Moderator: Good afternoon from the State Department’s London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome everyone joining the call. Today we have the pleasure of hearing from Rina Amiri, Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights. After the special envoy’s opening remarks today, we will turn to your questions, and have about 30 minutes allotted for that.
So with that, I will turn the time over to Special Envoy Rina Amiri. Please go ahead.
Ms. Amiri: Good morning, and thank you, (inaudible). It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you. I just came back from a trip to London, Geneva, and Doha to ensure the alignment with our like-minded as well as to keep the spotlight on the situation of women, girls, and human rights in Afghanistan. And I wanted to offer an opportunity today to have a discussion and to identify what the key concerns were, just to open up our office to see – it’s a big – to start an engagement that hopefully we will be able to do on a more regular basis.
And with that, I’m just going to keep my comments short, just again by noting that we are very, very disturbed about the – what we see as a consistent negative trajectory on the situation of women’s rights and human rights in Afghanistan. It’s one in which there’s, I think, diminishing confidence that the Taliban is going to turn around. We’re also very concerned about the increasing attacks against religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Hazaras and the Sikhs and Hindus, and the situation has become so much worse, both from – both the human-created disasters and now a natural disaster. And we are really committed to identifying ways that we can more effectively engage with the Afghan people and advance both women’s rights, human rights, but the humanitarian situation as well. And in that regard, the office of Representative Tom West has been working around the clock to address those issues.
But with that, I’ll turn to you. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those opening remarks. We will begin our – the question and answer portion of our call today.
Operator: Thank you. One moment for the first question.
Moderator: All right. Our first question will be from Nick Schifrin of PBS. Please go ahead, Nick.
Question: Thanks, Christiaan, and hi, Rina. Thanks for doing this. Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about in terms of Taliban policy towards minorities, women, and I want you to put that in the context of the news, the earthquake that you mentioned.
So, obviously, there are restrictions on what the U.S. has decided to aid Afghanistan. Do you believe that is impeding at all U.S. ability to respond to the earthquake? And do you see any evidence that the Taliban is able to actually respond to a natural disaster of this crisis, given everything that you’re focused on with the Taliban issue in terms of its policies in Kabul? Thanks.
Ms. Amiri: Thank you very much. It’s very early, but at this point I can tell you that we don’t see anything that would – we had a conversation yesterday with the key departments and bureaus throughout the U.S. Government on this issue, and made an assessment. Overall, our assessment is that our – that the sanctions are not having an impact in terms of our capacity to address the disaster, the earthquake in the east.
We are already – our colleagues in USAID have assured us that medical teams are already being sent out to help those affected, and the aid that we have committed, the $720 million in humanitarian aid, is also one that can be applied to this situation.
In terms of whether or not the Taliban can respond to this crisis, I think it’s another one of those real critical moments in terms of the Taliban’s capacity to demonstrate to the Afghan people that it has the – that it is in the position and it has the capacity to meet the needs of the Afghan people, that it will prioritize meeting the needs of the Afghan people, and the way that it organizes itself.
So I think we are, like the rest of the world, watching the Taliban with the hope that they’re actually going to be able to do more than what they’ve done in terms of governance. But at the same time, we are working with our allies to make sure that everything that is – that can be mobilized to support the situation in Afghanistan is being done.
Moderator: Great. Thank you. Our next question is from Sandhya Sharma. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you for this opportunity. I have a quick question on how much do you see the role of technology in this? And do you think technology can play an important role to disseminate the suppressed voices of Afghan women? Our latest social media – U.S. social media companies are present in Afghanistan, but effective use of the same is something that needs to be done. Do you agree? And do you – does U.S. have a plan for the same?
Ms. Amiri: Sorry, I didn’t quite understand your question. You were asking whether U.S. – whether technology can be used to harness in support of Afghan women, or to suppress? I didn’t quite get your question.
Question: To harness, to harness, harness.
Ms. Amiri: (Inaudible.)
Question: Yeah, thank you.
Ms. Amiri: Thank you for that question. I think that’s a great question. And my short answer is yes, and in fact, this is something that my office has been discussing in terms of how we can use social technology, including low technology, low-tech technology, as well as other – satellites and other mechanisms in order to help women both in terms of addressing the fact that the Taliban has reneged on girls’ education and don’t seem to be prepared to reverse that decision anytime soon.
So we are right now mapping out the various proposals and efforts underway and trying to identify what can be scaled up. And we’re also having these discussions with private sector actors to identify how we can mobilize their support and their efforts. But I do want to – one point of caution is while we are committed to doing this and are working very hard on this front, at the same time we don’t want to give the Taliban an out. We do not want the Taliban to turn around and say, well, girls are being educated through Zoom at home and we don’t need to open schools.
So it’s really a fine balance of meeting the needs of the Afghan people, women and girls in particular, but at the same time making sure that this doesn’t create a situation of complacency, both for the Taliban as well as for donors.
Moderator: Okay. Thank you. Our next question goes to Borzou Daragahi of The Independent. Please go ahead.
Question: Yeah, hi. I guess I just wanted to ask a little bit about girls’ and women’s health care issues. Some of the people that I was talking to were sort of decrying what they saw as an effort on the part of the Taliban to prevent women health care workers, in particular midwives, from going into the field and attending to both women and girls without the accompaniment of a male relative, which is a huge problem for some people because of the – sometimes families don’t have a male relative at this point in Afghanistan.
And I was wondering if you have any assessment as to whether this is – this whole issue of the mahram, the male accompaniment. Is it a regional issue or is it a more systemic national policy on the part of the Islamic emirate? Thank you.
Ms. Amiri: Thank you. This is an issue that we’ve been trying to monitor closely, not just for – in health care but across sectors, to assess, one, whether the Taliban is systematically implementing this, and two, the extent to which this is having an adverse – more of an adverse impact on the capacity of women to work. And (inaudible) with the UN last week specifically raising this issue with some of the humanitarian organizations. And when I was in London and Geneva in particular, I took this question to women leaders who are working closely with women inside the country.
The top lines, I think, would be that, one, at the sub-national level, there isn’t yet systematic implementation of this measure, of imposing the mahram, but at the same time it’s increasingly taking place and it is a hindrance. It is a hindrance to women across sectors. It’s a policy that is not only problematic from the perspective of the Taliban imposing it, but it has created a culture of intimidation by men across society, where they can come and challenge women on the basis of, one, how they’re dressed; two, if they’re not accompanied. It’s limiting their capacity to get transportation.
And when we’ve raised this issue with the Taliban, they have indicated that the two sectors that they’re quite committed to ensuring that women work are health and education. I’ve also raised the issue of woman-headed households and the fact that their policies are hurting this most vulnerable population the most, and have noted that this is an area that they take – need to take better into account as they impose these decrees that are just not workable for a lot of families.
So by and large, I think that the – yeah, that the assessment is that this is a very problematic policy, and it’s creating challenges for women across all fronts.
Moderator: All right. Our next question is from Maha Siddiqui of CNN News 18. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. I wanted to ask you about the concern that you said there is of (inaudible) about (inaudible). Recently there has been attack on (inaudible). The attackers claimed the responsibility of (inaudible). Do you see any real (inaudible) Taliban to wanting to apply and to (inaudible)? The Taliban does (inaudible)? Is there any effort at all to try and safeguard this small community with (inaudible) at home (inaudible)? They all want to come to India on (inaudible).
Ms. Amiri: Thank you. And just yesterday I had (inaudible) to identify what more we could do on our end to address their, I think, very vulnerable situation in Afghanistan. I’ve also raised this directly with the Taliban and have noted that they – if they want to be seen as governing the country, they have to protect all Afghans, and particularly religious and ethnic minorities, and that there is an expectation of – and I’ve heard this from many different communities. I’ve heard this from the Hazaras, from the Ahmadis, that what they are – as well as the Hindu and Sikh population – that the Taliban has to do more to prevent these attacks.
This is something that I raised with the Taliban, and they noted that these communities, that the ISIS-K is targeting them because they see these communities as particularly soft targets. We are engaging with these communities to identify more specifically what we can be demanding to protect their rights.
But in terms of the Hindu and Sikh community, their concerns and their desire to be relocated in India – I have mixed thoughts about it. On the one hand, it’s crucial to maintain Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious diversity and to not give in to those that are bent on making Afghanistan an ethnically – purifying and stripping the country of these ethnic and religious minorities and targeting these elements.
But at the same time, I’m very sympathetic to these groups. They are in an incredibly vulnerable position. The Hindu and Sikh community – when I was in Afghanistan, I worked with them. I went to their (inaudible), and even then they felt vulnerable. At that point there were a thousand families. Now they’re down to 50 families, and they feel under incredible – they feel incredibly vulnerable and under attack. I think this was the seventh attack that’s taken place within a short period of time.
So I do think that there’s grounds for addressing their demands that more be done by neighboring countries, the international community, to address their plight.
Moderator: All right. Our next question is from Hussam Baramo. Please go ahead.
Question: I have two questions, actually. The first one: Can you please give us more light on the Qatari role in helping the international community in the Afghani situation?
Ms. Amiri: What is your second question?
Question: The second question is how the international and American sanctions on Taliban can be balanced so they don’t negatively affect the Taliban efforts to force Afghani woman outside the social and political context of the country?
Ms. Amiri: I’m sorry. I don’t quite understand your second question. How —
Question: Yes. The sanctions actually are sidelining Taliban, and Taliban is preventing against woman and minority. How can we get a balance that this – these sanctions cannot affect the woman and minorities in a negative way?
Ms. Amiri: Thank you for those question. First, in regard to the role of Qatar, they’ve been a very important actor both in partnering with the U.S. as well as other allies, particularly on the evacuation efforts. They were really instrumental in helping facilitate the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans. They continue to play a strong role in that regard.
They have held a special relationship with the Taliban, particularly because of – in the peace negotiations, their role as host has been really instrumental in terms of helping, to some extent, navigate the engagement with the Taliban. And so we’re deeply appreciative of their efforts on all fronts, from the political to the situation of these extremely vulnerable Afghans, who have to find their way out of the country under extraordinary difficult circumstances.
In regard to the sanctions, one, I would note that my assessment is quite different in terms of where the Taliban’s targeting of women and religious and ethnic minorities is coming from. Sanctions are something that they’re frustrated by; what we have – and the situation is that the actions that the Taliban themselves took is what triggered sanctions. This was not a punitive measure. They had been warned repeatedly during the negotiations that if they tried to take over militarily, these sanctions would be applied. They also included sanctioned individuals in their government, and have continued to only add those individuals. So all of the effort – all of the steps that they have taken have only made it more difficult for the international community to move away from sanctions.
But what we are – have been very careful and deliberate about is to ensure that the gender – general licenses are in place to ensure that it does not hurt the Afghan population. And now there are at least seven general licenses in place, and the assessment is that these general licenses do not prevent the efforts that we have to undertake on behalf of the Afghan population on the humanitarian front. And also it does not prevent the NGOs and the private sector from carrying out the work that they do inside the country.
In regard to the Taliban’s position on women, now what we understand – and this is a widely held perspective – is the Taliban are imposing more and more regressive measures and restrictions on women because there is an element of the Taliban that is extremely hardline, and they believe that this is the position that – their ideology is one that is – that has to be implemented after two decades of conflict. There’s a component of the Taliban that is quite bent on continuing to maintain those policies. That is not all of the Taliban, but it is the Taliban movement itself that is – it’s part of an internal assessment in terms of what they have to do, one, to keep their foot soldiers in line, and two, that this is what is expected of them according to their ideology.
And what they have made clear is that the role of the international community, whether it be sanctions or other efforts that we are undertaking, hasn’t had very much of an impact on their leadership in regard to doing better on the situation of women, girls, and minorities.
Moderator: Great. Thank you. Our next question goes to Ali Younes of Arab News. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. My question is: Doesn’t the U.S. blame the Taliban 100 percent for the current situation of woman in Afghanistan today? Or there is an element of tradition and culture that contribute to the question for – the question of woman in Afghanistan, such as the Pashtunwali and all these in the far-flung Afghan provinces? Thank you.
Ms. Amiri: Thank you. I think there’s nothing 100 percent in terms of our assessment. Certainly there are elements within the Afghan population that have a very conservative approach and one – and some of them, their perspective is not so different from the Taliban in terms of the role and place of women and girls.
But I would note, as someone who has traveled throughout Afghanistan, and since I am of Afghan heritage and have spent the last 20 years engaging with Afghans across ethnic, religious groups throughout the country – and what I would note is what the Taliban are imposing as a national policy is something that does not align with what the majority of our Afghans hold as something that they subscribe to as to the way they practice Islam, and they don’t see it as a part of Afghan culture. And if you actually look at not just the last 20 years, but if you look since the 1880s, there has been a very indigenous effort within Afghanistan to increase the rights of women and girls.
So I would note that it’s a – certainly there’s complexity there. Certainly there are elements within the country that subscribe to these very restrictive measures on women and girls. But it is a small minority. The rights of the majority of the Afghan people, Afghan women and girls, are being sacrificed for – by the Taliban because of their own sense of what Afghan culture is, which doesn’t line up with what most of Afghanistan subscribes to.
Moderator: All right. We have time for one more question, and we’ll go to Kelly Kimball of Foreign Policy. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thank you so much for your time. My question is mostly about the system of education and the impact of the way education is kind of being overseen on the younger generation of Afghans. My understanding is that there is a pretty intense radicalization of the education system and a transformation of school curriculum. I’m just wondering if you have a comment on that, if there’s anything to be done, especially since girls are no longer attending schools. And is there a sense of a uniformity of these regressive measures across the country? Thank you.
Ms. Amiri: Thank you. That’s a really important question. In the work that I do, one of the things that I – that occupies me and worries me is how quickly time passes and what (inaudible). The last 20 years went by very quickly, and within that space of that last 20 years, we saw that the policies and the efforts that were underway did generate a population that was quite transformed by the efforts that had been undertaken by that government with the support of the international community.
The policies that the Taliban are enacting, if they are left to – without it being checked, what I worry about is in 20 years we could have a very radicalized Afghanistan. We could have the situation that we see and we’ve seen at different times in Qatar. The one that we see throughout Afghanistan now – certainly I don’t want to characterize (inaudible) as a bad situation, but there have been periods where it’s been problematic. And what we should be looking at is – and the policies that we enact should have the short, medium, and long-term outlook. And the long-term outlook right now is definitely troubling.
The Taliban are showing an interest in establishing madrasas throughout the country. There are indications that they want to – despite their commitment to the international community, they want to make significant changes to the curriculum in a way that would take it away from educating the population for work and much more towards reinforcing a very hardline ideology. And the vice and virtue ministry that is being embedded throughout the country also does not seem to bode well in terms of what the Taliban are establishing increasingly as the reality that they’re going to try to entrench in the country.
Moderator: Great. Thank you. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for questions today. I’ll turn it over to you, Special Envoy Amiri, if you have a few final comments.
Ms. Amiri: Yes. First, I want to thank all of you for participating in this discussion. Right now, in the recent trip that I took, my goal was to maintain the spotlight on Afghanistan and the
situation of women, girls, and human rights. There is a danger that as the Taliban continue to make the situation more and more difficult on the rights front that there may be some who simply find it too painful to look at as a situation or that they give up on it and they see this as just a grim reality in Afghanistan.
That would be – Afghans often talk about betrayal. I think that would really be a betrayal of the Afghans who, for the last two decades, have demonstrated that they are – that they themselves were prepared to fight and to be at the forefront of democracy, women’s rights, human rights. And they are still at those front lines. They are still undertaking immensely heroic effort to fight for their rights.
And our role and our responsibility, particularly as what I ask of you as journalists, is to keep that spotlight. Get their voices out. Hold the Taliban accountable. And I would like to make myself available to you to – in that effort because I think there are a lot – there’s a lot – there are a lot of challenges around the world. Ukraine, of course, is at the top of that agenda. But we should be able to do more than one difficult thing at a time, and the situation in Afghanistan is one of the worst situations on the humanitarian, human rights front, and certainly the worst situation in regard to the rights of women and girls. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. And we thank you for joining us today. We will provide listeners with a transcript of this call later this evening. We appreciate your participation. Hopefully you can join us again on future press briefings. And this concludes today’s call.