But in November 2001, when the U.S. military helped liberate Kabul from the Taliban, the couple returned with their 5-year-old twins, Miriam and Mustafa, and two younger sons.

Their fourth-floor walk-up apartment had no water or electricity — no sink, flushing toilet, heat, refrigeration or stove — and Momand and Rayed had no income. But the sun poured in through a large window in the living room, and the family was determined to be part of a new, democratic Kabul.

At the time, with the legacy of the Taliban still lingering, Momand was a rare sight walking down the street with her face showing among a sea of blue burqas. But progress for women traveled as rapidly as the new electric current lighting up the capital, and Momand soon found herself in the majority. Now, in Kabul, fewer than 10 percent of women wear the burqa, choosing instead loosely draped scarves that show their faces and a wide swath of hair. On the university campus, some women don’t cover at all, and no one seems to notice.

When the family returned in late 2001, Miriam, along with thousands of other little girls denied an education, enrolled in school. Her mother, along with thousands of other women previously forbidden employment, got a job.

As faculty lecturer at the medical school, Momand was elected to represent female university students and employees. For several years, she advocated for women at the school, getting them promotions and a lounge, and investigating claims of physical and verbal abuse. Even though the program eventually fell apart for lack of government support, female students and employees still come to her for help. Thirty-five percent of medical students are women, as opposed to nine years ago, when women were excluded.

“Dr. Farida, Dr. Farida!” a group of young female medical students calls out on a recent afternoon as she walks across campus. It’s exam time and a professor has just added two thick books to the required reading with only two days left. They can’t possibly prepare, they say. On the spot, Momand pulls out her smart phone and calls the professor, getting them an extension.

When she enters a building to climb five drafty flights of terrazzo steps to her office, they are still yelling, “Thank you, thank you, doctor!”

Momand, 45, dean and the highest ranking female there, gets tears in her eyes when she recalls getting accepted to medical school in her early 20s. When the university posted the list, she rushed home to tell her father, who twirled her around the room, shouting that she was his “pride and joy.”

“My father always encouraged and supported me and I feel an obligation to pass that kindness on,” she says.

Sima Samar, former minister of women’s affairs in the Karzai administration, will be the first to say that it’s individuals like Momand — not government officials — who have made a difference for women in Kabul.

“It is they,” she says, “taking risks and fighting for women, despite the lack of government support, who have helped women.”

Samar still speaks with bitterness over what happened after she was appointed minister of women’s affairs by Karzai in early 2002: “My life was threatened, but no one in government offered me any protection and I had to go into hiding. Sadly, my only accomplishment — because of government indifference — was not being killed.”

When the Taliban left Kabul on Nov. 13, 2001, the voice of female journalist Jamila Mujahid was among the first on radio, which shocked listeners because they had not heard a woman in over five years.

“People called me sobbing with happiness,” she says.

Now, Mujahid is the owner of the Afghan Women’s Radio Network and the editor of the women’s magazine Malalai. While she is resolute that the women of Kabul will not accept Taliban control again, she concedes that the fighting must end and that negotiations with the Taliban must take place for the sake of peace.

“We may not have every freedom — if the Taliban comes back — but we must have education for women because it makes other rights inevitable,” she says.

And what about the burqa?

“It’s not the worst thing.”

• • •

On an afternoon in late autumn, Shukria Barakzai, 38, is at home instead of in her office in parliament, having just finished several months of negotiations with Taliban “super-mullahs” from around Afghanistan. Super-mullahs are on the same level as the Taliban’s military leader Mullah Omar, who is the focus of a manhunt by U.S. forces, and have major influence in communities outside the capital.

“What the Taliban super-mullahs told me and what I passed on to President Karzai is that they’re tired,” Barakzai says. “They don’t want a star from the sky. They don’t want money. They don’t want to keep girls out of school. They just want to live and be left alone.”

While she talks, Barakzai’s 7-year-old daughter walks into the living room and asks if she can have a Snickers bar because she just finished reading Junie B., First Grader, “the one where Junie B. gets glasses.” The child is soon joined by her 14-year-old sister, who wants to have a weekend slumber party. After saying yes to the candy and no to the sleepover — “You haven’t done your PowerPoint presentation for school” — Barakzai lists what the 70 super-mullahs say they want for the Taliban: “

Off the U.N. blacklist, release from jail if not convicted of crimes, representation in government on the peace council, and prosecution of government corruption.”

They also demanded, she says, that all foreign troops leave Kabul. And one more thing: Most of them don’t want women to work.

Barakzai says she told them that these last demands were unacceptable.

“But some of them are difficult to convince.”

This intransigence worries other members of parliament.

“If America leaves, it will be eight hours before the Taliban is in control of Kabul,” said parliament member Muien Murastial, a former Karzai campaign manager.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of parliament who ran against Karzai for president, agrees.

The only thing keeping the Taliban from taking over Kabul and sending women back to the Dark Ages is the presence of the United States military, he says.

“What will be the result when the corrupt Karzai administration negotiates with people who don’t believe in women’s rights?” Bashardost asks. “Do you think the outcome will be good?”

• • •

With their combined salaries of about $1,200 a month — $700 of it from Momand’s job as dean and $500 from Rayed’s job as director of cultural affairs for the Afghan army — the family lives comfortably, solidly in Kabul’s middle class, along with thousands of other families.

They have electricity, running water, a flushing toilet, a refrigerator and a stove in their apartment. They have cushy overstuffed sofas, computers with Internet and satellite TV with CNN. Miriam and Mustafa constantly text their friends on their cell phones and asked for the computer game Grand Theft Auto for the Eid holiday.

On this evening before dinner, Miriam is on the computer working on a school project and Mustafa is sweeping the kitchen.

“Why do I have to do housework when none of my friends do? Why isn’t Miriam doing this?” he asks his mother.

“In this house, we all pitch in,” she answers.

With their children, Momand and Rayed believe that “talking furthers understanding.” It is not, however, a philosophy that Rayed is willing to extend to the Taliban.

After a dinner of sauteed chicken, fried potatoes and arugula salad, he clears the table and talks about the prospect of negotiating with the Taliban and the prospect of the group controlling Kabul again. It is almost impossible to fathom, he says, because Kabul is such a vibrant place after nine years of freedom.

“The jug is broken, the wine is spilled,” he says, reciting an Afghan proverb. “How could we go back? How could we let that happen to women?”

Momand, who has several friends involved in the negotiations, repeats what they’ve told her: Some Taliban fighters say if they can negotiate amnesty they’ll desert. Fewer Taliban fighters mean less fighting. “

Negotiations may not be a bad thing,” Momand says.

“How can you say that?” Rayed shoots back, his face turning red. “Look at how those ordinary fighters treat their women. They don’t let their wives work. They are subject to every whim of the men. How do you think they’ll treat women not in their family? How do you think it will be for you and Miriam and all of your friends?”

Momand nods in agreement, then repeats what they already know: “If we can get out in time, we’ll go into exile.” Again.

“It shouldn’t come to that,” says her husband.

But for now, the Momand and Rayed family live as if the future is theirs. Miriam, who is ranked first in her class, talks of being a surgeon. Mustafa wants to be an engineer. And Momand is in line to be the first female chancellor of Kabul Medical University.

Whether the Taliban will return to power in the next few years is uncertain. But the next day is more predictable.

“Football in the park tomorrow afternoon!” shouts Labib Rayed as the children cheer.

Then, he turns to Miriam and says, “You’ve got such a strong passing arm.”

Meg Laughlin can be reached at (727) 893-8068 or mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

For Afghan women, talks with Taliban threaten newfound freedom 11/26/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 28, 2010 4:14pm]

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