For the first time ever, representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government are facing each other on the negotiating table. In Qatar’s capital Doha, the two warring sides are currently debating contentious issues in order to end decades of violent conflict. The talks, which began on September 12, intend to create a framework for the withdrawal of American forces in exchange for a permanent ceasefire, democratic safeguards and promises of rights for its women and minorities.
VICE News spoke to Fawzia Koofi, one of the four women delegates nominated for these talks by the Afghan government. Koofi, 45, is a politician, women’s rights activist, a member of parliament from Kabul and a contender to become the country’s first woman president. She herself faced the nation’s structural patriarchy as soon as she took birth. The day Koofi was born, her family abandoned her because they had too many daughters. As she grew up, she lost her father and brothers to violence. Her husband was jailed for years during the Taliban regime. He died due to tuberculosis that he contracted in the prison.
Twice, the Taliban have reportedly tried to assassinate Koofi. On August 16 this year, she was shot at on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s national capital.
VICE: How did you prepare yourself to sit across the Taliban on the negotiating table?
Fawzia Koofi: During the talks, sometimes personal emotions overcame my political position, but I tried to represent the people of Afghanistan. The fact that our people are vulnerable and at great risk, that the civilian casualties are high and economic opportunities have been taken away from them, motivated me. That gave me the strength to overcome my personal feelings.
How should one interpret the presence of women in this panel given that the Taliban is not liberal regarding women’s rights?
Women have traditionally not been part of peace and security related matters in Afghanistan. Due to war and mainly because of the Taliban government, women have been oppressed to a great extent.
This is the first time that women are participating in such an important process where they can discuss and decide the future of the country. These talks are crucial for their own future and that of other women. Every minute that we spend here is history. What are the challenges of being part of a panel dominated by men?
Our major responsibility in the negotiation team is to speak as women and ensure that women's voices are heard. Women should have a say in the future of the government and be regarded as equal citizens in any government or political settlement.
However, it's unrealistic to think that the women in the team will represent only the Afghani women, and others delegates will represent the rest of the society. I expect that all the 21 members of our negotiating team will protect and preserve the rights of women. It will make our position weak if the rest of the team does not join us in this battle.
What can the people of Afghanistan expect from these talks?
I think most people of Afghanistan would like to see an immediate outcome of this process. They want to see a ceasefire between the parties.
But people also need to understand that there has been a war in our country that went on for more than four decades. It’s not an easy process. There are many complications involved and we have to really debate over each and every word. Instead of using bullets against each other, we are now using ballot paper and words.
Who do you think will be the stakeholders in the new political dispensation, as and when it takes shape?
There is a misperception that Afghanistan will now surrender to one ideology. The Taliban will be part of the future political settlement. Apart from them, there will be people who have lived in Afghanistan during these difficult times including the political community, the elite, youth and the women. In fact, whoever wants to be part of the political settlement should have this opportunity. But for that, it's important to listen to each other and convince each other.
What are the differences between the present-day Afghanistan and the one that you grew up in?
I think Afghanistan has undergone a lot of social transformation. It’s a new country that will not accommodate just one view. A diversity of views and perspectives will find their way in the society. I see a lot of young women and men interested in joining politics. They see politics as a means to change their own lives and the lives of other citizens. But they face challenges like poverty, lack of jobs and quality education.
What is the future of the fight for gender rights in Afghanistan?
Our objective is to reduce gender discrepancy, create an atmosphere where human rights are respected and where everyone has a vote. We want to ensure that inequalities don't prevent women from availing opportunities. If women in Afghanistan are provided some, if not equal, opportunities, I am sure they’d use that to the maximum. I have seen how talented and brilliant our women are despite all the oppression they face. If we give them one small chance, they will grab it.
What message do you want to give to the Taliban?
They will never achieve their objectives through violence, but only through democracy. They should defer to people see whether people support them or not. Our job is to provide an opportunity where politicians can convince people to support them.
I will be happy if various groups leave using bullets against each other. They should rather deliver speeches which persuade people to vote for them. Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter