What do Turkmenistan and UNICEF have in common? How about the United Kingdom and the UNDP, and at least nine other countries and four other humanitarian and development organizations? They all appear to have sent all-male delegations to meet with the Taliban administration in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, after the armed group took over most of the country on August 15.
But if you want to talk to the Taliban, isn’t it necessary to only send men, since the Taliban infamously reject women’s role in public life?
Past practice says no. The Taliban don’t refuse to meet women, and women meet with the Taliban all the time. For months in Doha, Qatar during the “intra-Afghan dialogue” that took place in 2020 through early 2021, the female members of the delegation aligned with the then-Afghan government met and negotiated with Taliban officials. According to Fatima Gailani, the most senior member and one of the four women in a team of 21 delegates that had represented the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at peace talks with the Taliban leaders, said, “They look at me and my three other sisters as politicians talking to them, negotiators. And we talk to them as negotiators and we are not aware of our gender.” Similarly, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Afghanistan Deborah Lyons has met frequently with the Taliban since August 15. In 2015, a delegation from the Taliban travelled to Oslo, Norway solely to meet with senior Afghan women.
But does really it matter if governments, UN agencies, and aid organizations send only men to meet with the Taliban?
It matters a lot.
THE EROSION OF THE PUBLIC AFGHAN WOMAN
The Taliban are systematically engaging in serious abuses across the country, dramatically rolling back the rights of women and girls. On Sept. 18, they let boys go back to secondary school, but not girls. The vast majority of girls’ secondary schools are still closed. They issued draconian — and, for many universities, impossible — restrictions on how women could attend a university, requiring strict gender segregation for both students and professors.
But does really it matter if governments, UN agencies, and aid organizations send only men to meet with the Taliban? It matters a lot.
They have also barred most women from employment, warning women to stay home from work for their own safety because Taliban fighters who had “not yet been trained” might mistreat them, then fired women from most government jobs. They banned women’s sports. “I don’t think women will be allowed to play cricket because it is not necessary that women should play cricket,” the deputy head of their cultural commission said. “In cricket, they might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this.” They dismantled the system to protect women from violence, including at home, closing shelters for women and girls fleeing violence, which Afghan activists had fought for years to put in place. They are also disregarding the hard-won 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and have dismantled the specialized courts and prosecution units that had been set up to enforce that law.
They have abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was established to lead government efforts to move toward gender equality, and handed that ministry’s headquarters over to a revived version of the abusive Ministry of Vice and Virtue. During the previous Taliban period, from 1996 to 2001, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue became a notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against women and girls, ruthlessly enforcing restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment. They have made it harder for women to get healthcare, by sometimes imposing requirements that they can only see female healthcare workers and much be escorted to appointments by a male family member. They are also trying to block Afghan women from their jobs as humanitarian workers, making it much harder for aid agencies to assist female-headed households and other women and girls in need.
WHY AREN’T WOMEN ON THE TEAM?
Every time a diplomatic delegation or representative of a UN or aid agency meets with the Taliban, they should be raising concerns about these violations of the rights of women and girls and, where relevant, negotiating for their female staff members to be allowed to do their jobs. Putting forward these concerns in a room full of men and no women rings hollow. Female colleagues belong in the room as well, and would bring personal experience as well as additional expertise to the discussion.
A British diplomat tweeted that he and his male colleague had discussed the rights of women and girls in a meeting with Taliban officials in which they sought to identify “common ground” — but a search for “common ground” on women’s rights in an all-male meeting is inherently suspect. There has been a lot of rhetoric about seeking common ground with the Taliban, especially in regards to fighting Islamic State and in delivering humanitarian aid to Afghans in crisis. In the midst of a grave crisis for women and girls — a crisis created by the Taliban — any efforts to find common ground with the Taliban on anything should be led by women.
There is also the matter of setting an example. Thankfully, the Taliban’s men-only government and men-only approach to public life is far from normal in 2021. Representatives from other countries and organizations responsible for facilitating humanitarian assistance and development should demonstrate for the Taliban that having women on the team — every team — is simply how the world works, just about everywhere. As Shaharzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, another institution the Taliban has effectively abolished, recently wrote:
“Governments and aid agencies…When we call on you to NOT NORMALIZE Taliban’s erasure of women, we mean senior women in your teams should be leading your interactions with the Taliban, we mean Afg[han] women should be consulted every step, don’t exclude women.”
Finally, the way we know about most of these men-only meetings is because the spokesperson for the Taliban’s Foreign Affairs Ministry diligently posts photos of them on his Twitter feed. Foreign delegations need to understand that the Taliban are seeking legitimacy on the international stage — and from their perspective, every meeting with diplomats and aid organizations burnishes their legitimacy. The Taliban are trying to look like a real government. By continuing to have only men in negotiating teams, diplomats, donors, and aid agencies are legitimizing the Taliban’s patriarchal view of the world. If the governments, UN agencies, and aid organizations really care about women’s rights, and the rights of Afghan women, the first step is to have women on negotiating teams — front and center. After all, they’ve always been there.
Heather Barr is associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.