Afghan women fear peace plans will reverse rights

KABUL: Farida Tarana defied age-old Afghan tradition, death threats and sexual discrimination to become a pop star and later the public face of post-Taliban women’s politics.

Now a local legislator, she is a prominent example of the progress Afghan women have made since the 2001 overthrow of the radical regime that barred them from education and working outside their homes.

But as President Hamid Karzai airs plans to mediate with insurgents who have waged war since being forced from power in 2001, Tarana and other Afghan women fear any reconciliation could reverse their hard-won gains.

“I want peace but not at the cost of women’s freedom,” Tarana told AFP.

Tarana’s journey from repression to freedom began in 2005 when she shot to stardom in television talent show “Afghan Star”, the local version of “American Idol”, representing the western province of Herat.

With desperate love melodies and upbeat pop songs she became popular among young Afghans for her talent and bravery, but stirred up violent opposition among conservative Islamic circles and extremist groups who accused her of breaching Afghanistan’s religious and cultural traditions.

“Not only conservative groups but my own relatives, my cousins, my uncles, everybody was opposing me, everybody was telling me that I shouldn’t do it,” Tarana said of her stint on “Afghan Star”.

“They even threatened to kill me,” she told AFP.

The anonymous telephone death threats only made her more ambitious and determined to consolidate her musical career, which she did by recording new songs that helped make her both famous and rich.

“It was not easy,” Tarana, aged in her late 20s, said of her decision to become a singer. “People (in Afghanistan) don’t like women to sing.

“Becoming a politician who sings was even harder.”

Tarana stood for a seat on the Kabul provincial council — one of 34 local legislatures nationwide — in elections held last August at the same time as a presidential poll that became mired in scandal and fraud.

Vying for one of 29 seats against 524 candidates, she secured 8,421 votes, the second highest.

Emboldened, she is now looking at standing for national parliament in elections due in September.

The 1996-2001 Taliban regime barred Afghan women from all public activities, including school. They could only leave home accompanied by a male relative and were routinely beaten in public and even stoned to death for perceived breaches of Islamic law.

Now, under the Afghan constitution, women are equal to men.

Nevertheless, women’s groups say they remain the most marginalised and underprivileged group in the country, subject to violence and discrimination in the name of Afghan tradition.

And as they fight to apply constitutional guarantees to the reality of their daily lives, some voice concerns that Karzai may be forced to compromise on women’s rights in return for cooperation from Taliban leaders.

At a conference in London attended by around 70 countries and international organisations to map out a plan for Afghanistan’s future, Karzai outlined proposals that could see Taliban leaders invited to share power.

“The memory of the Taliban time is still alive in the minds of Afghan women,” said Sabrina Saqeb, a women’s rights activist and member of parliament.

“I think first of all the new (peace) programme will not succeed because it doesn’t have the backing of the people.

“But let’s say it does succeed, Afghan women will suffer greatly,” she said.

“I think if the Taliban are brought back, the democracy we have achieved will be pushed backwards,” Saqeb said, adding: “I’m afraid of them, I feel it in my heart and in my soul.”

But Shukria Barakzai, another lawmaker and leading rights activist, said she is optimistic about Karzai’s peace programme and believes the Taliban will change once reconciled.

“I think change is possible,” she told AFP.

“Look at Mullah (Abdul Salam) Rocketi — he was a Taliban, he opposed women working outside the home,” she said, referring to a former Taliban leader now a parliamentarian.

“But today he sits next to me in the parliament, he has changed.”

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