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UN and Afghan Women: Navigating Rights and Representation Under Taliban Rule

Işıl Kurnaz*

“Can I become the head of General Motors? Theoretically, yes, but we know where theory will take us. Not to the head of General Motors.” [1]

This is something Ursula K. Le Guin said, illustrating both how fragile theoretical knowledge is on its own and how, in certain situations, despite the theoretical possibility that women can do anything, the barriers they face show where they end up. In my opinion, this requires a conceptualization quite different from the so-called glass ceiling. Yes, women encounter glass ceilings in various forms around the world, but to reach that ceiling, they still need to achieve a certain height. What I am curious about is what happens when reaching that height is categorically prohibited, or rather, what happens to the whole when the boundaries of women’s life knowledge are not fragmented into concepts like height, freedom, empowerment, and professional life. Because the issue of the glass walls that prevent women from even starting to climb the ladder to reach the glass ceiling is much more critical. These glass walls don’t necessarily require us to be in an employment relationship to crash into them. These glass walls are waiting in every corner of life.

For some women, one of these corners of life is formed in Afghanistan. At the end of 2021, the Taliban took over after the US withdrew from Afghanistan. They began erasing the traces of women from the very first day, and it became evident that with the occupying force leaving the occupied land, women would become victims not only of men’s wars but also of their peace. At that time, I asked: If the homeland of Afghan women disintegrates, will their home expand? A year ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched the Doha process to create a unified international approach against the Taliban, who banned Afghan girls from receiving education beyond sixth grade and many women from working in public and private workplaces.

Before the Doha process, the Taliban imposed a work ban on female staff of the United Nations unit in Afghanistan, and the UN Security Council condemned this ban with Resolution 2681. Subsequently, international pressure began to build to recognize the Taliban as the official representatives of Afghanistan, with declarations that the Taliban had reformed and become moderate. On August 14, 2023, UN human rights experts issued a collective statement rejecting claims that the Taliban had reformed and become moderate.

The Doha process initiated by the United Nations will begin on June 30. Guterres had not invited the de facto Taliban authorities to the first meeting, but the Taliban stated that they would not continue the talks unless their delegates were accepted as the sole representatives of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Taliban were invited. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, criticized the UN for inviting the Taliban to the Doha meeting instead of holding them accountable for their “crimes” against Afghan women and girls. Following this, the UN confirmed that critical human rights issues would not be discussed initially in the Doha process involving talks with the Taliban. In response to the criticism, the UN claimed that they had begun working for girls and women by engaging with the Taliban in the Doha process, but the Taliban, attending as the sole representatives and excluding women, did not interpret the process in this way. To them, the invitation to the Doha meeting as the sole representatives was evidence of the increasing significance of the Taliban regime.

This is a critical and ancient issue. That is, to what extent negotiation and reconciliation strategies for fundamental human rights violations can be expanded. A similar debate occurred when Qatar and Afghanistan signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), with both countries being allowed to make reservations on fundamental rights, particularly regarding inheritance and family law. The key question here was how much of the denial of fundamental rights can be explained by cultural relativism. In other words, where is the limit of reconciliation? You can develop negotiation strategies to find common ground, but who you negotiate with, on whose behalf, and at what cost is as crucial as the negotiation itself.

Therefore, the restrictions imposed by the Taliban on women in Afghanistan are not just about Afghanistan or the denial of certain categories of rights. In her work describing the uniqueness and apartheid nature of the situation in Afghanistan, Frieda Afary noted that the US government and other allies knew that the regime they handed over to the Taliban was not only misogynistic but also racist and jihadist. This illustrated how the global meaning of the right to peace was hollowed out against women. Former Afghan parliamentarian Raihana Azad highlighted how international institutions and world politics empty concepts when it comes to women: “Until now, women have been the victims of men’s wars, but now, in Afghanistan, women will also be the victims of men’s peace.”

Meanwhile, another development illustrated exactly what the right to life means for women, one that Afghanistan was not part of. The 2024 Global Gender Gap Report was released a few days ago. This report, published annually by the World Economic Forum for 18 years, holds another reality beyond the numerical data. I’m talking about the reality of the vicious circles of describing social life with numbers. Tanıl Bora elaborated on this as turning numbers into names: “When numbers are turned into names, you see this very clearly.”

When you reflect the report’s data on life, the report speaks in another language: showing how the gap between women’s class, labor, workforce, and income deepens with regional differences and how women’s equality also varies during political changes. After the occupation, i.e., after the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban took over, women’s political representation fell from 107th to 146th place, and suddenly, in the 2024 report, you couldn’t see the name Afghanistan because the World Economic Forum, which could examine Afghanistan until 2024, did not include Afghanistan this year due to the inability to obtain data.

The more important data the report offers regarding women’s lives is the Health and Survival Subindex. The countries where women receive the least share of the economy are also those in the poorest five percent in terms of the health and survival index. In other words, as women’s economic autonomy decreases, their survival rates significantly drop. By survival, the report is really talking about women’s right to life. It discusses the link between women’s rights and survival under the shadow of major political changes.

This is why I was pondering exactly what the Doha process conducted by the United Nations means. Whether the various forms of reconciliation truly take us to the whole story. Engaging in a politics that erases women’s traces from local and daily life, removes them from being legal subjects, and makes international law visible with its own representation is not the kind of negotiation I’m thinking of. Ultimately, there is a distance between compromise and negotiation. Because we know from the ways social movements create impact that ideas precede social movements. When the idea you compromise on is at the very beginning, the question that follows is on whose behalf you made that compromise and which social movement you sacrificed for that compromise.

Afghan illustrator Mona Chalabi, in her work with the United Nations Women’s Unit, depicted the freedom of movement for women in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. She titled this work “from almost everywhere to almost nowhere.”

She added: “For many women around the world, stepping out the front door is an ordinary part of life. For many Afghan women, it is extraordinary. It is an act of defiance. Despite all these challenges, women have found ways to light the torch of hope. Afghan women are still forming new civil society groups, running businesses, and providing health, education, and protection services to meet the needs of society. Afghan women will not give up their right to live a dignified and equal life. They will not accept living in a world where they are not deemed worthy of living the same life as a man.”

I am trying to frame what the response of international law and institutions to the glass walls of women around the world means. The path they are trying to open seems to me to be far behind what women have overcome so far: a path leading “from almost everywhere to almost nowhere.”

*Isil Kurnaz graduated with honors from Bilkent University Faculty of Law. She obtained a master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from Lund University with the Sweden Institute Human Rights Scholarship in memory of Anna Lindh, awarded by the Swedish government. She won the Halit Çelenk Law Award in 2018 for her thesis on “Collective Social Rights in Constitutions.” She is currently working as a doctoral researcher with a scholarship at the Human Rights Institute of Sant’Anna Scuola Universitaria Superiore Pisa in Italy. She also contributes regularly to the Birikim magazine.

This article initially was published in Birikim Magazine and translated into English by Politurco.

[1] Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, Metis Publications, 2017, p.16.

[2] We evaluated the part of the report’s results related to Turkey as the Women’s Coalition with Baran Can Sayın’s report: https://gazeteoksijen.com/turkiye/nasil-en-az-esit-olunur-gosterdik-214632

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