When the Bonn Conference on the Future of Afghanistan opened on Tuesday many delegates were confronted with an unfamiliar sight: unveiled Afghan women discussing politics with men.
Under the Taliban rule, women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe
For the first time in over twenty years, Afghan women are sitting down at a conference table to discuss the political future of Afghanistan. Although the ratio of four women delegates to 36 men still leaves a lot to be desired, Afghan women regard participation in the Bonn conference as an important first step in the creation of a new government that guarantees the protection of women's rights.
The plight of Afghan women has long been an issue of concern to human rights agencies and women's organizations around the world. Under the Taliban, women were subjected to repressive laws. They were forbidden from holding jobs and attending school after the age of eight. They were also required to cover their entire body and face with the burqa whenever they appeared in public. Women who disobeyed the laws were punished severely.
But even before the Taliban came to power, Afghan women were put under immense pressure to adhere to strict rules and codes of behavior. Afghan women's organizations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) warn that the government between 1992 and 1996 was just as guilty of violating women's rights as the Taliban.
Prior to this week's conference in Bonn, several international women's organizations began applying pressure to the various Afghan factions and the United Nations to include women in the discussions. A group of European development ministers appealed to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to appoint women delegates to the conference.
The German Minister for Economic Aid and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said that the credibility of a new Afghanistan government relied on the inclusion of women in the rebuilding process. Women need to participate in the political future of Afghanistan and it is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that they have this chance, Wieczorek-Zeul said on Friday.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also drew attention to the plight of Afghan women and the protection of women's rights during his opening speech at the conference on Tuesday: "Above all, the new government of Afghanistan needs to focus on restoring human rights and dignity to women." Their active participation in political and social life is imperative for the peaceful future of the country, Fischer stressed.
Women on different sides
Just days before the conference, it was still not clear whether or not women would be participating in the conference. Only when the delegations actually began arriving on Monday did it become clear that the delegations had decided to heed international pressure and include women. Each of the four rival factions now have at least one "quota" woman delegate or advisor attending the Bonn conference.
Although the delegations represent different political factions, they seem - at least publicly - to agree on the importance of protecting women's rights under the new government. And whatever their position on the role of women was before the conference, they have all come out in favor of women's participation in Afghan politics.