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UN-Taliban talks: Why are Afghan women not invited?

Hussain Sirat | Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi
July 1, 2024

Rights groups have criticized the United Nations for not having Afghan women at the table with the Taliban in Doha.

Two Afghan women in burqas shop in a store, with a young girl nearby
Rights groups have criticized the UN for not having Afghan women at the table with the TalibanImage: Ali Kaifee/DW

A UN-led meeting with Afghanistan's Taliban is being held in the Qatari capital Doha, in which representatives from some 25 countries are taking part.

It is the third such meeting, but the first attended by the Islamic fundamentalist group which has ruled the war-torn nation since it seized power as US-led troops withdrew in August 2021.

The UN political chief who is chairing the meeting said it's not about granting recognition to the Taliban.

"This is not a meeting about recognition. This is not a meeting to lead to recognition... Having engagement doesn't mean recognition," UN Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo told reporters. "This isn't about the Taliban. This is about Afghanistan and the people."

Achieving sustainable peace, adherence to international law and human rights, as well as counter-narcotics efforts, among other things, are on the agenda of the talks, DiCarlo said.

The Taliban side has said it wants to discuss topics such as restrictions on Afghanistan's financial and banking system, development of the private sector and countering drug trafficking.

Why are rights groups criticizing the UN?

But rights groups have denounced the UN for not having Afghan women at the table with the Taliban in Doha.

Shabnam Salehi, former commissioner of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, said the third Doha meeting would be "inconclusive" without Afghan women's participation. She views the UN's approach toward the Taliban as "misguided."

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Faizullah Jalal, a professor at Kabul University, has slammed the exclusion of women from the meeting. "Omitting discussions on human and women's rights undermines the United Nations' credibility," he said.

His view is shared by Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch. She warned that excluding women "risks legitimizing the Taliban's misconduct and irreparably damages the United Nations' credibility as a defender of women's rights and meaningful participation."

But the UN's DiCarlo said the two-day meeting, which started on Sunday, is an initial engagement aimed at initiating a step-by-step process with the Taliban.

The goal is to see the Taliban "at peace with itself and its neighbors and adhering to international law," the UN Charter, and human rights, she stressed.

"I want to emphasize — this is a process. We are getting a lot of criticism: Why aren't women at the table? Why aren't Afghan women at the table? Why is civil society not at the table? This is not an inter-Afghan dialogue," said DiCarlo. "I would hope we could get to that someday, but we're not there."

After drawing much censure, the UN has decided to hold a separate meeting with Afghan civil society in Doha this week.

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Taliban banish women from almost all public life

Since seizing power, the Taliban have rolled back progress achieved in the previous two decades when it came to women's rights.

They have banished women and girls from almost all areas of public life.

Girls have been barred from attending school beyond sixth grade, and women were prohibited from local jobs and nongovernmental organizations. The Taliban have ordered the closure of beauty salons and barred women from going to gyms and parks. Women also can't go out without a male guardian.

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In a decree issued in May 2022, women were also advised to wear a full-body burqa that showed only their eyes.

The oppression of women's rights means no country has so far officially recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's government. The United Nations has said recognition is almost impossible while bans on female education and employment remain in place.

No recognition for the Taliban

Countries around the world have made any engagement with Afghanistan conditional on the Taliban improving things such as girls' access to education, human rights and inclusive government.

But the militant regime has so far not shown any signs it is willing to drop the hard-line policies.

Activists have said that achieving any meaningful progress at the meeting hinges on fair and transparent representation of all relevant groups, including women.

They also stress that the international community needs to immediately address the Taliban's grave rights violations.

Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said of the Doha meeting that "sidestepping critical human rights debates is unacceptable."

"Afghans, especially women, must be given spaces at the table to advocate on their own behalf," Rina Amiri, US special envoy for human rights and women's affairs in Afghanistan, wrote on the social media platform X. "Afghanistan's peace, security, and sustainability challenges cannot be resolved without their inclusion."

What's the situation like in Afghanistan?

The situation in Afghanistan remains dire. While initial fears of widespread violence have subsided, the country faces a multitude of challenges, from a crippled economy and restricted education to ongoing human rights concerns and a divided population.

The Afghan economy, already fragile before the Taliban takeover, has taken a significant hit. Frozen bank accounts and international sanctions, coupled with the exodus of skilled professionals, have plunged the country into a deep recession.

Poverty has soared, and international efforts to incentivize reforms based on improving human rights have yielded limited results, especially regarding women's rights.

Providing international aid still requires engagement with the Taliban, which most organizations and governments are reluctant to do.

Although the Taliban have shown no sign of changing their ways, the UN conference can still draw global attention to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi
Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi Head of DW Dari/Pashto@washasnaz