Eighteen years ago, at the height of the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan, Roshan Mashal secretly taught her daughters to read and write alongside a dozen local girls who smuggled school books to her house in potato sacks.
Mashal’s daughters have since gained university degrees in economics and medicine. But she now fears the looming prospect that the hardline group, whose rule barred women from education, could once again become part of the government.
“They say they have changed, but I have concerns,” she said in an interview in her office in Kabul. “There is no trust ... we don’t want peace to come with women losing all the achievements of the last 17 years.”
As talks to end Afghanistan’s long war pick up momentum, women such as Mashal fear the freedoms eked out since US-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 are about to slide backwards, and complain their voices are being sidelined.
An aide to Rula Ghani, the wife of Afghanistan’s president, said the first lady had launched a survey of women in 34 provinces in a bid to amplify their voices in the peace process, with a report summarizing their views slated for February.
“The war was started by men, the war will be ended by men,” said the aide. “But it’s the women and children who suffer the most and they have a right to define peace.”
Almost two decades of war have implicated both sides in the suffering of women. The United Nations last year expressed alarm at the increased use of air strikes by US and Afghan forces, which caused a rising death toll among women and children.
Between 1996 and 2001, under the Taliban government that called itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, women were banned from work, required to wear the full-length burqa that covered their faces, and not allowed to leave the house without a male relative.
The Taliban say they have changed, and that they would allow women to be educated, though they say schools should be segregated by gender and women required to wear loose clothing.
“We want Afghanistan to move forward with its present achievements and developments. But there are some reforms and changes the Emirate will struggle for,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Reuters last month.
That is not enough to assuage the fears of women such as Karima Rahimyaar. She is the main provider for her family after her first husband was shot and killed by the Taliban in Kunduz province in 1996 and her second was injured and left unable to work after being imprisoned by them around three year ago.
She regularly comforts her university-aged daughters, who feel sick when they hear gunshots or mention of the Taliban.
“It is very difficult for me,” she said.
Like many Afghans, she is desperate for peace and wants an end to the near-daily attacks across the country, which claimed the life of her 32-year-old son, a police officer, in 2016.
But not, she says, at the expense of women’s rights.
“If there are no agreements and commitments, women will be inside the home and they will be deprived of everything,” she said.