On Wednesday 17th May 2023, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security (APPG-WPS) hosted an event in collaboration with DROPS, SOAS University of London, ODI & SOAS ICOP titled “BISHNAW Report Launch: Bringing Afghan Women’s Voices to the Foreground in Peace and Conflict.” Baroness Hodgson, co-chair of APPG-WPS made the opening remarks about the current situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. The event was chaired by Dr. Althea-Maria Rivas, a Senior Lecturer at SOAS University of London and Co-Author of the BISHNAW Report. The report creates a more connected picture of both the trajectories and changes that have taken place from the midst of a fraught peace negotiation process in Afghanistan in 2020, to the current post-Taliban takeover environment, as well as reflections on the way forward.
The event heard from:
- Mariam Safi, Executive Director of Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies and BISHNAW Report Co-author
- Mirwais Wardak, Director of Peace Research and Training Organization
- Mark Bowden, Senior Research Associate, Humanitarian Policy Group, (ODI)
- Dr. Orzala Ashraf, Founding Director of Development Research Group Ltd
- Horia Mosadiq, Afghan human rights defender and journalist
Mariam Safi began the event by explaining how DROPS aims to bring women’s voices to the foreground in peace and conflict situations. The BISHNAW Report was authored in recognition of some of the critical challenges faced by women, both during the republic, but also after, during Taliban rule. BISHNAW is a digital platform that aims to create a more comprehensive and real-time understanding of the situation of Afghan women and girls. Since its inception in August of 2020, BISHNAW has captured the views of 30,000-plus opinions of Afghan women across 18 provinces through both quantitative surveys and focus group discussions with women at the provincial level, on diverse social, political, development, economic, and security-related issues. The results of this research are made available to key stakeholders and policymakers to help inform their decisions on Afghanistan. Mariam emphasised the inclusiveness of the research to capture female voices from different educational and professional backgrounds, ethnic and linguistic communities as well as those in remote locations. She believes that her data reflects that there is no ‘inside’ Afghanistan women’s views and ‘outside’ Afghanistan women’s views. She went on to speak about the volatile security situation in Afghanistan, the lack of access women have to humanitarian aid and the role of the international community in helping women to have a ‘safe space’ in which to engage with the Taliban. Mariam finished by saying women’s priorities continue to remain their rights and good governance and that they are not willing to compromise those for immediate needs, a narrative she said that is often pushed by humanitarian aid agencies and political actors at the UN Security Council.
Horia Mosadiq highlighted that Afghan women have been fighting for their rights for decades and their strength and resilience should not be overlooked. She said women have fought for gender equality to be enshrined in the constitution and have achieved quotas for women in politics and education. Despite the persistent threat from the Taliban, women have continued to stand up for their rights and fight for their freedoms. Horia is critical of the way in which Afghan women are portrayed, and calls for a more accurate representation of their struggle. She is inspired by the bravery of the women who take to the streets in the face of the Taliban to demand their rights, despite the risks. Horia voiced concerns about 120 decrees issued by the Taliban at the provincial and national level, restricting women from accessing aid and other humanitarian services and causing a significant increase in poverty among women. She believes there should be collective solidarity among the international community to stand for women’s rights, but she says the UN is willing to follow the Taliban’s orders as long as it can receive billions of dollars from the international community for its humanitarian aid. Horia critiqued the response of the international community, particularly the United Nations, for banning women from working as humanitarian aid workers. She expressed her distress at what she said is the ‘cowardice’ of these institutions and the side-lining of Afghans in peace negotiations by the US. Horia also criticised UNAMA for denouncing Afghan city women as elite and ignoring their calls for direct lines of communication. Horia finally expressed her disbelief in the United Nations, International Criminal Court and western governments for claiming to be saviours of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan, saying that if these had been their true intentions, the situation in Afghanistan would be different.
Mark Bowden highlighted the importance of gay women’s voices in the BISHNAW report, emphasising the difficulty of mainstreaming real gender issues and the elite capture of the women’s agenda. He noted the challenge of negotiating with the Taliban and the lack of women’s voices heard from outside the capital. He said the report is seen as significant as it brings this issue to the forefront. Mark outlined the challenges the UN face when engaging with the Taliban. He said contacting the Taliban in Kandahar and the Emir is challenging as the UN has no access. Moreover, the inexorable movement towards the creation of a Taliban caliphate is making things more difficult. Mark emphasised the UN’s role is to recognize the diversity in treatment of girls’ education and women’s employment, and to keep these spaces open. He said the UN should also work to maintain existing spaces for girls’ education, employment and for the preservation of women’s rights, yet the international community is not in agreement on how best to respond, making it a major challenge for the UN. Mark argued that over the past two decades, the international community has struggled to build societies that support pluralism. The UN has not had the right funding mechanisms to support civil society and the right models of state building have not been used. Further, the Taliban have been excluded from discussions for too long. He said that this situation has contributed to the instrumentalisation of the gender issues both by the military and then by political groupings.
Mirwais Wardak began by saying he believed that Afghan governments, international communities and NGOs are all responsible for mistakes made in tackling the important issues within Afghanistan. He spoke of Tier 4 prevention centres, and how long-term commitment is needed from international communities, the Afghan government and donors to build capacity, have successful programmes and make a difference. Mirwais also highlighted the importance of local leaders in the region discussing human rights in Afghanistan rather than foreign ministers. He said that women in rural communities in Afghanistan are often better than men, and they have the potential to be involved in negotiations. However, the challenge is in convincing the mainstream, elders, and political leaders to listen to them. Mirwais said the work of engaging these women is difficult but essential to bring about change. He said that more moderate members of the Taliban have shown interest in engaging and have been invited to summit meetings, but their participation is not always accepted by their leaders. Mirwais said the other challenge is knowing who to speak to within Afghanistan. He said there was perhaps potential to engage with the Ulema Council of the Provincial Government, particularly as they seek to control the provincial governors. Mirwais highlighted that since 2001, there have been many different international communities in Afghanistan, which have caused divisions amongst Afghans and have made it difficult for them to negotiate on one page.
Orzala Ashraf said that in the past 20 years, the issue of women and women’s rights has been used for political gain in Afghanistan, as seen before in 1929. King Ahmad’s daughter’s story of a foreign dress being used to portray the Queen of Afghanistan as a symbol of modernity is an example of how this has been done. Orzala said this is not the first time in Afghan history that women have been instrumentalised in this way. She said the Taliban are instrumentalising women in a similar way to that of 2001 when Tony Blair and George Bush said they were liberating them. She further said this counter-reaction is seen as a result of this ‘liberation’ and is seen as a way for the Taliban to exert control. Orzala stressed that the Taliban’s acts and actions are not linked to Islamic principles nor Afghan traditions. In fact, the most traditional Afghans are now looking for education for their girls and children. This highlights a significant shift in thinking in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Orzala went on to say that whilst women have been denied public education and basic rights, in what is often called a gender apartheid, they have still found ways to work and walk the streets. Women have formed inter-solidarity and nonviolent forms of resistance such as celebrating Women’s Day and found negotiated ways to denounce oppressive rules. Orzala said Women Peace Committees mentioned in the report are examples of dialogue and nonviolent means to peace. She said this is apparent in the current context, where women are finding ways to work, live and negotiate solutions without international help. However, political participation is restricted in some contexts. Orzala said an important lesson learnt is that the international community must find ways to include Afghan women in discussions and not speak on their behalf. Mark and Orzala have highlighted in their Ethical Dialogue Report that women-headed organisations believe they should be included in meetings if they can assess their own security and safety. They suggest finding ways to go beyond the ruling of a restrictive regime to open up space for women to represent themselves.
There were also comments made by Alison Davidian, the UN Women’s Representative in Afghanistan. Alison also challenged the myth of a division between women in the country and in exile, said women prioritised their rights and good governance, and that Afghan women are not victims. She highlighted their history of achieving rights, such as voting, education and gender equality, and the continued efforts of protesting, setting up organisations and delivering services. As a result, she emphasised the importance of investing in women leaders and organisations to challenge the Taliban’s vision.
The event ended with questions from the audience about the how far it was possible to localise power and decision-making in Afghanistan and how the young Afghan diaspora are being engaged. The speakers answered these questions through their particular expertise and experience, emphasising the need for more effective collaboration between the international community, people working on the ground in Afghanistan and Afghans themselves, with the inclusion of Afghan women’s voices. Alison Davidian and Mariam Safi made the closing remarks. Baroness Hodgson, the co-chair of the APPG-WPS, concluded the event by saying the whole issue of Afghanistan must not be allowed to slip off the international agenda, and thanked the speakers.