Afghanistan: Don’t sacrifice women’s rights at the altar of geopolitics
Afghanistan was, and remains, a poster child of the landmark United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security. It has demonstrated that women’s voice, participation and leadership in peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building is indispensable to achieve sustainable peace, development and just societies. Conversely, because women’s rights have been systematically violated and women have been excluded from governance, peace and nation-building, conflict has become endemic.
The role and rights of Afghan women have expectedly come center-stage with the sudden Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Taliban 1.0 was notorious for its violent suppression of women’s rights, religious extremism, and terrorism. In 20 years of American/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence, the UN-supported successive Afghan government efforts to institute gender equality and women’s empowerment-based political, social, economic and cultural order, despite the Taliban attacks.
But, notwithstanding well-meaning gestures of western powers and the UN to include women as peace actors in political negotiations, they were marginalised in crucial parleys in Doha and elsewhere. The United States (US)’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan has made Afghan women and girls vulnerable to the loss of their hard-won rights, orphaned them politically, and left them at the mercy of an emerging misogynist, Islamist, militarist Taliban 2.0 regime.
After the Taliban takeover, the UN reported “incredible fear” and uncertainty among Afghan women and girls, their families, and international supporters. The Taliban’s statement that women’s human rights would be protected “within the Islamic Shariah laws” was seen as a euphemism for severe curtailment of these rights. There have been reports of Taliban gangs going around terrorising women, flogging protestors, expelling women from workplaces and going into homes to enforce “Islamic morality”. One heartrending video, of the Taliban forcibly taking away a 12-year-old girl from her parents, wrenched everyone’s conscience.
Any expectations of the Taliban being a women-inclusive political force were belied with the formation of a Pakistan-midwifed, all-male interim government of the Islamic Emirate on September 7. The prime minister and most cabinet ministers are hardliners, on UN’s terrorist list, and wanted internationally and also by the US for brutal attacks on civilians. They represent the twin forces of Islamist religious extremism and political power emanating from the barrel of the gun.
As feared, their first act was to abolish the women’s affairs ministry and create the infamous “ministry of virtue promotion and vice prevention”. They made the full black burqa mandatory, forbid women from working, restricted girls’ education, and banned women’s sports. The new regime justified the absence of women in government, citing women’s incapacity to “carry its weight around their necks”, and their sole role as the bearer of children.
It is Afghan women who have bravely come out to protest politically against the government and its Pakistani backers, and against restrictions put in place by the regime on their “voice, choice and agency”. The Taliban has been quick to crack down and prohibit such protests. UN Women, which has supported a network of Afghan women’s human rights advocates and defenders and civil society organisations, has expressed concern that these vital groups, which uphold women’s human rights, may be hounded and harmed. Amidst this rollback, women are bearing the brunt of burgeoning human rights and humanitarian crisis and violence, impelling them to leave Afghanistan. But they are least likely to make it out safe.
International concerns about Afghan women have been most importantly expressed in the India-chaired landmark UNSC Resolution 2395 (2021) on August 30, which singled out three benchmarks on women’s rights — that the Taliban must safeguard the gains in human rights and rule of law of past 20 years, respect and protect the human rights of women and minorities, and form an inclusive government through negotiated political settlement with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women. Other criteria such as the protection of civilians, right to leave Afghanistan and access to humanitarian aid, also applicable to women’s rights too, were established. It is on these criteria that the international community, especially western donors, will judge the Taliban regime’s eligibility for diplomatic recognition, financial unfreezing and economic and humanitarian aid. US secretary of state Antony Blinken and European leaders have cited compliance as a precondition for the Taliban getting international legitimacy.
However, emboldened by Pakistani support (PM Imran Khan has declared that women’s rights cannot be imposed from outside) and Chinese and Russian abstention on the UNSC resolution, the Taliban regime has so far disregarded these injunctions. It seems to be counting on western powers compromising to prevent Afghanistan from falling entirely into the Chinese-Russian lap. Moreover, the Taliban expects the distress of the Afghan civilian population and the UN’s humanitarian aid appeal of over $600 million to yield resources. Thus, women’s rights are in danger of being sacrificed at the altar of geo-realpolitik.
The Taliban being allowed to get away with trampling on women’s human rights has implications beyond that war-torn country. In other Islamic and non-Islamic states and communities, it could embolden misogynist radicalism and fuel the fire of Islamist terrorist groups. Even in India, a Muslim group suddenly made a Taliban-copycat declaration against girls attending co-ed schools.
India, as the world’s largest, pluralistic democracy with PM Modi prioritising the gender equality and women’s empowerment agenda, will no doubt work with international partners — including the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) whose mandate has been extended — to hold the Taliban government accountable to standards of gender-responsive behaviour demanded by the UNSC Resolution 2593. That will also make for a less-militaristic and less terror-hospitable government in Kabul.
Lakshmi Puri is former ambassador of India, former assistant secretary-general, United Nations, deputy executive director, UN WOMEN, and distinguished fellow, Indian Association of International Studies. She is also a recipient of Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights
The views expressed are personal