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Women's Rights At The Forefront Of Afghan Peace Talks


Historic peace talks to end decades of war in Afghanistan are grinding on. Some of the most difficult issues concern women - their right to an education, to work, to travel freely. But there are no women on the Taliban's negotiating team and only four in the government's delegation. NPR's Diaa Hadid spoke to one of them.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Fawzia Koofi says she's a tenacious survivor.

FAWZIA KOOFI: Yeah. The first day when I was born, I was left outside in the sun.

HADID: Her mother was severely depressed and under pressure from her husband to bear a son.

KOOFI: After a few hours when my mother was OK and she realized that I'm there, then she hold me. And I already had spots of sunburn in my face.

HADID: Despite that, Koofi thrived as her mother recovered. Soon, she was excelling in school and even studied medicine, braving clashes that ravaged Kabul during the country's civil war. Then, in the mid-'90s, the Taliban came to power.

KOOFI: I was in my first year when the Taliban came on a Friday morning.

HADID: And for Koofi, everything changed.

KOOFI: A woman cannot get out of their house, cannot go to the offices and no university or school.

HADID: She had to drop out. After U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban following 9/11, she ran for parliament. She was partly following her father's footsteps. He was a complicated man with seven wives and 23 children. He was killed when Koofi was 3 as he tried to mediate between warring factions. But it was Koofi's own experiences that motivated her.

KOOFI: Especially during the civil war and the Taliban government that gave me the determination to join politics.

HADID: And she became a rare female Afghan legislator, then the first woman to become deputy speaker of parliament. She wrote a well-received biography and even floated the idea of running for president in 2014. It didn't happen. But this year, she was selected as one of the negotiators for peace talks with the Taliban. Koofi says feminists lobbied hard to have women represented in the negotiations.

KOOFI: We are at the very critical time of our history. In this round of Afghan peace talks, women issue - their rights, their future - is a major issue for discussion.

HADID: But the government only selected four women in the 21-member delegation. And Koofi nearly didn't make it to peace talks at all that are being held in the Gulf state of Qatar because weeks before talks started on September 12, gunmen fired at her car. She escaped with light injuries, and it never became clear who the assailants were. She did make it to negotiations, though, and she says just being there is an achievement. She says it forces the Taliban to deal with women, even if some of them are so conservative that they refuse to even look at her.

KOOFI: I want them to respect the women of Afghanistan by respecting us. I'm not asking a charity from them. It's my right.

HADID: But Koofi says she's negotiating more than women's rights.

KOOFI: I do not only talk to them about women rights, but I talk about the future of my country. We talk about cease-fire. We talk about everything that actually matters for my people.

HADID: Negotiators on both sides are still figuring out procedural affairs, and the Taliban's refusal to curb their attacks is threatening the talks. Still, she's prominent enough that she was believed to be in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. She didn't win, but even the talk surrounding it had an impact.

KOOFI: It gives more power to our voice. It gives more legitimacy to our demands.

HADID: She's not just referring to the Taliban. She says it's a reminder to her own government that the world still cares about the fate of Afghan women.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF VANILLA'S "SNOWDANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.