The advances women have made in Afghan society since the fall of the Taliban will not be lost, regardless of any reconciliation talks with the al-Qaida-linked group that brutally repressed women for years, the Afghan president told a Dallas conference Thursday.
"Definitely, affirmatively, I can assure you that the gains will be maintained," President Hamid Karzai said via video at the event hosted by the George W. Bush Institute that focused on human rights and economic opportunities for women in Afghanistan.
"They (Afghan women) want peace definitely, but they also want peace that keeps the gains they've made. They also want peace that respects the gains they have made," Karzai said.
Before Karzai's appearance, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, stressed the importance of women retaining their freedoms in Afghanistan. About 250 people, including business, governmental and nonprofit leaders, gathered in Dallas for the two-day conference that ended Thursday in which economic opportunities and freedom for Afghan women were discussed.
"I'm impressed by the courage of the women of Afghanistan," the former president said Thursday. The topic ranked high among the former first lady's priorities when she was in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently said the United States would step up efforts to build international support for Afghan reconciliation. The Afghan government has had contacts with high-ranking Taliban officials, but no formal negotiations are under way.
Some Afghan women fear their government's efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. Under the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to go to school, women spent most of their time indoors and were forced to wear burqas — long flowing garments that cover their heads, faces and bodies.
Today, Afghan women serve in the country's legislature, own businesses and work as teachers, lawyers, community health workers and prosecutors.
However, some women continue to wear burqas, and a U.N. report late last year said Afghanistan needed to eliminate widespread traditional customs that harm women and girls, such as child marriage, "honor killings" and giving away girls to settle disputes. The report by the U.N. mission was based on 150 individual and group interviews.
Clinton has said finding a political solution to end the war in Afghanistan would require the Taliban to renounce violence, sever ties with al-Qaida and respect the Afghan constitution and the country's laws, particularly as they apply to women's rights.
Karzai gave assurances in his comments Thursday that the Afghan constitution would be respected in any reconciliation talks.
"There should be no doubt in our minds that there will not be any changes, and I can say this with 100 percent confidence," he said Thursday. "There will not be any changes allowed by the Afghan people that will diminish or reduce the gains women have made."
Laura Bush also has spoken out on the issue of reconciling with the Taliban. In an op-ed in October 2010, she wrote that "peace attained by compromising the rights of half of the population will not last. Offenses against women erode security for all Afghans — men and women."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul and students from the American University of Afghanistan also participated via video for part of the conference.
Afghan women who came to Dallas for the conference and those who participated via video from Kabul say woman have made much progress, but note there are still obstacles to overcome.
Nasria Pashtun, a finance instructor for the Goldman Sachs Foundation's 10,000 Women Project, which has a goal of helping 10,000 underserved women entrepreneurs around the world get access to business education, said that while she thinks security is the foremost problem facing women trying to get into business in Afghanistan, she was heartened to hear from students who don't list is as their main concern.
"They said it's the lack of resources — like they need employment and opportunities to work," she said.
She also notes that "still some people have the mentality of the Taliban and they don't accept that women should go out and work."
Terry Neese, founder the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, which offers training to women business owners, participated in the conference from Dallas. She said she was encouraged by Karzai's words and also has great hopes for the women of Afghanistan.
"I believe we'll triple in the next five years what we did in the last 10 years," she said.
Rahela Kaveer, a doctor who founded the Afghan Women Empowerment Organization and came from Kabul to Dallas for the conference, said she said she thinks more women still need to be in the government and women need more support.
"It's happening, but it's not happening for all the women," she said.
The conference was held on the campus of Southern Methodist University, where the George W. Bush Presidential Center is being built. The center, which will house the Bush library and the institute, is expected to be completed in 2013.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.