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World Leaders Ponder Talking to Taliban - Raise Fears Over Afghan Women's Rights

Zarghona Rassa

NATO's new strategy in Afghanistan is part military offensive, part training the Afghan security forces, part fostering civil society and part talking with at least some members of the Taliban, to entice them to join the government side. But, talking to the Taliban has some Afghan women worried.

Assiya Majgan Amini is a schoolteacher. But, on Wednesdays she's in a West London studio to host a radio show for Afghans living in the UK and beyond.

"It's called the Afghan Variety Show. It includes everything - anything and everything to do with Afghanistan, Afghan people the Afghan community here in the UK and outside," said Assiya Majgan Amini.

That might be a discussion about news from Afghanistan, music, films or community events. People call in with comments or just to ask questions.

"Can I just take this call," she said.

Or as this caller - who wanted to know if there were ladies-only hours at the local swimming pool.

Another issue that has raised much discussion - beyond the radio show is whether the already limited rights that Afghan women now have could be eroded.

It was a major topic at a one-day international conference on Afghanistan in London last month and comments by Afghan President Hamid Karzai has some worried.

"We must reach out to all our countrymen, especially our less enchanted brothers," he said.

And that reaching out means talking to at least some members of the Taliban to entice them to lay down their arms, join the government side and re-integrate into society.

It's increasingly seen as necessary to bring peace and progress to Afghanistan.

But the brutal repression under Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 has not been forgotten, says Barbara Roberson, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic history at London's Global Policy Institute.

Professor Barbara Roberson
Professor Barbara Roberson

"One can absolutely understand why women are worried about this dilution - in their terms - of bringing in some Taliban, turned-Taliban, into the government," said Barbara Roberson.

The Taliban imposed strict prohibitions on women, including the head to toe cover of the "burka", no access to schools or jobs, not allowing them to go outside without a male relatives. Women were not to be seen nor heard.

The fall of the Taliban in 2001 brought some change. Girls are now free to go to school, women have more access to health care and the judiciary. Their rights are part of the Afghan constitution.

But, that means little says Zarghona Rassa, head of the British Afghan Women's Association

"The problem is not the constitution, it is the implementation," said Zarghona Rassa. "We need, again, proper governance systems in place and monitoring systems"

At the London conference, President Karzai seemed eager to re-assure that human rights would not be bartered away.

"We will pursue our peace and reconciliation goals as we remain committed to the principles of the rights of all Afghan men and women," said Karzai.

Also speaking at the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more direct.

"I also believe very strongly, as is apparent in what I say about this issue that women have to be involved at every step of the way in this process," said Hillary Clinton.

It's about basic human rights, says activist Zarghona Rassa.

"We are not talking even about women - just basic fundamental human rights," she said. "To be able to work outside their house without fear, to be able to go and study, to be able to go work , and to be able to travel even if they are wanted outside the country. That is what we need, nothing more."

Women's rights have always been hard to come by in the staunchly tribal society of Afghanistan, say experts. Only in major cities have they ever managed to break out to get an education and jobs, even in the best of times.

Professor Roberson says unfortunately the Karzai government has not brought enough improvements.

"It's a fact that they still have to struggle for those rights and many feel they're quite tenuous - what they've managed to achieve," she said.

Back at the London studio, Assiya Majgan Amini agrees, but she says there is also a growing awareness that women cannot be left out.

"I think society, even outside the country, among Afghans themselves - they have realized that without the women in the country operating in government posts and so on Afghanistan will not succeed," she said.

Amini says she hopes her show may be a small step in that direction.