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Why women’s rights groups worry about the upcoming UN meeting on Afghanistan

On February 18 and 19, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a meeting on Afghanistan of member states, regional organizations, and special envoys in Doha. The announcement of the meeting has produced mixed reactions and debate among Afghan women’s rights groups in Afghanistan and outside the country. Some worry about a lack of representation of women protesters at the meeting. Some want women to boycott the meeting altogether. 

Officially, the UN is optimistic about the goals of the gathering. “The objective of the meeting is to discuss how to approach increasing international engagement in a more coherent, coordinated and structured manner, including through consideration of the recommendations of the independent assessment on Afghanistan,” Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres’s spokesman said in a briefing in New York on January 24. In his next briefing on January 26, the spokesman said, “There will be collective meetings with the special envoys, including with Afghan women representatives, civil society representatives.”  

A few days after the meeting was announced, a coalition of 10 groups of women protesters wrote an open letter to the UN demanding that the Doha meeting include the “full and meaningful” participation of women. Furthermore, they wrote that the presence of representatives from women’s protest movements is “essential and necessary” in all international meetings related to Afghanistan.  

Zahra Mohammadi, a women’s rights activist who was arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban in February 2022, tells Zan Times that nothing good has ever come out of meetings about Afghanistan that have been held in Doha. “It has been all about deals and betrayals,” she says in a WhatsApp voice message from exile, adding that some of the women rights protesters are demanding seats at the table in the UN-led meeting in Doha, but their efforts have been unsuccessful to date. “I only  hope that the real representatives of Afghanistan women will be invited to the meeting – someone who can tell about the pains of women,” explains Mohammadi.  

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Not all women or women protesters share her views or demands. One group of protesters is using the hashtag #NoToTheTalibanMeeting, demanding that women boycott the meeting. Videos are spreading on social media of women expressing their opposition to women’s participation in this meeting. “As an oppressed woman who suffered a lot, as a woman protester, I boycott this meeting, negotiation with the Taliban that doesn’t think women are human” says a woman who covered her face with a black mask and sunglasses in a video shared with Zan Times.  

In addition, a statement written by another group of women protesters, says, “As a collective of protesting women in Afghanistan, we vehemently condemn the United Nations’ decision to provide a platform for the Taliban. We also reject the readiness of some Taliban opponents to engage in negotiations, and we caution our fellow protestors against entering into any dialogue with the Taliban. Instead, we advocate for the Taliban to face trial for their crimes.” 

One of the advocates of boycott is Wahida Amiri, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban for her activism. “I have spoken with many women protesters both outside and inside the country and they are all against negotiating with the Taliban because it is not going to solve the problem of the people of Afghanistan,” she tells Zan Times in a phone interview.  

Rishmin Joyanda, a women rights activist who was arrested alongside Amiry, also shares this view. Joyanda labels as “cosmetic” any inclusion of women protesters in the meeting as their presence won’t affect the outcome of the meeting, which she believes is to normalize and legitimize the Taliban. “We have faced the Taliban in the streets of Afghanistan, and their only response to our legitimate demands has been the barrel of their guns in our faces,” Joyanda tells Zan Times from her exile in France. “We clearly declare that we are against any kind of engagement with the terrorist Taliban.” 

The Taliban say that they are invited 

The Taliban say that they are invited and if their “conditions are not taken into consideration, non-participation would be preferred.”  

“If there is an opportunity for high-level meaningful consultations between IEA [Taliban] and UN regarding all issues of Afghanistan, [and] the IEA [Taliban] is able to duly fulfill its responsibility as representative of Afghanistan, then Doha meeting would be a good opportunity,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, posted on X. In other words, the Taliban want to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan before attending the meeting at Doha.  

However, the inclusion of the Taliban anyway would be a contrast to the earlier meeting on Afghanistan that the UN convened in May 2023. For that meeting, Guterres did not invite the Taliban, explaining that it “was not the right time for him to directly engage with the Afghan rulers.” 

At the closing of the May 2023 conference, he stated, “The meeting was about developing a common international approach, not about recognition of the de facto Taliban authorities.” He also announced that there will be similar meetings in the future.  

Does inviting the Taliban to the upcoming February 2024 meeting means the UN is ready to “directly engage with the Taliban”? Taliban certainly think so. “Now, in the Doha meeting, the international community is trying to enter into official engagement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and start its relationship,” said Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, the deputy prime minister in a public gathering in Kabul on Wednesday, February 7.  

To get a sense of what women and girls, many of whom don’t necessarily see themselves as women’s rights activists, think of the upcoming meeting, we talked with Mariam,19, who lives in the western province of Herat. She is a former high school student who was in grade 12 when the Taliban forbade girls from attending high school. Mariam says that her dream of becoming a lawyer vanished the very instance the Taliban took over Afghanistan.  

“My first and most important demand is to be allowed to go to school, for us to have a right to education,” she says in a phone interview from her home, where she lives with her mother and 13-year-old brother. “Nothing more than being deprived of the right to education has destroyed the dreams of Afghans girls.” Like all of the women’s rights activists who talked with Zan Times, she isn’t very optimistic: “The previous [UN] meeting on Afghanistan didn’t change our situation; this time, it could be the same. But I still wait.” 

One activist, Tamana Zaryab Paryani, who was abducted and imprisoned by the Taliban in January 2022 and now continues her protests from her exile in Germany, worries that the Doha gathering could be used to legitimize the Taliban. “I don’t trust any of the meetings that are being held with the Taliban. I only hope this meeting doesn’t add to our suffering,” she says in a WhatsApp voice message.  

Freshta Ghani contributed to this report. Matin Mehrab is a pen name of Zan Times journalist.  

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