Afghanistan's Girls Salvaging Hope From Diplomatic Statements

Afghanistan's Girls Salvaging Hope From Diplomatic Statements
Afghan female activists have taken to the streets to protest the detention of education activist Matiullah Wesa, coinciding with an uncertain statement from the Taliban leader that members should not follow his words if they contradict Sharia law. These remarks come at a time when the Taliban faces pressure from the international community and Afghan activists advocating for girls' education and women's empowerment. Afghans find themselves in the darkest of times, especially concerning their children, particularly girls, who lack access to education. The education ratio, especially for girls, is already alarmingly low, with the overall literacy rate reported to be just 17%.

The Taliban claims that Wesa's arrest is based on "suspicious information" about him. While human rights groups express concern about the whereabouts and well-being of these activists, the Taliban maintains that these arrests are lawful within their jurisdiction. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban chief spokesman, confirmed Wesa's detention: “Yes, Matiullah Wesa has been detained for investigation because the intelligence agency had some suspicious information about him," Mujahid told the media. "Wesa was organising meetings and making contacts that were a cause of concern for us," he said without elaborating. “It is the duty of the government to detain suspicious people and investigate them to ensure public order. "The fact that other activists have been arrested by the Taliban and subsequently released without any comments or explanations from the regime officials suggests an attempt to silence women's rights activists and maintain control over the situation.

After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan following the Qatar Agreement between the United States and the insurgent group, millions of girls were barred from receiving an education. Although the Taliban claimed to have changed their stance and pledged not to reverse the development achieved in the post-9/11 era, concerns remain regarding gender equality and women's empowerment. Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada issued a verdict to close down girls' educational institutions, permitting only girls up to the 6th grade to attend school. In response, Afghan civil society and women's rights activists organised rallies to confront the Taliban's actions. They now chant slogans demanding girls' education, women's empowerment, the right to employment, and the freedom to engage in activism.

The Taliban regime has made multiple arrests of activists advocating for girls' education, including Professor Mashal, a private university teacher in Kabul, and Matiullah Wesa, the leader of PenPath, an organisation focused on raising awareness about education and encouraging Afghan parents to enroll their children in schools, as well as pressuring the government to reopen schools in areas where they were non-existent or closed due to fear of Taliban attacks. The Taliban officials claim that these arrests were carried out due to security concerns.

The Afghan diaspora raises questions about the international community's role, attributing blame to the Taliban regime for violating the United Nations Human Rights Charter and reversing progress in all aspects of life. The most vulnerable victims of this situation are the girls and women in the country. Numerous campaigns in the West hold the American administration accountable for entering into the Qatar Agreement, which they believe led to the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres tweeted addressing women's rights in Afghanistan: “Reversing all measures that restrict women’s rights to work is key to reaching the millions of people in Afghanistan that require humanitarian assistance. Afghans urgently need emergency aid. Women are essential to ensure it’s delivered”.

These diplomatic statements have gained momentum following remarks made by United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed during her address at Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. What we are hoping is that we'll gather them now in another two weeks in the region, and they will have that first meeting of envoys across the board — the region and internationally — with the secretary-general for the first time," she said. “And out of that, we hope that we'll find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition [of the Taliban], a principled recognition," Mohammed said. "Is it possible? I don't know. [But] that discussion has to happen. The Taliban clearly want recognition, and that's the leverage we have.” A former Afghan minister and parliamentarian expressed her views through her Twitter account, saying, “Over the past days, several meetings were held with UN officials to make our demands clear. Women are being erased from the socio-political structure of Afghanistan. They must be given a meaningful space in such platforms.”

In his Eid-ul-Fitr message at the end of Ramadan, former United States envoy for dialogue with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, expressed hope upon hearing the comments of the Taliban leader. He perceived flexibility in the leader's words, stating that if the verdicts are not in line with Sharia law, they should not be obeyed. Khalilzad responded to his remarks as “excellent” and said: “here are two: not allowing women/girls to go to high school and universities; and not allowing women to work in UN and other offices.” “Many Islamic scholars, including those who supported the Talibs such as Abdul Hamid of Zahedan, and countless others across the Islamic world, have said so. Sounds like a green light for women's education and work!,” he said.

Khalilzad further highlighted the support for women's education and work from various Islamic scholars, including Abdul Hamid of Zahedan, who had backed the Taliban. According to these religious clerics, modern education is crucial for girls and women. The significance of women's rights to education and trade dates back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), with his younger wife Hazrat Ayesha (RA) being a religious scholar and an authority on Hadith, and his eldest wife Hazrat Khadija (RA) being a well-known trader in the Arab world 1,400 years ago.

The Taliban emerged as a religious student force during the civil war among different Mujahideen factions, aiming to establish peace and order. They assumed power in 1994 and captured Kabul in 1996, facing resistance mainly in the Panjsher valley. The Taliban's rule over Afghanistan has been marked by a dark history of bloodshed, terror, and fear. Recent developments, such as the unanimous passing of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council in support of women's rights and girls' education in Afghanistan, have dealt a blow to the Taliban regime in the international community.

However, the comments from UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed and former American envoy for dialogue with the Taliban Zalmay Khalilzad indicate progress in negotiations with the Taliban for recognition in exchange for human rights guarantees, particularly concerning Afghan girls and women, their education, and employment opportunities. Both officials have firsthand knowledge and involvement in diplomatic efforts amidst agitation and controversies surrounding the situation.

The author is an undergraduate student at the American University of Afghanistan currently living in exile.