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Engagement With the Taliban Cannot Come at the Cost of Ignoring Gender Apartheid

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Engagement With the Taliban Cannot Come at the Cost of Ignoring Gender Apartheid

Taliban representation at the latest Doha talks was apparently deemed so important by the United Nations that it is worth betraying the fundamental rights and will of the Afghan people.

Engagement With the Taliban Cannot Come at the Cost of Ignoring Gender Apartheid

In this photo released by the Taliban Spokesman Office, Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief spokesman for the Taliban government who leads the Taliban delegation, center right, speaks with Uzbekistan Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Ismatullah Irgashev, during a meeting in Doha, Qatar, June 30, 2024.

Credit: Taliban Spokesman Office via AP

On June 30 and July 1, special envoys from 22 countries gathered in Doha for the third round of talks meant to determine the future of Afghanistan, which since August 2021 has been in the grip of an extremist Taliban regime many say is more repressive than their last iteration in the late 1990s. 

While Taliban representatives were not invited to the first round of talks and refused to participate in the second, it seems their representation at this round of talks has been deemed so important by the United Nations, which is leading the process in Doha, that this is worth betraying the fundamental rights and will of the Afghan people, and of several key U.N. resolutions in the process. U.N. officials agreed to the terms offered by the Taliban to ensure their participation, which include a complete absence of civil society representation and an agenda devoid of any discussions on women’s rights – the single issue agreed upon by the international community as a must-have for any meaningful engagement with the extremist group.

The U.N. Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security (1325), which turns 25 next year, was reached to ensure the full and equal participation of women in all stages of conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconstruction. Resolution 2721, adopted in December of last year with the aim of appointing a U.N. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and a reintegration of the country into the international system, further reinforces “the need to ensure the full, equal, meaningful and safe participation of Afghan women in the process.”

The United Nations exists as a system designed to uphold global values of peace, equality, and dignity for all, and the U.N. Charter contains these basic principles, which all members are expected to uphold. In return, the U.N. provides a forum for its members to peacefully resolve disputes, resist aggression, promote social progress, and protect human rights. While the Taliban do not currently hold Afghanistan’s seat at the U.N., this is a role to which they aspire, making full recognition and membership one of the final points of leverage by which the international community, under U.N. leadership, could hold the Taliban accountable. 

The United Nations could demand clear and measurable steps toward the restoration and protection of women’s rights as a crucial initial step toward engagement. Instead, U.N. leadership has shown it is prepared to treat the fundamental human rights of half of Afghanistan’s population as a mere afterthought, while pandering to one of the most misogynist regimes the world has known. This appears to be a desperate bid to revive the U.N.’s own optics of relevance at a time when it finds itself ill-prepared to address multiple global and regional crises. Despite numerous calls to ensure the participation of women in dialogues to decide Afghanistan’s future, their voices were entirely absent 

Currently in Afghanistan, women and girls face numerous abuses of their human rights, systematically brought about through a series of more than 100 decrees targeting their rights to work, attend school over the age of 12 (Afghanistan is the only country on the planet to institutionalize such a policy), access healthcare, engage in political or public life of virtually any kind, or even visit parks, restaurants, or beauty salons. Women have effectively become prisoners in their own homes, with male relatives forced to become their jailers. 

As a result, the country is in the grip not only of a widespread mental health crisis, but a humanitarian emergency as well. The economy is in freefall and levels of poverty and food insecurity are skyrocketing, as half the population is barred from contributing their skills and labor to recovery.

Human rights organizations and activists agree the Taliban’s oppression of women constitutes a new form of crime against humanity: gender apartheid. Such violations are not a byproduct of Taliban rule; they are a central facet of the Taliban’s ideology and system of governance. If the U.N. is prepared to sidestep these grave transgressions against its own fundamental values in order to promote such a skewed vision of security, what hope do we women and vulnerable gender groups have in any setting, at a time when rights that we thought inviolable are being chiseled away bit by bit? 

Afghans who are living this daily reality could be forgiven for considering, as some Afghan women have, that the U.N. is signifying its willingness to turn course, potentially even negotiating with other extremist terrorist groups – many of whom now flourish in Afghanistan under a Taliban rule that is at best unable to curtail extremist violence and at worst, sympathetic to such elements as the Islamic State. 

With this format, the third round of Doha talks reproduced an asymmetrical exchange in which the concerns of the international community and the Taliban  – economic stability at all costs – become the drivers of decision-making, while the rights, will and wishes of the Afghan people, particularly women and girls, have been excluded. This interpretation of regional security also ignores the growing body of evidence linking gender-based violence with an increased risk of political violence. The world is all too slowly waking up to the fact that women and girls are often the first victims of violence that later explodes into collective violence.   

The Doha process was originally established to support a political pathway for the country’s future, a focus which has become increasingly eclipsed by the economic and security concerns of the international community in their dealings with the Taliban. We are extremely concerned that actors in the international community will grant concessions to the Taliban in the interest of promoting economic recovery and security stability that serves them, at the expense of the people of Afghanistan. This approach is shortsighted in more ways than one. 

The Taliban have shown no indications of their willingness to correct course on their misogynistic system of governance. Roza Otunbayeva, special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), has offered an unconvincing defense of this position, pointing to the fact that Afghan women were not included in previous Doha talks, and that one specific issue relating to women – drug addiction – is being addressed under the agenda topic of counternarcotic operations.     

For its part, the Taliban is content to dismiss those women and rights groups who are condemning this approach. Taliban rhetoric has it that these dissenting views represent an elite, Western-influenced stream of thought, or apply only to women living in the diaspora – another issue on which the U.N. has deferred to Taliban interests. This framing ignores the fact that women leaders were driven into exile as a result of targeting by the Taliban after August 2021. The irony is that until 2021 the Taliban themselves were an exiled entity, and yet this fact was not enough to disqualify them as the single negotiating authority entering into the Doha Accords with the United States. Women who remain effectively trapped inside Afghanistan are well aware of and ready to demand their rights.

U.N. member states, including the G7+ group of countries, as well as the U.N.’s own special rapporteur, have expressed their concerns about the U.N.’s courting of Taliban involvement at Doha III. G7+ members recently issued a letter to the U.N. stating that the approach to Doha III was “entirely tailored to the Taliban’s interests.” Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett released a report at the U.N. Human Rights Council only last month that urged a human rights-based approach in international engagements with the Taliban.

The credibility of the United Nations itself is at risk as we witness total cognitive dissonance from key actors within its system in relation to Afghanistan. What is more, women around the world are watching as a global leadership established to advance peace and human rights abandons this, instead reaffirming an age-old assertion that gender equality can be viewed as a residual concern, perpetually dismissed to a future, post-peace order. 

Landmark work led by the U.N. through the Women, Peace and Security agenda had done much to dismantle this patriarchal thinking in the past two and a half decades. Women’s rights must not be an afterthought of political process for peacebuilding, but function as its very core. Will indifference to the Taliban’s dystopian vision of a society in which women become little more than domestic slaves serve as a bellwether for the future defense of our rights globally?