The Women in the Room: A Ms. Conversation With Afghan Peace Negotiators Fawzia Koofi and Fatima Gailani

“Even the day I was born, I was supposed to die.”

That is how Fawzia Koofi’s memoir begins. Her mother, deeply unhappy and desperate for a son after her husband took a new wife, allowed her newborn daughter to be left out in the sun to perish. Koofi’s pitiful cries saved her. Years later, her mother added a sadder motive to that story, telling her, “I didn’t want to have another girl to suffer as much as I suffered.”

In The Favored Daughter, Koofi writes that her father was a member of Afghan Parliament, wealthy enough for the family to lead a privileged life among the gardens and rushing waters of one of the country’s most remote and beautiful provinces. All that changed when Koofi was still small. Her father was sent on a peace mission by the Soviet-backed government and was killed by the Mujahideen.

His sudden death led to hardship. It also offered the freedom to do what her father would never have allowed: for her to go to school, dream big and become—as her mother promised—someone special. At 46, Koofi is a well-known women’s rights activist and parliamentarian, the first woman ever to be second deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s National Assembly. She is currently one of four women on the government team at the peace talks, negotiating face-to-face with the Taliban.

Another woman at the talks, Fatima Gailani, brings a different personal history to the negotiating table. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, her father, the head of a Sufi order, became a prominent leader in the mujahideen fight against the Russians. He was also, she says, a strong advocate for women’s rights. For Gailani, born into a peaceful Afghanistan in 1953, education was always a given. She has earned a series of degrees, including a master’s in Islamic studies and the law from the Muslim College in London.

After the Taliban government was driven out in 2001, Gailani was a delegate to the international conference in Bonn, Germany, convened to recreate the structure of Afghanistan after more than 20 years of war. She went on to spend more than a decade as president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society and remains closely associated with the Red Cross/Red Crescent.

Both Gailani and Koofi know that many Afghan women are worried that after being victims of men’s wars, they will be victims of peace. As the Taliban come closer to gaining power in the government, violence has increased, including targeted killings of those best able to maintain the gains of the past two decades: activists, intellectuals, journalists and government workers. Koofi has survived two assassination attempts, the latest this past summer as she and her daughter rode back to Kabul from Parwan Province (a bullet shattered a bone in her arm).

Ms. magazine has reported extensively on women and girls in Afghanistan, bringing attention to the horrific human rights abuses carried out by the Taliban’s gender apartheid regime and the great progress women have made since. Eleanor Smeal, the publisher of Ms. and co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, is one of the strongest voices now calling for the U.S. to use its leverage to ensure the peace talks resume and result in a sustainable and just settlement. She has urged the Biden administration and NATO to keep their pledge of continuing to provide financial and technical support for Afghanistan’s security forces and its institutions, along with development and humanitarian aid. “In the aftermath of U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal, it would be a tragedy if Afghan women and girls lost the gains they have made in education, government and gender equality over the past 20 years,” Smeal told Ms.

I have traveled throughout Afghanistan, beginning in 2002, during 10 long reporting trips as host of Morning Edition. I reached out to Gailani and Koofi on Zoom in Kabul and Doha to discuss what could be ahead for Afghan women.

(This interview has been edited for publication.)

This article originally appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

Renee Montagne: What do you envision is most likely to happen following the full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops?

Fatima Gailani: Well, quite frankly, from the day that the NATO troops, including the U.S. troops, entered Afghanistan, I had expected that one day they will get out of Afghanistan. So that’s fine, but I strongly believe that before the September date the peace negotiations should be mature enough that it will not be vulnerable.

Fawzia Koofi: But then of course the worst scenario is that the Taliban see the unconditional U.S. troops’ withdrawal as a sign of victory, military victory, because we know that their preferred strategy, so far, has been a military strategy. Although we have been engaged in talks for months, people have been killed in Afghanistan. Not only in the battlefield, but also civilians—especially prominent political and civil society and media activists—have been killed. So, in the worst-case scenario, if we do not agree on a political settlement, yes, probably the structures will not collapse as easy as some predict, but I think there will be more bloodshed.

Montagne: In that line of thinking, the Biden administration has pledged to continue humanitarian aid. They’ve also pledged to continue funding and supporting Afghan security forces. How important is that to succeed in keeping chaos from returning to Afghanistan?

Gailani: Afghanistan needs help for many, many years to come and this is very unfortunate, but this is a very bitter truth. Afghanistan needs help from the salary of teachers all the way to the salary of the soldiers, training of the soldiers, everything.

Montagne: There is talk of that sort of particular leverage. So not if, but when the Taliban become part of the government, they would have a political investment, a personal investment in the country thriving. That would be different than what was happening back in the ’90s, when these young Talibs trooped into Kabul and appeared to have no interest in “the country” thriving. They didn’t destroy Kabul, but they didn’t build it back either. The Taliban seemed to be of a mindset that they were trying to bring back the old ways.

Twenty long years later, even the Taliban are on Zoom calls like we are.

You sit with them now. You face them. You talk to them. Do they want what other people in Afghanistan want, what you want—a prosperous country?

Gailani: Yes. They talk about it. The only thing that we haven’t spoken about is the political face of Afghanistan—how do we choose our leader, the participation of people. These are the things and issues we have to tackle, but they openly say that, yes, Afghanistan needs help.

Don’t forget that the Afghanistan that they took over was already a broken Afghanistan with a very ugly civil war. But now it is equally important for Taliban to understand that this is not that Afghanistan. This is Afghanistan where everyone is a part of it. Every ethnic group, every gender, every language, every sect in Islam—we are all together.

Peace is not a lack of war; peace is to live happily with Taliban and with every other group. We don’t want a peaceful prison. We want a peaceful country that everyone is free in.

Montagne: The Taliban leaders who you now have been speaking with for months, I’m just wondering if they’re impressed. Do they look at you as sort of a revelation? Because you’re so obviously a worldly, highly educated, strong woman, and so when you first sat down face-to-face with them, you would have clearly held your own.

Gailani: Well, it was different for me because I did work with them when I was [for] 12 years president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. I was a very strong auxiliary to my government, but also, I was a neutral humanitarian who worked under the Taliban. And I saw what happened to them. I saw when their villages were destroyed. I saw when their people were killed—children and women. So, quite frankly, they deal with me differently because they have worked with me, they respect what I have done. Now when they talk with all four of us, they talk with great respect.

Montagne: All four of the women on the negotiating team.

Gailani: The four women, yeah. They deal with us, they converse with us, they argue with us the same way they do with our male colleagues. So this is very important. They see that women are the reality of a future Afghanistan.

“Peace is not a lack of war; peace is to live happily with Taliban and with every other group. We don’t want a peaceful prison. We want a peaceful country that everyone is free in.”

Montagne: Women’s rights, per se, do not seem like they’re at the core of the agreement, or at least they’re not being addressed directly. Is that right?

Koofi: So we actually classified the agenda into “easier” and “most difficult.” Taliban put “cease-fire” as the most difficult agenda for them to discuss. And just below “cease-fire” they put “women’s, Islamic and traditional rights.” So for them it’s the most difficult agenda to agree upon.

For us, we have a constitution, which is our guideline, and that’s why, moving forward, it has to be something that at least the negotiation

team from our side should stick to, but I think this is going to be a matter for discussion.

Taliban have presented the most conservative understanding of the Islamic rights of women. There are more liberal schools of thought as well. So even within Islamic values, there is no common understanding or common definition of what Islamic rights for women are, and therefore it’s going to be a discussion moving forward.

What I have been telling my colleagues is this is a political discussion. If you make women’s rights a religious discussion, you will never get to an agreement. The fact of the matter is, we have to agree with Taliban that they can have their own interpretation, but now because society has transformed so much, they have to accept the fact that women are citizens of this country.

Montagne: There have been so many, and much touted, advances for women in terms of the opportunities available to them. And the women who can— mainly urban women for the most part, but not totally—have really grabbed those opportunities. Afghan girls are students now; they’re going to college; women are lawmakers; they’re competing in the Olympics. The list is very long. But to the degree that there is a potential for some kind of reversal, what, in your opinion, are the deepest changes that are irreversible or close to that?

Gailani: I think it is very difficult to reverse the involvement of women in politics—it will not be reversed. The freedom of speech will be very difficult to be reversed because people got used to it. This surge of young Afghans’ education, the importance of education for men and women, cannot be reversed.

But in the political negotiations, it’s always a give and take. Whether it is a parliamentary system, whether it is a presidential system—these things don’t matter. But the values have to be kept, strongly, and I believe that the people of Afghanistan are strong enough to be able to protect this.

Today’s Afghanistan is not the Afghanistan of the ’90s. People in Afghanistan are so much more aware of what is important for them. They are connected. And remember that the era of the social media [had not arrived]. At that time [in the 1990s] if you were hurt, no one would hear. Today, if you are a little bit hurt the whole world will know about it. I don’t think we are as vulnerable as we used to be.

Today’s Afghanistan is not the Afghanistan of the ’90s. People in Afghanistan are so much more aware of what is important for them.”

Koofi: I remember when I was in the Parliament and I was chairing the Women and Human Rights Committee, some of these extreme conservative figures in the Parliament, they were actually opposing many laws that I tabled, including the law on violence against women. We had to really lobby, protest, everything, including knocking on our international friends’ doors to bring these laws back to enforcement and implementation.

So even now, some parliamentarians, government officials, think the same way that Taliban think. The only difference is that at the end of the day, in the Parliament our power is equal. He uses his vote, and we use our vote.

But in fighting with a military extremist group, like Taliban or others, they are more powerful in terms of using guns and using women, terrorizing women, targeted killing as a tool of war. So if there is a negotiated settlement, yes, there are fears that we will lose some of those gains, but I think we will never go back because the society has really transformed.

I have both my daughters in Afghanistan, and there are times that, especially after I was attacked, this question of, like, how long shall we continue to take this? And especially after I see many other young women and girls attacked and assassinated, I received this question from my daughters: How long? How much? Why only you are taking all of this risk?

I think our plans are that we have to really contribute to a positive change in this country.

My daughters actually never think that they will go back to those moments I experienced in my teenage life—civil war, followed by Taliban government. They never think that they can go back to those times. Firstly, because they think that there is more connectivity, more awareness now, and secondly, because they think 20, 30 years back, there were no strong women included in this process of peace building.

Now, if you look at the process of peace building, not only in the negotiation table, but also in different layers, there are women, women’s political participation. So, with that, my daughters think, and they tell me … with your presence, and other women who are very strong and resilient in Afghanistan, we do not think that we will actually go back to scratch.

A political settlement, it is hard. I know because I have been in the negotiation room for months. I know it’s difficult. But at the end of the day, we want to live with each other. We accept coexistence.


Renee Montagne is a special correspondent and host for NPR News who has covered Afghanistan extensively. She collaborated with ProPublica’s Nina Martin on the investigative series “Lost Mothers: Maternal Mortality in the U.S.,” which won numerous American journalism awards, including the Peabody Award.