Who are the Afghan women negotiating peace with the Taliban?
They have risked their lives to educate girls and survived assassination attempts. Now they hope to end decades of war.
Among many Afghan women and girls, there is a fear that the US-Taliban deal could potentially pave the way for the armed group’s return to power and to the oppression they previously endured under their rule.
But the four female members of the Afghan government’s 21-member team, negotiating with the Taliban at the intra-Afghan talks, say they are determined not to give up on women’s rights in their country.
The talks in the Qatari capital Doha became possible after the US signed a deal with the Taliban in February that included a phased withdrawal of the remaining American troops from Afghanistan and a prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
These talks are aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the 19-year war in Afghanistan and to preserving the progress made in the post-Taliban years.
From surviving assassination attempts to risking their lives running underground schools during the Taliban’s rule, Habiba Sarabi, Fatima Gailani, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak and Fawzia Koofi have endured it all.
Although they come from different backgrounds and have had different life experiences, the common thread that connects them is their fight for the right to an education.
These are their stories:
‘Times have changed’ – Habiba Sarabi
Witnessing her mother’s hardships and father’s neglect, Habiba Sarabi, 63, vowed at a young age to get herself an education.
Born in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, she was the only sister of five brothers.
Besides her mother’s helplessness in a patriarchal Afghan society that was resistant to equal rights for women, Sarabi grew up knowing her father valued his sons over her.
“My mother faced a lot of pain,” Sarabi says, with tears in her eyes.
“This is one reason why I promised myself that I will empower myself by getting [an] education. The second reason was that I wanted to challenge my father and prove to be better than his sons.”
And, after decades of fighting for women’s rights – from running underground schools during the Taliban regime to becoming the first female governor of Bamyan province in 2005 – Sarabi has more than proved herself. Now, she says, she is up for her newest challenge as a member of the government negotiating team at the intra-Afghan talks in the Qatari capital Doha.
In 2016, Sarabi was appointed deputy head of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, a body established in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban, and in March this year, she became a member of the government delegation.
Sarabi has been working towards this point her whole life, she feels. After receiving a degree in pharmacy from Kabul University in 1987, she travelled to India on a scholarship to specialise in haematology. At the time, she was 30 years old, married and pregnant with her third child.
When the Taliban seized power, Sarabi was back in Afghanistan and working at an intermediate medical school in Kabul. She had to stop.
During their rule – from 1996 to 2001 – women were largely confined to their homes under the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.
“It was a testing time for me,” she recalls. “Because then I saw my children’s education was on the line.”
She fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, soon after to make sure her children could attend school.
“When I first got to Pakistan, I did not have enough money to pay for my daughter’s school fees, so I sold the last pair of gold earrings I had. That was the start of my investment in my children’s education,” Sarabi explains.
“My daughter, who is now 35, is a dual masters degree holder and works with the United Nations now; one of my sons is a doctor in Turkey and the other is an architect,” she says with a luminous smile.
In Peshawar, Sarabi not only got involved in non-profit organisations providing literacy programmes for Afghan girls in Pakistan, she also worked to make sure girls back home were not deprived of their basic right to education.
During the Taliban’s rule, Sarabi sneaked back to Afghanistan from time to time, crossing the mountainous border region between the two countries to look after more than 50 secret underground schools for girls she had started with the help of her husband. The schools – in Jalalabad, Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif – were hidden in homes and guest houses.
Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the American-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban, giving Sarabi the opportunity to return to her country.
In 2004, then-President Hamid Karzai appointed her minister of women’s affairs. One year later, she became the first-ever female provincial governor of Bamyan in Afghanistan.
“The main achievement during my time as a governor was access to education, especially for girls, good governance and anti-corruption,” she says.
In the 2014 presidential election, Sarabi was the only female candidate for vice president.
“Even though we did not win, we fought quite well,” she says with a gentle smile on her bespectacled face.
“Times have changed now, the Taliban should understand it is not the time to fight, it is the time to talk. Enough of suffering, the young generation from both sides deserve to have a better life,” Sarabi says.
She feels hopeful that the talks could yield positive results. However, Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal culture could still stop girls from reaching their full potential, she said.
“The mentality of men about women needs to change,” Sarabi reflects.
With that, she recalls the time when her father was ill and admitted to a hospital in Kabul.
“My father was in bed looking at me discussing and arranging treatment for him with male doctors – none of his sons were around him, just me.
“Just then I saw tears rolling down his cheeks and beard. He said ‘I have bothered you so much, but today you are here for me at this tough time,’ just like this, I want every man in this country to believe in women’s potential.”
‘Thirsty for peace’ – Sharifa Zurmati Wardak
Sharifa Zurmati Wardak, 53, vividly remembers the day back in 1997 when members of the Taliban stormed into her house in the Zurmat district of Paktia province where she was running a secret school for girls. She was scared, and so were the students, but they were prepared.
“We told them we were teaching the students how to read the Quran,” Wardak says.
“But we had to hide that I was also teaching these children other subjects like poetry, mathematics and geography.”
Upon hearing that the students were reading the Quran, the men left.
Wardak, who was born in Zurmat, received her bachelor’s degree in Pashto language and literature in 1996, just before the Taliban came to power.
Under them, Wardak says, “all doors were shut for women and they were confined to their homes”.
When the Taliban were toppled, Wardak did not waste a day.
With a smile that can be heard in her voice and the remarkable clarity with which she speaks, Wardak was a perfect fit for a role in radio journalism at Afghanistan’s Public Radio and Television network.
During her career as a journalist, Wardak has travelled to some of the most dangerous parts of the country to report on stories about women’s rights.
This work drove her to politics and she ran in the parliamentary elections in 2005, winning a seat in Afghanistan’s Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, representing Paktia province.
She was also a member of the Independent Election Commission in 2014.
As part of the negotiating team, she wants to make sure all of the achievements made by Afghan women post-Taliban are preserved for the future.
Many Afghan women are worried their hard-earned gains could be erased if the Taliban return to power, Wardak says, but she believes it is a sign of progress that once-sworn enemies are now sitting at the negotiating table.
“We can’t deny the fact that the Taliban are sitting here in front of us, discussing the end of the war in Afghanistan. This in itself is a change,” she says.
“Everyone is thirsty for peace. This is our best chance so we will make the most of it.”
‘No debate about education, it’s a must’ – Fatima Gailani
Fatima Gailani, 66, is the daughter of Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, the leader of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA, also known as the Afghan Mujahideen), which fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
She is also the niece of King Amanullah Khan, whose army fought the forces of British India, ending the Third Anglo-Afghan war after three months in August 1919.
Khalilullah Khalili, one of Afghanistan’s most beloved 20th-century poets, and Mohammad Musa Shafiq, a former prime minister of Afghanistan, were her father’s close friends.
Gailani was born in 1954 in Kabul, where she grew up. After graduating from high school, she pursued her higher education in neighbouring Iran.
She earned graduate degrees in Persian literature and Sufism in 1978 and, subsequently, in Islamic Studies from the Muslim College in London, UK, in 1994.
Gailani celebrated her 25th birthday in a London exile as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. While in exile, she acted as spokesperson for the NIFA.
She is now the president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
Gailani says her daughter was a month old when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, throwing the country into a war that killed thousands. Years later, her granddaughter is now set to start university in the UK, but conflict lingers.
Throughout her lifetime, Gailani says she has seen Afghanistan face multiple conflicts – from the Soviet invasion to civil war between ethnic groups, the Taliban regime and the post-Taliban conflict.
“All my life, I have seen Afghanistan engulfed in war and conflict, we are sick and tired of it,” she explains softly.
But her face, framed in a turquoise scarf, lights up when she comes to the subject of the direct talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the decades-long war.
“I am optimistic about these talks, it is our only chance to find a peaceful solution.”
However, Gailani stresses the importance of education and condemns the closures of schools and universities during the Taliban’s rule.
“When a movement comes in the name of Islam, it shocks me to see a school is shut down as a result of it,” she says.
“It shocks me because the first order from Allah is ‘Iqra’, which means ‘Read’. So, when the order from God is to educate yourself, why is there a debate about girls and boys going to school? Our religion allows it.”
The Taliban still say they want “Islamic” law in the country but have been vague about adopting a less strict stance towards women than during their rule, when women were banned from even leaving their homes without a male family member accompanying them.
“There are so many Afghan girls and women worried about the results of these talks, but I hear them, and I am guided by their voices in these talks, this is the voice of the future,” Gailani says.
‘We have a responsibility’ – Fawzia Koofi
Fawzia Koofi, 45, was brought up by her mother after her father was killed trying to mediate peace between the Afghan Mujahideen and the Soviet-backed Afghan government in 1989. She is famous for having survived two assassination attempts.
Most recently, Koofi was shot at by an unidentified gunman while travelling by car with her 20-year-old daughter to the capital city from Kalakan, a district on the northern outskirts of Kabul.
Two black cars followed them and an unidentified person from one car fired two shots at her, hitting her in her upper right arm and shoulder.
The first time someone tried to kill her was in 2010 when her convoy was ambushed.
But neither of these life-threatening attacks has stopped her fighting for women’s rights – and her endurance has paid off. Last week, Koofi’s name was included among the Nobel Peace Prize favourites by the Norwegian Peace Council for her tireless work.
As a child, her brothers opposed her having an education, arguing that as long as she could write, there was no need to for her to go to school. “But my mother was always supporting me and wanted me to become a doctor,” she says.
Koofi’s mother passed away when she was only 18. Three months later, in 1993, Koofi was admitted to medical school.
But when the Taliban took power in 1996, she had to stop her education as all universities and schools were shut down. A year later, Koofi married but it was a short-lived union. Her husband, Hamid Ahmadi, was imprisoned by the Taliban and died from tuberculosis contracted in prison in 2003.
“I was yet again without a male figure in my life. Having two daughters without a man in a country like Afghanistan is tough because it is such a patriarchal society,” she says.
“All my life I have experienced hardship for being a woman.”
After the Taliban were toppled in 2001, Koofi went on to obtain a degree in political science from Kabul University and then a master’s degree from the Geneva School of Diplomacy.
In 2005, she was elected to parliament for the first time and then became deputy speaker of parliament the following year.
Koofi also formed her own political party in 2019 – the Movement for Change – to stake a claim to a fair share of political power for women.
A month after the second attempt on her life, she arrived in Doha with her arm in a sling for the intra-Afghan talks. Despite the attack, Koofi remains upbeat.
“I am feeling positive about these talks because finally, something systemic is happening to end this war,” she says.
“But sometimes I do get so nervous and overwhelmed because, as women in the negotiating team, we have a responsibility to represent the women of Afghanistan and with that comes a lot of challenges.”