US Seeks Muslim Nations’ Help to Counter Taliban Views on Afghan Women

The United States has initiated talks with Muslim-majority countries to encourage them to take the lead in pressing Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers not to exclude the country’s women from public life in the name of religion.


Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, told a seminar in Washington Wednesday that she is leading the diplomatic initiative to have an “alignment of position” among all international stakeholders on the issue. 

The envoy, speaking virtually to a seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar last week and intends to travel other Muslim-majority nations to engage them on “the regressive practices” the Taliban are enacting to curtail women’s freedom. 

“What I noted to them is what the Taliban are saying about women’s rights and making the argument that it’s on the basis of Sharia, is not just bad for Afghanistan and for Afghan women — it’s bad for Islam,” Amiri said of her talks with Saudi and Qatari officials. 

“The actors that need to be leading and countering that narrative [are] the Muslim majority countries,” she added.

Amiri noted that many regional and Islamic countries maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and, in their engagement with the Taliban, they advocate for political as well as ethnic inclusion in the government, but “very little” is being said about women’s inclusion.

“When they engage the Taliban, what I’ve asked them to do is include women in their delegation show that women are playing prominent and strong roles in their own countries,” Amiri said. 

The Islamist group took over Afghanistan in August and installed a male-only interim government including mostly Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, like the Taliban themselves. 

Critics say the insurgency-turned-government has rolled back women’s rights in almost every area, including crushing women’s freedom of movement, over the past six months, despite Taliban pledges they would not bring back harsh policies of their previous rule from 1996 to 2001, when women were banned from education and work. 

Women are not allowed to share transportation with men or take long trips without a close male relative, and taxi drivers are told not to offer a ride to female passengers who are not wearing hijabs.

“The vast majority of girls’ secondary schools are closed. Universities recently reopened, with new gender segregation rules. But many women are unable to return, in part because the career they studied for is off limits now, as the Taliban banned women from most jobs,” said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch in a statement Wednesday.

The Taliban dismiss criticism of their government, saying it meets all requirements to be recognized as the legitimate entity and it is not allowing terrorist groups to operate on Afghan soil. They also strongly defend restrictions on women, saying they are in line with Islamic principles. The radical group has promised to open secondary schools for all girls in Afghanistan this month.

Taliban leaders have traveled abroad, including to Qatar, in recent weeks for talks with representatives of Western and Islamic governments.  But they have failed to win diplomatic legitimacy for their government because of concerns about human rights, political inclusivity and terrorism. 

Amiri said she recently also held talks in Qatar with Taliban delegates who reiterated that Kabul wants to improve its relationship with the West. 

“My response has been, ‘Don’t just focus on improving your relationship with the West, improve your relationship with Afghans inside the country, build confidence not just by having inclusivity of a few actors from different ethnic groups but an inclusive process that is transparent, that engenders confidence among the population,” Amiri said.

Amiri said she also warned the Taliban that their return to power has only paused the Afghan conflict and it will not come to an end in the absence of inclusivity.

Critics are skeptical whether conversations with the Taliban to challenge their extremely restrictive view of Islam would produce the desired outcomes.

“I don’t think there are a lot of people who can influence the Taliban from the outside,” Anne Richard, a former U.S. diplomat, told the viral seminar.  “But I think who can, U.N. officials, special envoys, potentially certain governments, I think we really have to ensure that their efforts are taken seriously and are pursued and we get as much information to them then from the people who are inside Afghanistan as we can.”

Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, including Pakistan and Iran, as well as regional countries, have all cautioned the Taliban that the country’s economic and humanitarian troubles may intensify unless they live up to international expectations.

Last month, diplomats from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council met in Doha with representatives from Afghanistan’s de facto authorities and underscored the need for a national reconciliation plan that “respects basic freedoms and rights, including women’s right to work and education.”

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