Nargis Nehan: ‘Women are begging on the streets of Kabul’

The former Afghan republic minister tells Roxanne Escobales that engagement with the Taliban can only come by prioritising the rights of the country’s women and girls.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Nargis Nehan

Former Acting Minister for Mines and Petroleum (2017 to 2019), Afghanistan government

Roxanne Escobales

Former Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

Nargis Nehan was Afghanistan’s acting Minister for Mines and Petroleum from 2017-2019. She fled the country after the Taliban takeover in 2021 and is now a women’s rights advocate. After the United States invasion in 2001 she worked in various government roles, including Director General of the Treasury and as a senior adviser in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.

With the Taliban back in power for two years, what is the state of women’s affairs in Afghanistan today?

Women are living under gender apartheid. After two years in control, girls are not allowed to attend secondary school; they are not allowed to attend universities. Women are not allowed to work in non-governmental sectors; women are being removed from the public sector. Women are not allowed to work in United Nations agencies, and there are now restrictions on women in the private sector.

More women are now begging for themselves and their children on the streets of Kabul 

Unfortunately, Afghanistan was already in poverty before August 15, 2021. We had conflict in the country for over four decades. Thousands of families are run by women. They are the breadwinners. But women have had their job opportunities taken away from them, and there are no programmes to support them.

When you go on the streets of Kabul and in other provinces right now you see an unprecedented increase in the number of woman beggars. They are begging for just a little bread for themselves and for their children. You also see a massive reduction in the financial assistance that the international community was providing. So, women are actually being kind of squeezed from both sides. 

Where do you see this leading for women? What can be done?

In a country with a population of around 40 million there is no way that you can 
respond and fill the current gap. We have an absence of a legitimate government. We need a government that at least would have the minimum capability to be able to manage the crisis. That is a big gap that nobody can fill for us.

The crisis is going to get worse and worse and soon it is going to spill over into other countries. You will see a high influx of refugees migrating to different countries, putting their lives at risk. They know the risk of getting into those boats. They know that it is literally a matter of life and death, but still they choose that option because they don’t have any alternative.

You will see more extremism and more security threats coming from Afghanistan. So, gradually the world will pay attention. 

You have urged the international community to take a harder line on the Taliban. What would you like to see happen?

Engage with the Taliban but also with women’s political parties, civil society, media – everybody

Many opportunities are missed by the international community in their engagement with the Taliban. Despite arranging Afghan women talks and peace talks and different initiatives, you see that the number of gatherings, meetings, conferences for Afghan women has decreased. So women are not only diminished from Afghan society, they are being diminished from the international stage because they are not getting invited any more.

The international community is going around and very carefully trying to find those who will not oppose or challenge their foreign policy towards Afghanistan or their engagement strategy with the Taliban. 

Are the Taliban worth engaging with if they are not going to change? What is the role of the international community and where is the political opposition in the diaspora?

I have to make one thing very clear: We are not against engagement with the Taliban because at the end of the day, if we are going to end this conflict, we have to talk to each other. The only thing that we are asking is about engagement that will have accountability. It needs to hold everyone to account at every step on how they are engaging, what is the progress and what is the outcome of that?

That is what we are asking for. We are not saying do not engage with the Taliban. We are saying engage with the Taliban, but make sure that you are engaging with all the other groups, including Afghan women’s political parties, civil society, media – everybody.

Can you believe that in the past two years no country has been willing to host an Afghan women’s summit which we have been asking for and help us to sit together and develop our strategy. Provide platforms for us so we can make ourselves heard and we can talk to the world.

What are the risks for the international community if it doesn’t meaningfully act on Afghanistan soon?

There are security, economic and geopolitical risks. For example, China is very interested in the minerals of Afghanistan. They have sent several delegations to the Ministry of Mining. They have already started their extraction activities inside of Afghanistan. Their private companies are forging partnerships with Afghan companies. Literally all the commodities that are being extracted are exported to China, Iran and Pakistan.

The message the Taliban are sending to other extremist groups is, if we can control Afghanistan then why can’t you control Pakistan?

There are also big reserves such as copper that they are negotiating over. You will not be surprised that they are going to make Afghanistan part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and they are going to get more mining concessions. They will continue these economic activities regardless of the situation with Afghan women and the Afghan people.

In terms of the political situation, the Taliban are much more comfortable dealing with Russia, China and Iran than western countries, because those countries are actually much more aligned when it comes to lack of accountability, the violation of human rights and women rights, and denying citizens in an open society the rights they deserve.

Whether the international community likes it or not, it has lost the influence it had in the region, something we kept warning it about. The irresponsible withdrawal has also created a trust deficit between the western countries and groups who were their allies such as women, civil society, media and youth. 

What are the consequences?

There is going to be an expansion of extremism and fundamentalism that nobody will be able to manage. In the new curriculum just issued by the Ministry of Education, they have pictures of the Taliban leaders and are teaching that fighting against non-Muslims is totally fine and that if you do you are going to be rewarded by God.

Do not sacrifice democracy, human rights and women’s rights for geopolitical priorities

The message the Taliban are sending to other extremist groups, for example, the Tehrik-e Taliban in Pakistan, is if we can manage and control Afghanistan then why can’t you control Pakistan? We also need to remember the whole machinery and guns the Taliban have. Imagine if the Tehrik-e Taliban had access to all the guns and nuclear weapons that Pakistan has.

The same thing goes with other extremist group in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and in European countries as well as the US. It is going to get out of control and the situation in Afghanistan is playing a significant role in this whole process.

What message would you like to send to world leaders?

What we do with Afghanistan will set an example for the whole world. How are we going to deal with a group that takes a whole country by force, and takes a nation hostage? If you engage with them and give in to their demands without any accountability you are setting a model that other groups will follow.

The bigger picture is the struggle between two ideologies on a global level. One is an ideology of a closed society, an extremism that wants to control people and, in the name of Islam, wants to terrorize people and use violence to take power.

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The other model is an open and democratic society. Whoever comes into power has to have electoral legitimacy through elections so they can represent that country domestically and internationally.

What we expect from those countries that have been the flag bearers of democracy, the founders of democracy, which understand the value of democracy and which have benefited from democracy, is to genuinely stand for democracy.

Do not sacrifice democracy, human rights and women’s rights for geopolitical priorities.