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You can’t ignore the voices of Afghan women: interview with Heather Barr

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Picture: AFP / Taken on September 2, 2021 – An Afghan woman protester, third left, speaks with a member of the Taliban, right, during a protest in Herat. Defiant Afghan women held a rare protest on September 2 saying they were willing to accept the all-encompassing burqa if their daughters could still go to school under Taliban rule.

By Phoebe Donnelly


In the two years since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the regime has imposed the world’s most repressive system of gender discrimination, forcing women and girls out of education, most employment, and many public spaces, effectively trapping them in their homes. In response, women’s rights defenders have called for the situation to be recognised as “gender apartheid” and a growing number of officials, including within the United Nations up to the level of the Secretary-General, have used this term to describe the crisis.

Afghan women are setting up underground and online schools, organising street protests, and setting up networks to help each other. And yet, Afghan women are still struggling to be included at the international level.

Here Heather Barr, Associate Director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), shares insights from her continued work with Afghan women’s rights defenders. In this interview with Phoebe Donnelly, senior Fellow and head of Women, Peace, and Security at the International Peace Institute, Barr talks about the lack of international response, the standard this sets amid a global backlash against gender rights, and how this crisis in Afghanistan proves just how important it is to implement the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It took place on August 15, 2023.

Picture: Tariq Mikkel Khan / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP / Taken on December 21, 2020 – Former Afghanistan women’s football captain Khalida Popal at Farum Park stadion on December 21, 2020. From Denmark, where she lives, the former captain of the Afghan women’s football team orchestrates the exfiltration of players threatened by the Taliban and intends to continue her fight for the emancipation of girls in her native country.

Phoebe Donnelly: August 15 marked the second anniversary of Kabul’s takeover by the Taliban. Can you update us on how the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan has changed over these two years?

Heather Barr: There is a mood of despair. After each clamp down on women and girls by the Taliban, you can get drawn into thinking, “That must be it – there’s nothing left they can do, they have taken everything.” But they always manage to find something else. For example, in recent months there have been reports that in some provinces, girls over the age of 10 were being ordered not to go to school, a further rollback from the ban on studying beyond 6th grade that had already been put in place. Every time there is a new restriction, it pushes a lot of girls or women out of education entirely.

Another thing that is sending shivers down people’s spines is the ban on beauty salons. At first blush, this might not seem like a big deal, but it is not about women wanting to get their hair and nails done – it’s about the 60,000 jobs for women, many who may have been sole breadwinners for their families, and some of them are single parents. It’s 60,000 lost salaries. Another reason for the alarm is that the salons were one of the few places left that existed outside of the home for women to gather and have a place to look for support and community. When the Taliban came to power, they destroyed the whole system that had been set up to deal with gender-based violence (GBV), including shelters, legal services, counselling services, services to help women develop livelihoods, specialised prosecution units and courts, and the 2009 law against violence against women. All of these mechanisms were wiped out within one to two weeks after they took over.

This is the first time the Taliban has attacked women’s employment in the private sector, which also set off alarm bells. Even though they had already imposed a lot of restrictions, the private sector had been the one area where women were allowed to work, and the Taliban had even done things like hold trade fairs that included booths led by women. People were feeling it was a tiny saving grace. The beauty salon ban raises the question of whether that will continue, or whether we could be heading toward a situation where there is no access for women to education, and no access to money-making activities outside of the home.

PD: As we are speaking in advance of the Open Debate on WPS at the United Nations Security Council, what does the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan teach us about the WPS agenda? Is the agenda still relevant, given its failure to protect the rights of women and girls there?

HB: Afghanistan is an example of why the WPS agenda is important, and what happens if you completely ignore it. There was certainly no full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in any of the Afghan peace processes. And it was not just women who were excluded. The only parties to the negotiations in Doha were the United States (US) government and the Taliban. It wasn’t a legitimate peace negotiation or process because Afghan women, as well as men from the Republic (who are not Taliban), were excluded. And while the US may or may not have had women, they weren’t Afghan women. On the inter-Afghan dialogue – it was clear that the US wasn’t investing political capital in making sure it went anywhere or produced anything. It was a withdrawal agreement, not a peace process.

So, is the WPS agenda relevant in the wake of this kind of disaster? Yes, more so now than ever. For example, Afghan women’s rights defenders are invoking Resolution 1325 and the WPS agenda as they try to fight their way into discussions about the future of the country. This happened in the Spring when UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened an envoys meeting in Doha and held a meeting with no Afghan women there. We at Human Rights Watch were glad to sign on to a letter from the NGO Working Group on WPS pointing out that this was a violation of 1325. After that letter came out and there was a broader outcry, a frantic Zoom call was patched together with Afghan women before the actual meeting with special envoys in Doha in May 2023. Is this better than nothing? I suppose it is, but it is not what 1325 actually means. It is the opposite of full participation.

And if there is another envoys meeting, will it be different this time? We know another of these meetings is planned, likely for January. This is an issue we women’s rights defenders are trying to push. Some diplomats have been forceful about saying that the exclusion of Afghan women should not happen again, and others have said: if the Taliban are there, then Afghan women should also be there, but if the Taliban aren’t there, then there is no need to have Afghan women. That’s not acceptable – Afghan women should be there no matter what.

Shaharzad Akbar and Melanne Verveer’s op-ed in Foreign Policy made some good points about the fact that the term “engagement” is so vague that it is kind of meaningless, and we should instead talk about “principled engagement” in a very clearly defined way. Principled engagement is engagement that is carefully designed to measure the costs and benefits, and to engage in ways that mitigate the harm that is caused through the legitimisation and normalisation that comes from engaging with the Taliban. Key principles of this would include not sending male-only delegations; not posing for a photograph with a male ambassador and their male representative; not flying Taliban leaders to foreign capitals; and certainly not sending a private jet. It means thinking about: do you actually have Afghan women in these spaces, and are they treated as equally important interlocutors – or ideally more important interlocutors – than how the Taliban are being treated?

PD: From your experience, what are the strengths and limitations of international mechanisms in promoting and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan? What would make the Independent Assessment of Afghanistan a success in your eyes?

HB: There is a lot of concern about the process for the Secretary-General’s independent assessment, which, per the Security Council resolution, is to be finished by November 17. Even how it came about didn’t sit well with women’s rights defenders, like the fact that it was championed by the United Arab Emirates, which is one of the few governments that recognised the Taliban when they first seized power back in 1996.

Plus the resolution was passed around the same moment when UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed made comments about taking “baby steps” towards recognising the Taliban. This really alarmed Afghan women over the UN’s intentions. This also came around the time of the UN’s decision to let its agencies take whatever response they wanted to the Taliban’s demand that women shouldn’t be involved in UN programming. Many people saw this as an unprincipled way for the UN to handle this situation.

Anxieties have grown with the appointment of Feridun Sinirlioglu as Special Co-ordinator of the Independent Assessment on Afghanistan, the former Turkish foreign minister, an experienced diplomat, but not someone seen as an expert on women’s rights or human rights more broadly. The process has not been very transparent, and there hasn’t been any clear way for women human rights defenders to engage with the process, at a time when there should be a lot of engagement.

I think the international community is looking to this assessment to give them solutions that they failed to think of on their own, and I am really worried that it is going to carry a lot of weight, even though it likely may not come from a process that has prioritised human rights, and in particular women’s rights.

In Afghanistan, both the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs have been abolished by the Taliban – in fact, all domestic human rights mechanisms have largely been abolished. The Attorney General’s office was restructured in a way that is unrecognisable from what it was. Women lawyers and judges have been banned from doing their jobs. The Taliban have intentionally and systematically removed a whole system of accountability. They have cracked down very hard on journalists, particularly women journalists.

The Afghan media is a hollow shell of itself. I’ve talked to many foreign journalists who have had their visas denied – disproportionately women journalists, though they have denied visas to male foreign journalists as well. These are people who have been working in Afghanistan for a long time, and it is clear in many cases that they have been banned from returning because they have written about women’s rights.

Outside the country, the international response has been lacking. Instead of the UN Human Rights Council mandating a full human rights accountability mechanism for the country, such as a commission of inquiry or IIIM, they created a special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, and this team was not in place until the Taliban had already been in power for many months.

The special rapporteur is actually a “special rapporteur++”, because he has more staff and resources than most. But he has said himself that this is still not sufficient for the scale of the challenge. Human Rights Watch and many other rights organisations made a big push for the Council to mandate a separate accountability mechanism in addition to the special rapporteur, as it makes sense to separate his functions, which include engaging with the Taliban and hopefully maintaining access to the country, from mechanisms for evidence collection and documenting crimes.

But the Human Rights Council is not prepared to go there. There are some countries who had troops in Afghanistan who don’t want a backward-looking mechanism because their soldiers might be implicated. That is a shameful and embarrassing reason for undermining urgently needed efforts at accountability. A mechanism that would have jurisdiction starting only on August 15, 2021, is not acceptable from a human rights perspective. So, we are stuck in an endless effort to build more capacity into the Special Rapporteur’s team, because that is the only mechanism that exists.

UNAMA (the UN special political mission in the country) also has a team on the ground monitoring human rights, though they face significant constraints – access issues, staff safety issues, and leadership that has prioritised engagement with the Taliban over some other crucial aspects of the UNAMA mandate.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been looking into Afghanistan since 2006, and Afghans have long been tired of waiting on action from them. However, there is an investigation moving forward on Afghanistan by the ICC, and there is the possibility that there might be charges brought in some cases by the end of the year. The credibility of the ICC is harmed because its chief prosecutor is focusing on the Taliban and ISKP (the Islamic State Khorasan Province). This may have made his life easier in regard to the United States and other countries, but it’s not a principled position from which to address human rights violations.

In June, there was a joint report to the Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan with the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, which talked about both gender persecution and gender apartheid. It recommended that states should mandate a report exploring the concept of gender apartheid; it will be interesting to see whether that recommendation is taken up by the Council.

PD: I was just about to ask you about “gender apartheid.” I saw that, while briefing the Security Council this past September, UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous used it in a statement on Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on the term and how it applies to the situation there? How does (or doesn’t) it capture the essence of the challenges faced by Afghan women and girls?

HB: Gender apartheid is a term that has been used for a long time by Afghan women and others in reference to Afghanistan, including during the period when they were previously in power from 1996 to 2001, and it resonates with a lot of Afghan women and Afghan women’s rights defenders. I remember in the Summer of 2021, before the Taliban takeover, there was a tweet by Shaharzad Akbar, who at the time was still head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She was responding to [US President Joe] Biden’s deflection of a question about Afghanistan, saying he wanted instead to talk about “happy things”. Akbar’s tweet said something like: “I’d like to talk about happy things too, but unfortunately I’m too busy worrying about gender apartheid.”

The question some Afghan activists are asking now is: Has the situation in Afghanistan not highlighted that there is a gap in international law, and what measures are available to remedy that gap? Some advocates are calling now for “gender” to be added to the definition of apartheid in the draft Crimes Against Humanity treaty being considered by the UN; there’s an ongoing discussion among international human rights organisations about this.

PD: How have grassroots movements contributed to positive change for women and girls in the country?

HB: I feel like all the young Afghan women I know grew up in the shadow of the Taliban, hearing their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and older sisters talking about this experience of living in this system where they were denied education, employment, freedom of movement, and were prisoners in their own homes. The drive and energy among a lot of young Afghan women seemed related to that, a desire to go out and seize opportunities that the women before them had been denied.

The pain of seeing this happening again to a younger generation of women is kind of overwhelming. But they have taken the lessons from the generations before them about how to resist, and invented new ways to resist that build on the ways the world has changed. They are running underground schools, and online ones. They are organising street protests, which women did from 1996-2001, but now women are able to share images of their protests on social media so that people all over the world can see they are still resisting.

Many of them were forced to flee after the Taliban took over and are scattered all over the world, but the majority of women are still in the country, trying to live as best they can. And trying to help each other – there are amazing networks. For example, I’ve heard of people outside the country doing therapy for girls inside the country; the situation has caused an extraordinary mental health crisis, and there is evidence that suicide rates among women and girls have skyrocketed.

There are real barriers to Afghan women and girls being able to connect with the rest of the world. Electricity is intermittent and access to the internet and devices are off limits for a large proportion of women and girls, given poverty, limited coverage, and harmful gender norms. And literacy is an issue. But there is still a significant number of women and girls who are connected to the internet and the world, and we hear their voices. Policymakers might be managing to ignore them, but we can make it harder to ignore them, and lift up those voices.

PD: Are there any misconceptions about the situation in Afghanistan for women and girls?

HB: Absolutely. A big one is that there is always a reason why the woman in front of you can’t be listened to (people who have worked on other crisis situations say this is very familiar). Diplomats especially have a long list of reasons why a particular Afghan woman is not the person (woman) that should be listened to – she is too elite, or not educated enough, or has been outside the country too long, or is from the wrong ethnic group or the wrong part of the country, her English is too good or not good enough, or she’s too strident. But it’s really a list of excuses.

A related form of pushback is questioning, “Why can’t all Afghan women agree on something?” So there is this harmful approach of requiring Afghan women to have only one position as a precondition to listening to them, and that position should be expressed by this perfect Afghan woman who could be listened to – she is inside the country, but still could communicate freely with diplomats (which is impossible), she’s not too educated or too uneducated, she represents all ethnic groups and all age groups.

And the misconception that women outside the country don’t represent the views of women inside the country is particularly harmful. It basically translates to: ‘the international community shouldn’t listen to women outside the country because their opinions aren’t valid and they aren’t affected by the situation’. And if you believe that, it liberates you from having to listen to Afghan women at all since it is extremely dangerous for women inside the country to be critical of the Taliban – and there are diplomats who appreciate that liberation.

If you do talk to women both inside and outside the country, as we do – they all have the same goals. They all want to be treated like human beings, have access to education and employment, have freedom of movement and speech, and live free from violence. Can you find me a woman, or anyone, anywhere who doesn’t want those things? There might be different strategies on how you achieve that, but can we really expect a group of tens of millions of people to agree on the specifics of anything? It is a subtle form of misogyny. We always need to work to lift up diverse voices, but we shouldn’t mistake misogyny for legitimate concerns.

PD: What do you think are the most pressing priorities for improving the rights and well-being of Afghan women and girls? Is there some way the international community can best contribute to these efforts?

HB: Human rights defenders have been talking recently about preserving civic space, and there is a growing understanding that we should do everything we can to guard the very little space that still exists for dissenting voices or for work that opposes the Taliban. How can you keep what space there still is alive?

That takes supporting the work of human rights defenders and women rights defenders inside and outside the country, and supporting media outlets, particularly those that are reporting actively on the situation for women and girls. It takes supporting women-led organisations across different areas, whether it’s aid delivery, education, activism, etc. Fund underground schools. Fund online education while recognising this is not an ideal option as it is not that accessible. But we can make it accessible to more people, and it is essential to those for whom the alternative is nothing.

It complicates things that the major donors are also countries that suffered a humiliating military defeat in Afghanistan and want to forget it ever existed. To the extent they are giving aid, they want to write one big check and have the UN deliver bags of food. Humanitarian aid is crucial of course, but we also need a more sophisticated and thoughtful approach by donors, and an intentional strategy for supporting human rights defenders.

PD: In a recent interview, you mentioned that the countries announcing a “feminist foreign policy” should be more active in opposing Taliban abuses against women and girls. What would you expect to see reflected in a feminist foreign policy to best protect the needs and rights of women and girls in Afghanistan?

HB: What does your feminist foreign policy mean if it doesn’t mean responding to this crisis in Afghanistan, which we all agree is the most serious women’s rights crisis on the planet? Human Rights Watch asked some of these countries to convene an emergency meeting of feminist foreign policy on Afghanistan with the goal of coming up with a plan on how those countries would provide leadership. There didn’t seem to be any interest, any willingness.

It is important for context to think about the fact that we are in the middle of a global backlash against women’s rights and the rights of LGBT people, and it’s happening in many places around the world. The response or lack of response to this women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan is a consequence of that and is also helping to drive that backlash.

It is really important for all of us, especially for women everywhere on the planet, to be clear on the fact that the lowest bar for what the international community can accept in terms of violations of women’s rights just got a whole lot lower. The response from the international community seems to be “Oh what a shame, good luck to them”. It speaks to how little willingness there is on the part of any country anywhere to spend any political capital on defending women’s rights. It’s a sobering message, and it speaks to how fragile the progress on women’s rights has been, not just in Afghanistan, but globally, and what challenges we need to prepare ourselves for.

Phoebe Donnelly is Senior Fellow and Head of Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) at the International Peace Institute. This interview is part of a series reflecting on the 23rd anniversary of the WPS agenda.

This article was published on Global Observatory