KABUL // Afghan women who remember the Taliban government's total ban on their participation in public life less than a decade ago are watching closely as the country's government gears up for peace talks with insurgents.
While few Afghan women leaders oppose the talks with the Taliban, many worry they have too little influence on a process in which they have much to lose. Women say they are not adequately represented in the negotiations and that there are few guarantees that their rights will be protected.
They fear that under pressure to reach a negotiated settlement, the government of president Hamid Karzai will concede rights guaranteed under Afghanistan's constitution, as well as control of several key provinces to Taliban fighters as part of a power-sharing deal to end the war.
Palwasha Hassan, a prominent women's rights activist and the co-founder of the Afghanistan Women's Network, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to ensure the equal participation of women in Afghan society, said: "Negotiations with the Taliban are necessary for Afghanistan and necessary for peace, but not at the cost of women's rights.
"We are formally represented in the negotiations, but we are not actually involved in the talks," Ms Hassan said. "And because of that, we believe Karzai will compromise our rights."
Earlier this month, Mr Karzai announced the creation of a 70-member high peace council to spearhead the negotiations. Women will hold 10 of the council seats. Acceptance of the entire Afghan constitution, which grants men and women equal protection under the law, is a non-negotiable condition for any peace talks with the Taliban, Mr Karzai has said. The Taliban held power in Kabul for five years before they were toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001. In the areas of Afghanistan they controlled, women were barred from working, attending school, or leaving their homes without a male escort.
Mr Karzai's deputy spokesman, Hamed Elmi, said: "We have clearly said that we will not yield the constitution, that the opposition must accept the constitution. The achievements of the last nine years – human rights, women's rights – these are not negotiable."
But critics charge that the social and political rights of Afghan women, including the right to education, employment and political participation, have already been seriously eroded in recent years under the Karzai government. Without the political will to enforce the constitution, its wording means little, they say.
The Afghan ministry of women's affairs said that while women make up 48 per cent of the population, they have just 27 per cent of the seats in the country's national assembly. They also comprise just four per cent of the country's judges, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
By contrast, women hold 22.2 per cent of the seats in the lower house of Pakistan's parliament and 10.8 per cent of the seats in India's lower house.
Rachel Reid, the Afghanistan country director for Human Rights Watch, said: "The constitution is not sufficient to protect women's rights in negotiations because it has failed to protect women's rights so far. The best guarantee to protect women's rights is to ensure women are well represented on the bodies making decisions about peace, and this is just not the case.
"On the Peace Council, only 10 of the 70 members are women and of those there are only a few who we assume will speak out," Mrs Reid said. "But that's not sufficient. To really inject the necessary protections for women's rights, this number is quite small."
As the Taliban-led insurgency spreads, the Taliban have consolidated their military gains by imposing strict Islamic law on the local population.
In these areas, mainly in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, the familiar Taliban edicts regarding the public presence of women have returned, according to aid workers who requested anonymity out of fear for their safety.
For many Afghan women, especially the poor and displaced, talk of rights takes a back seat to survival, especially in areas of fighting.
"I have to beg for scraps to feed my family, I will support anyone who makes peace," said Akhtar Bibi, who recently fled Kandahar with her three children after her husband was killed in the fighting. She now lives in a mud hut in a sprawling refugee camp just north of Kabul. "The Taliban are our brothers, Karzai is our brother," she said.
"All I want is to go home and live a quiet life."
Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan women's rights advocate and a candidate in last month's legislative elections from the province of Nuristan, said that if you ask women living amid fighting what they want, they say they only want to be able to go to school or walk to the market without fear.
At the same time, Ms Seraj said, it is already clear what the Taliban do when they "control our streets", she said. "And there is no reason to think it would be any different if the Taliban were officially in power again."
Where the writ of the Afghan government is strong, enforcement of constitutional rights accorded women is hardly rigorous, though.
"There is a problem of interpretation and of enforcement of the law, and this is very dangerous for women across Afghanistan," Mrs Hassan said.
"Even without the Taliban, there is a system of justice where women are not participants but victims."