The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband’s house. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn’t run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Aisha’s brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.

This didn’t happen 10 years ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It happened in 2009.

Now hidden in a secret women’s shelter in Kabul, Aisha listens obsessively to the news. Talk that the Afghan government is considering some kind of political accommodation with the Taliban frightens her. “They are the people that did this to me,” she says, touching her damaged face. “How can we reconcile with them?”

In June 2010, Afghan President Karzai established a peace council tasked with exploring negotiations with the Taliban.

A month later, Tom Malinowski from Human Rights Watch met Karzai. During their conversation, Karzai mused on the cost of the conflict in human lives and wondered aloud if he had any right to talk about human rights when so many were dying. “He essentially asked me,” says Malinowski, “What is more important, protecting the right of a girl to go to school or saving her life?” How Karzai and his international allies answer that question will have far-reaching consequences, not only for Afghanistan’s women, but the country as a whole.

As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban.

But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined. “Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved,” says parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi.

Yet that may be where negotiations are heading.

The Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women’s rights. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. “You have to be realistic,” says a diplomat in Kabul. “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.”

For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous.

An Afghan refugee who grew up in Canada, Mozhdah Jamalzadah recently returned home to launch an Oprah-style talk show in which she has been able to subtly introduce questions of women’s rights without provoking the ire of religious conservatives. On a recent episode, a male guest told a joke about a foreign human-rights team in Afghanistan. In the cities, the team noticed that women walked six paces behind their husbands. But in rural Helmand, where the Taliban is strongest, they saw a woman six steps ahead. The foreigners rushed to congratulate the husband on his enlightenment — only to be told that he stuck his wife in front because they were walking through a minefield. As the audience roared with laughter, Jamalzadah reflected that it may take about 10 to 15 years before Afghan women can truly walk alongside men. But once they do, she believes, all Afghans will benefit. “When we talk about women’s rights,” Jamalzadah says, “we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place.”

Clip_2Incidentally, it didn’t always suck to be a woman in Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan were not always under house arrest and forbidden by law to leave their homes unchaperoned by a male relative.

Once upon a time in pre-Taliban days Afghan women had access to professional careers, university-level education, shops selling non-traditional clothing, public transportation, and public spaces, all of which they happily navigated freely and without supervision.

According to a State Department report from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2001:

Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s; and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. There was a mood of tolerance and openness as the country began moving toward democracy. Women were making important contributions to national development. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan’s highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women. Afghan women had been active in humanitarian relief organizations until the Taliban imposed severe restrictions on their ability to work. These professional women provide a pool of talent and expertise that will be needed in the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan.