Metra Mehran in Doha: Do Not Compromise Our Rights for Your Rivalries

The following is an address by Metra Mehran, one of the four civil society members who participated in the UN meeting of special envoys to Afghanistan in Doha, delivered during the second day of the conference.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m Metra Mehran, one of the human rights activists from Afghanistan.

I want to start by taking us to Takhar province, where a 13-year-old girl wrote to me, questioning, “Wasn’t it better in the era of ignorance (before Islam), when they would simply bury newborn girls, back when they were innocent children unaware of the world?” Today, she expresses, “I have wishes, and I don’t know how to navigate this path. It feels like a miserable uncertainty that weighs heavily on my soul.” She has added, “Life is like hell.”

This should serve as our starting point for understanding the terrorized life of women and girls in Afghanistan; pushed to their limits, and contemplating whether it would have been better if their lives were cut short when they were innocent children oblivious to the harsh realities around them.

That is the situation we are talking about.

As we gather in this room to discuss how to approach the dire situation in Afghanistan, a woman who must go out for groceries, a basic necessity for survival, faces the constant threat of being stopped, beaten, and tortured. Every woman shares her plight, targeted simply because a Taliban soldier deems that she violates one of their harsh decrees. The Taliban spokesperson attempts to justify these actions as a form of “Tanbih” or chastisement for women. It’s a deliberate message to society, that women are to be punished as sources of sin, taking personhood from women. Rooted in misogyny, this ideology not only holds theocratical significance for the Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but also serves their regime ideologically and pragmatically.

Our discussions and this meeting should proceed under this understanding. It is essential to consider the context surrounding Afghanistan, the atrocities inflicted upon women, men, and [all] the people of Afghanistan who have been taken hostage and terrorized by a terrorist group, many of whose names are still on your blacklists. I underscore the gravity of the responsibility we collectively bear, and these realities should guide the tone of any discussion and decision related to Afghanistan. 

Over 130 decrees have been issued to date, 85 directly attack women. These decrees have imposed bans on education, employment, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, access to aid and health services, the right to protest, and the practice of cultural activities such as participation in sports. Cumulatively, they have stripped women of their rights and eviscerated their autonomy. Further, the Taliban has systematically dismantled the constitutional order, and all mechanisms, laws, policies, and institutions, especially, those designed to eliminate violence against women. Women are left without any means of access to justice.

Your discussions and decisions today should ameliorate, not perpetuate, this situation.

Violating these decrees can lead to violence, imprisonment, or even death. Over the past two years, the women who resist face house raids, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, gang rape, severe torture, and even death. The Taliban have killed some of these women, disposing of their bodies across the city as a deterrent to others to prevent them from raising their voices. Notably, Manizha Sediqi and Rasool Parsi are currently in prison. 

Ethnic, religious, and cultural groups not represented in the Taliban’s regime, such as Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and especially previous military personnel, face threats and targeted attacks, with women bearing the brunt.

These edicts and their enforcement represent a system of governance and control that systematically dehumanizes, marginalizes, oppresses, and subjugates women, girls, and others. There’s a term for what the Taliban regime is perpetrating: Gender Apartheid. There are no innocent bystanders in their dystopian project. Everyone is caught in the vortex.

Amidst this suffocating oppression, Afghanistan requires international assistance and engagement. However, it is crucial to discern the root causes and potential solutions rather than merely categorizing it as a humanitarian or security crisis that increased engagement can resolve. Normalization is not the answer.

The independent assessment is unduly conciliatory towards the regime, emphasizing potential engagement rather than addressing the stark reality of the human rights crisis. It is disturbing that geopolitical and security interests may continue to take precedence over the vital objective of safeguarding human rights and addressing the diverse needs of the people of Afghanistan. Today’s meeting should not make the mistake of carrying this premise forward. Let me be clear, structured engagement and incentives will not magically result in the Taliban choosing to uphold human rights, including those of women. The continued and deepening dehumanization of women over the past two years should have shattered this optimistic view that far too many in the international community have embraced since the initiation of the peace process. 

I appreciate the opportunity to be here, and since there are many parts of this meeting that we were not present at, I urge you to carry and champion the calls and demands of the women of Afghanistan with you into every discussion.

While it is impossible for me to raise all of my recommendations in the short time I have, I will focus on four vital areas: (1) the full, equal and meaningful participation of women and recognition of their political agency (2) non-recognition of the Taliban, (3) international justice and accountability; and (4) accountability in aid distribution.

First, I want to emphasize that every aspect of this situation is gendered, and therefore gender must be an overarching consideration for each and every conversation related to Afghanistan, not just those focused on “women’s rights.” For every question on the table during this meeting–whether it’s related to security and counterterrorism, humanitarian aid, development and the economy, or justice, I urge you to ask yourself what the gendered impact is, and how can any proposal take into account the needs and promote the rights of women and girls.

Furthermore, I urge you to insist that the Secretary-General ensures that the UN Special Envoy has a strong track record on human rights and women’s rights, as well as senior gender and human rights expertise on their team.

Future talks should deepen and formalize women’s participation, and the diverse people of Afghanistan need to be at each and every table where Afghanistan is being discussed. Women protesters have been the most consistent resistance in the past two and a half years. We need to ensure that their voices are represented here, and their political agency is recognized.

This also means that people should have full visibility into how the situation in Afghanistan is being discussed. For example, the Secretary-General’s report back to the Security Council on these very talks should not be closed and private. Without the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women and other opposition parties and the public, this crisis cannot be solved, and no sustainable path forward can be defined.

Second, the international community should withhold any form of engagement with the Taliban that could lead to recognition until they make verifiable strides towards a government system inclusive of all ethnicities, religious and cultural groups, civil and military resistance/opposition forces, especially women resistance groups, and human rights advocates. Recognition must be contingent on both internal and external legitimacy, both of which are currently lacking.

Full compliance with international human rights obligations, including the unconditional reversal of all restrictions restricting women’s rights, must be an antecedent to any engagement. There should be no place for them at the UN as long as their system of gender apartheid persists, and their government fails to be inclusive of all.

Third, the Taliban’s abuses must be understood for what they are–crimes and violations of international law–and they must be held to account for their actions. This meeting should make progress towards concrete steps by states to ensure accountability, and there are multiple options on the table. States parties to CEDAW should consider, either individually or jointly, bringing a case against Afghanistan at the International Court of Justice. States parties to the Rome Statute should urge and support the International Criminal Court in bringing forward cases, including for gender persecution, expeditiously. All states should support the codification of gender apartheid in the draft Crimes Against Humanity treaty under consideration by the UN General Assembly, as well as the establishment of a UN-mandated accountability body by the Human Rights Council.

Fourth, humanitarian assistance must be dispensed with a gender-sensitive approach, ensuring access for women and marginalized groups to all forms of aid. In addition, there must be strict accountability in humanitarian aid, with rigorous oversight to prevent the empowerment of the Taliban’s oppressive regime.

Our trust in all of you has been severely tested; as women and people of Afghanistan, it feels like we are fighting on multiple fronts – against the Taliban and also to convince the international community to not turn away or ignore our plight. We are being eased from our own society as the whole world watches. During these talks, and as you go forward, you have the opportunity to ensure that this erasure isn’t legitimized, downplayed or perpetuated. I urge you to heed the calls of women and ensure that the outcome of these talks is grounded in, and center, women’s rights and agency.

The Taliban has taken advantage of deep division among international actors. It costs us to lose human dignity and be ruled by a bunch of terrorists today. I request the world to demonstrate the political will necessary for bringing justice to women in Afghanistan.

Please do not compromise our rights for your regional and international political rivalries.

A 13-year-old girl in Takhar province with no hope for her future is relying on you.

Don’t let us down!