Men can speak up to help Afghan women reclaim their rights

Afghan women will reclaim the rights that have been robbed from them.

Ben Acheson Former Director of NATO’s civilian office in Kabul, and former Political Adviser to the European Union’s Special Representative in Afghanistan

White. Western. Straight. Male.

I tick all these boxes. That’s why it was a firm ‘no’ when Hasht e Subh initially reached out to see if I would write something for International Women’s Day in Afghanistan.

Hasn’t Afghanistan had enough of input from people like me? Haven’t Afghan women already been failed by people like me? What value is there in me writing, in English, from the comfort of Europe, where the daily struggle of Afghan women is something I only read about on Twitter?

But the question of how men like me can be allies for women in Afghanistan stuck with me.

Twitter also nudged me. Seeing BBC journalist Yalda Hakim’s daily tweet about how many days it has been since the Taliban banned teenage girls from school prompted me to think of the women in my country, Northern Ireland, whose refusal to be silenced helped bring peace after a thirty-year conflict.

I also remembered the men who spoke up to support them at key moments.

One specific story sprung to mind. It was told to me by Dr Monica McWilliams, one of two women who helped negotiate Northern Ireland’s peace deal in 1998.

She and other women had mobilized a grassroots network called the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) when peace talks started to germinate. Recognizing that women were underrepresented in politics, despite being active in civil society, they were concerned about the negative impact of women’s exclusion. They argued that women were not only the majority of the population (52%) but were also ones who had to pick up the pieces after relatives and friends were murdered in terror attacks. They asked how peace negotiations could discuss the future of the country without women’s involvement?

They decided to act. Their first effort was to lobby existing political parties to include more women as political candidates. But they were ignored. To challenge sectarian divisions and male-dominated politics, they knew they had to enter the political arena themselves. The NIWC was born.

Within a year they contested elections and gained enough of the vote to secure two seats at the negotiation table. Yet other parties were far from congratulatory. The criticism – and the even violence – that the women endured in public was also experienced at the negotiation table.

Male opponents referred to Dr McWilliams as a “silly woman”. They openly told her to “sit down and shut up”, that men rule politics and that women belong in the kitchen. The women were berated as “typical little housewives” who should only be at a table “they were going to polish”.

This is when the support of male allies became important.

One of the largest parties at the talks was led by a firebrand preacher known for strong views and vociferous admonishing of anyone who got in his way. His negotiators were more misogynistic than most, with his own son hollering “Moo, Moo, Moo” at Dr McWilliams during a speech at the all-party talks.

Yet this party, while large, still relied on alliances. It needed support from smaller parties with similar views – one of which represented a paramilitary group that was a primary combatant in the conflict. It was led by a man named David Ervine.

Ervine was not a man to be messed with. Before moving into politics he had been a paramilitary leader and was imprisoned after being convicted of driving a stolen car full of commercial explosives. But Ervine became pro-peace. When one of his own associates was asked why he was so pivotal in the peace process, the response was that “War is started by cold, hard, ruthless bastards. It must be ended by them too.”

Ervine was also a strong advocate for women, which he demonstrated when, after one meeting of the all-party talks, a senior official from the larger party lurched toward Dr McWilliams in the corridor and launched a misogynistic tirade at her. David Ervine immediately stepped forward, putting himself face-to-face with the aggressor. He made clear, in no uncertain terms and in language not to be repeated, that if the misogyny continued he would break the political alliance with the larger party and walk out of the talks.

The frequency and intensity of the outward misogyny quickly diminished.

The NIWC went on to play a pivotal role in brokering a political accommodation and were leading voices for proposals about victims and young people’s rights. They changed the political culture, countering the antagonistic bullying and sexism that had become embedded as a political norm. At the conclusion of the negotiations, US Senator George Mitchell (the Chairman of the talks) stated that “the emergence of women as a political force was a significant factor in achieving the Agreement.”

The NIWC did not succeed in putting women’s participation on the political map because of David Ervine. They did it themselves. But his willingness to step forward and speak up, even when he didn’t need to, helped crush one of the many obstacles in the women’s way.

Of course, this story cannot be transplanted directly to Afghanistan. Making parallels is perilous in such a unique Afghan context. Comparing the situation for women in 1990s Northern Ireland to 2020s Afghanistan is also questionable. The treatment that Afghan women currently endure is incomparable. Talk of peace might seem equally misplaced, given the today’s Afghan reality (although there is an argument that Afghanistan’s current situation is just another momentary phase in a much longer-term conflict – one that ultimately requires a peace process to bring it to an end).

The point is that, with Afghan women already resisting the erosion of their rights, their version of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition is already underway, even if in its infancy. We’ve seen acts of defiance almost from the first day of the Taliban’s tenure. There have been persistent protests and rallies, despite the violent reprisals. Women have found ways to make their voices heard, despite the repression. Some men have even rallied to the cause. In February, the Taliban arrested university professor Ismail Mashal, one of the few men to openly campaign for women’s education.

Afghan women will reclaim the rights that have been robbed from them. They will prevail faster if their versions of David Ervine step forward and speak out with them – whether they are cold, hard and ruthless…or even straight, white and western.