Afghan politician and women’s rights activist Fawzia Koofi (46) is still in Kabul. Until recently she was one of the representatives of the Afghan government in negotiations with the Taliban.
In early February 2019 I was present at peace talks between the Taliban and the US in Moscow. One of the Taliban leaders gave a speech explaining their view of women’s rights and the position of women in government. ‘It is no problem for women to be in the government,’ he said, ‘but they cannot be head of state.’
A year later I saw the same leaders again, after they had concluded a historic peace deal with the US in Doha. Their positions then seemed to have become more restrictive. Together with three other women on the negotiating team I did everything I could to convince the Taliban that women can help. That we are not passive creatures. The Taliban made an attempt to listen respectfully.
When I look at the Taliban in Afghanistan today, the conciliatory statements seem to have evaporated. In the new government, there is not a woman to be seen. Religious minorities do not get a look-in. The Taliban claim to stand for an ‘inclusive government’, but by that they mean including all the different factions of Taliban. They have even abolished Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, set up after the 2001 Bonn Conference.
What do I feel, looking at the new government? Disappointment. Afghanistan is made up of so many political, social, religious and ethnic groups. Their lack of representation in the government is not being compensated in any way. Worse yet, the government is appointing people to public office who are on either the UN sanctions list or the US terrorism list. I am especially disappointed because the Taliban are being allowed to get away with making exclusionary and discriminatory choices.
Yet I still hold out some hope. The Taliban might have changed – or not changed at all – but the population has certainly changed. People will not be so easily pushed aside. History will not be allowed to repeat itself. One indication of this is the large number of protests in various provinces of Afghanistan. On Tuesday hundreds of Afghans took part in a protest in Kabul. Women continue to speak out bravely, even at the risk of their own lives.
To achieve stability, the Taliban will have to show flexibility. They will have to take account of a new Afghanistan, where women also deserve a place. Otherwise they will not last, and nor will Afghanistan as a country.
There is one message that I have been trying to get across to EU leaders when travelling to the West. I want them to take a step back and think before even considering granting recognition to the new government. It is now clear that the promising Taliban statements of 2019 were simply intended to boost their political agenda.
In the gap between words and deeds there is a risk of history repeating itself. The West has to focus on the Taliban’s deeds, and not their words. Don’t give them a blank cheque: apply pressure.