US Special Envoy Rina Amiri addresses the 16th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards virtual ceremony at the State Department, Monday, March 14, 2022, in Washington. 

US special envoy: Taliban ‘puts women’s right at peril everywhere’

With continued violations of women's rights in Afghanistan, US Special Envoy Rina Amiri tells The World's host Marco Werman that not normalizing the Taliban government is crucial to fighting hardline elements in the country, and for setting a precedent in other places.

The World

When the Taliban seized power in August of 2021, they banned young women and girls from attending high school. 

Late last year, they also barred women from working in most local and international aid groups.

Now, the country is living with this harsh, new reality. 

The United Nations has identified Afghanistan as the most repressive country in the world now for women and girls. The UN mission has said that Afghanistan’s new rulers are “imposing rules that leave most women and girls effectively trapped in their homes.”

To discuss how the international community is responding to the situation, The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Rina Amiri, the US special envoy for Afghan Women, Girls and Human Rights, who joined from New York.

Marco Werman: Special Envoy Amiri, I'd like to start by getting your impressions of how difficult the situation is for girls and women in Afghanistan right now. What are they telling you?
Special Envoy Rina Amiri: Just last night, I was speaking with a group of 40 women in Afghanistan until one in the morning. What they described to me is absolutely haunting and devastating. There have been over 80 decrees and actions, 75% of them targeted against women and girls that have stripped away their rights at every level, from education to work to mobility, to having any element of choice in their life. They are turning their sons away from them, their husbands away from them. One woman said that her 7-year-old child had come home and said, "I shouldn't be talking to you, mama." And she said, "Why?" He said, "Because you're a demon." This is what his instructor had told him at school.
In a meeting like that, how did you come back to them with answers? I mean, if they don't have answers, what do you say?
I believe that what's most important is to be honest with them. I recognize how incredibly challenging and painful the situation is for them. I hear them when they say that they feel that the international community has not heard them in the ways that they need to be heard. We have a situation where we have one of the worst human rights situations in the world, as well as one of the worst humanitarian situations in the world, which leaves us with difficult choices, even with the limited tools that we have at our disposal. What are the tools that the international community has, its financial assistance, its engagement and the Taliban's desire for greater normalization, its sanctions. But I also note that I recognize that these women are leaders, they are not victims, and that they themselves are taking enormous risks. They are engaging the Taliban at the local level in particular, and they are looking for us to support them in concrete ways.
Special envoy, can you give us a few examples of the kinds of things the US government is doing for Afghan girls and women right now?
We have established a US Afghan consultative mechanism to bring Afghan women's voices into US policymaking. Second, we set up the Alliance for Afghan Women's Economic Resilience, and this is a public-private partnership that aims to bring support to women entrepreneurs to support bringing virtual education for mentoring capacity-building.
I mean, noble efforts, but they stand against the Taliban that goes their own way. About a year ago, they promised to reopen schools in Afghanistan for everyone, including girls. Two days later, they reverse the decision. So, at this moment in time, what leverage does the US government have with the Taliban to push for a reversal of that ban, for example, or establish any dialog about their policies?
Every conversation that the US government has with the Taliban, the key issue that is raised at the beginning of the conversation and continues throughout the conversation with the Taliban is that there's going to be no progress in normalization or any of the things that the Taliban want until there is progress in respecting the rights of the Afghan population, particularly women and girls. Right now, all of the assistance that the US and the international community deliver to Afghanistan, it only goes through UN agencies. It does not go in any way through the defacto Taliban governance structures. And they want that change. They want a relieving of sanctions. In all of those areas, we've noted to them that there's not going to be any positive movement in that direction. We've also noted, as long as they continue to go on this road, they are going to once again become the pariah that they were in the 1990s. And some of them have heard this. We see an increasing level of frustration among some of the Taliban leadership who see that one, this is bad for them, but it's also taking Afghanistan in a direction that is going to lead to greater destabilization, greater poverty and it's going to ultimately lead to failure on their part.
Well, and as you pointed out earlier, you don't want to normalize the Taliban, so given all that, the work that you want to do assisting women and girls, how do you walk that line?
I think the issue of normalization is incredibly important. It's important not just for Afghanistan, but it's important for hardline elements, extremist elements that are pushing against the rights-based agenda in Pakistan, Somalia, many other contexts. And if they see that there's a ceding of ground and a normalizing of what the Taliban are doing, that will spread to other contexts. So, enabling the Taliban to do what they're doing to women and girls in Afghanistan puts women's rights at peril everywhere. And it's a it's a message that we take to every capital. We caution other countries about moving in a direction that could potentially normalize the situation in Afghanistan. And we make that appeal throughout the world.
Special Envoy Amiri, there is a new worry facing Afghan women, this time, women who were divorced under the previous government. Some of those who've remarried say they're considered now adulterers under the Taliban legal code. Are these women right to be concerned?
Yes. You know, Afghan women note to me repeatedly that what the Taliban are doing are contrary to the tenets of Islam. Islam, many Afghan women have noted, is one of the first religions that clarified women's rights to divorce. And all of this is as specified. So, what the Taliban are doing is anathema to what Afghan women see as them being empowered by their religion. And there is every reason for them to feel that the Taliban, while they claim to have ended the conflict, they have waged a war against women and girls, the minute that they entered into Afghanistan as de facto rulers.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

Related: ‘I am living through my worst nightmare’: Women aid workers in Afghanistan react to ban on employment

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