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OPINION

Afghan women deserve a seat at the table

Today, throughout Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, resilient female leaders constitute a human scaffolding to support their country.

A Taliban fighter guards an entrance as women wait in a queue during a World Food Programme cash distribution in Kabul on Nov. 29.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Recently, via extraordinary television footage, the world watched, horrified, as 9-year-old Parwana Malik was sold to a 55-year-old man in Badghis province, Afghanistan. We met her laughing in a rose-pink dress jumping rope with giggling playmates. In the next scene, the man hands over the equivalent of $2,200 to Parwana’s father, for his new “bride.” The father says he is “broken with shame” but has no choice if he wants to feed the rest of his family. The last we see, or hear, of Parwana, is her whimper as she’s dragged away.

In August, desperate Afghans attempted to flee the country when US forces abruptly pulled out. But now devastating scenes are unfolding across Afghanistan as winter descends. Food is scarce, and wages are vanishing. Billions of dollars of Afghan assets have been frozen and foreign aid withheld since the fall of Kabul. The nation is spiraling toward what the United Nations has called “among the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

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How has the global community responded? By sending all-male delegations to sit across from all-male Talibs for meetings that some on social media have dubbed “#sausageparties.” Blatant sidelining of women among the visitors implies tolerance of girls disappearing from schoolrooms and women missing from offices.

The disgrace of the United States was not in the chaos at an airport. It was that, in peace talks, the world’s greatest superpower mimicked its tiny archenemy, focusing on military retreat and ignoring women who are experts in law, human rights, and education. Before the takeover, as the international public was being bombarded by the shrapnel of disinformation, women issued clarion warnings that Taliban promises were written on cheap paper. Most outsiders failed to heed their words and ignored statistics that show how, at the negotiating table, women could have saved not only themselves and their families but also their country.

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In an October meeting at the UN, Fawzia Koofi, the first woman deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, pointed out that women know how to get outside relief into the right hands. She and other women who tend their families understand that mass starvation is a matter of national security. Other women speakers pointed out that men face age-old cultural walls that keep them from delivering aid. Lacking female aid workers (whom the Taliban have blocked), female-headed households will go without.

Fawzia Koofi, a former parliamentarian and prominent women's rights activist, sits in her office in Kabul on March 4, 2020.Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post

Including women is complicated, physically risky, and culturally fraught. And it’s essential. For decades, they’ve been tenaciously holding Afghanistan together, in 2010 pulling together a painstakingly broad High Peace Council with representatives across a wide swath of the population. The organizers traveled with Talibs combatting violence in the provinces, many under Taliban rule for years before the recent cultural collapse. The women broke bread with potential suicide bombers and even advocated for the men’s concerns alongside their own.

Today, throughout Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, resilient female leaders constitute a human scaffolding to support their country. As they ascend into power, the Taliban must confront the fact that millions of schoolgirls can’t unlearn how to read. Nor will the elderly woman who explained, “I’m studying so I’ll know if what our Mullah told us about women is really in the Holy Quran.” The genie is out of the bottle. Macro strategies will grow from micro-moments like these.

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Great movements call for icons — with power as a group, individually and politically. On the world stage, Afghan women represent a billion others: Indian widows burned on pyres, Kenyan political candidates facing a rape campaign, Chinese newborn girls dropped into a well as the family awaits a boy child, American girls sexually assaulted multiple times before they graduate from college.

Icons have individual meaning as well. Mahbouba Seraj is a founder of the Afghan Women’s Network. As chartered planes rescued many of her sisters, Seraj refused to leave. She represented many other pillars in a culture forever changed. “I’m not brave . . . not a martyr,” she said. “It’s my job. It’s my duty.” Women like Seraj have created a shift in the world’s security paradigm. When women are excluded from decision-making, the world suffers. Lasting security is inclusive security.

Former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt is the founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. Through her Institute for Inclusive Security, she has worked with scores of delegations of Afghan women leaders since 1998 during the first Taliban reign. Wazhma Frogh is cofounder of the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan and is a member of the Afghan Women’s Network. She has been part of the Ministries of Defense and Interior as well as the High Peace Council.