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The Only Way to Deal With the Taliban? Talk to Them, Says Activist Fatima Gailani


Fatima Gailani, a pre-eminent Afghan woman activist, believes that engagement with Taliban is essential, but that doesn’t imply recognition. She says: “In my religion, in my national interest, you talk with people that you don’t agree with. What is the other option? War?” PEACE IRAFG/TWITTER

Fatima Gailani comes from a prominent Afghan family who has been working to improve life in her country since the 1980s. But under the Taliban rule since August 2021, women’s rights in Afghanistan have been particularly battered if not virtually erased in what some experts are calling “gender apartheid.” Secondary school classes and university education are mostly outlawed for girls and women; recently, girls have been banned from attending school beyond third grade, dropping from sixth grade. Women can’t work for nongovernmental organizations or hold public posts and judiciary positions.

The dress code and women’s ability to travel have been severely restricted as well, leaving their mental health at serious risk, revealing a reported surge in suicides. Most recently, the Taliban have even closed women’s hair salons. 

“This isn’t about getting your hair and nails done. This is about 60,000 women losing their jobs,” tweeted Heather Barr, the associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Gailani, 69, knows the story of the ups and downs of women’s rights in Afghanistan intimately. Her advocacy for women in the country, along with a cohort of fellow Afghan women inside and outside the country, is keeping a global vigil on the crisis, despite the tremendous setbacks imposed by the Taliban each month. One path toward persuading the Taliban to ease if not lift their repressive edicts on women and other harsh measures is to engage without recognizing the group officially, Gailani said in an interview with PassBlue in July.

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She chairs the Afghanistan Future Thought Forum, a group of Islamic emirate officials, former government employees, academics and civil society representatives who are seeking new ways of engagement between the Taliban and the rest of the country using Islamic values. Gailani questions the current approach by many parties in the West and elsewhere toward the Taliban’s actions.

“Let’s not make women’s issues and women’s education politicized,” she said. “Now it has become a matter of political debate between the world and the Taliban, which was the wrong way to go about it. It has to be dealt with as a value rather than politics.”

Gailani didn’t take part in the recent talks between United States officials and the Taliban, held in Doha, Qatar, in which the former urged the Afghan authorities to, among other critical issues, “reverse policies responsible for the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan, particularly for women, girls, and vulnerable communities.” A close observer of the talks told PassBlue that the US talking to the Taliban was a positive step for merely meeting and agreeing to do so again. 

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“We want all the engagement. We welcome it,” Gailani said about talks.

She became an important voice in the West, speaking about human rights abuses by the Soviets, during the Afghan-Soviet war. She also led the Afghan Red Crescent Society, negotiated peace with the Taliban in Doha when that dialogue began and was involved in other diplomatic missions. She has pushed against male-dominated culture, fought for human rights and promoted diplomacy in Afghanistan.

Her father, Ahmed Gailani, founded the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA) political party and led the resistance against the Soviets during their war in Afghanistan. Being a member of the Gailani family came with a sense of responsibility and remains so.

“My mother always reminded all of us that all these privileges are like a debt that the nation has given us and that there will be a payback time,” Gailani said, talking from her home in England, where she relocated before the coronavirus pandemic hit to receive medical care. 

Initially, Gailani chose an academic path, studying Persian literature and Sufism. She was preparing for the final exams for her master’s program when the communist coup occurred in Afghanistan in 1979. Gailani left for England, beginning 24 years in exile. One day, her father came to London to share his concerns about the fading role of women in the politics of jihad, or resistance against the Soviets.

“Women’s space was narrowing, they were sidelined,” Gailani said. Her father asked her to get involved.

“I need your foot to be to put [at the door], so this door will not slam. Even if it hurts your foot, we have to do it,” Gailani recalled him saying. “I can’t do it through other people’s daughters or sisters. You need to do this.”

She became the spokesperson for NIFA in the West and soon became an important voice of the resistance, speaking up about Soviet human rights violations and the deaths of civilians. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Civil war followed, lasting until 1992. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, and fell in 2001 when the Americans invaded after the 9/11 attacks. Gailani then joined the Afghan Red Crescent Society and reformed the organization’s constitution to eliminate corruption and ensure political neutrality. She held the position until 2016.

In 2020, she was among four women in the 21-person delegation negotiating peace with the Taliban in Doha. It resulted in a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban, ending the two-decade war. Following the deal, insurgent attacks against Afghan security forces grew, resulting in thousands of casualties. Despite the new wave of violence, the agreed-upon troop withdrawals continued. By January 2021, only 2,500 American troops remained in Afghanistan, and NATO forces completed their withdrawal by the end of that summer.

In a story globally told, the Taliban swiftly took over the capital, Kabul, in mid-August 2021, and the US evacuated its personnel, leaving behind thousands of Afghans who helped them in their fight against the Taliban over many years. A humanitarian crisis ensued. That has meant the erasure of women’s rights and leaving the rest of the world — including the United Nations — nearly impotent in trying to reverse the life-denying actions by the Taliban.  

Yet Gailani is determined to keep focusing on Afghan people without recognizing the Taliban on the global stage. She explains the complex paradox by saying simply: “Embassies that are still in Afghanistan in spite of a lack of recognition for [the Taliban] have a good engagement with Afghans.”

She also says: “In my religion, in my national interest, you talk with people that you don’t agree with. What is the other option? War?” 

PassBlue talked to Gailani over Zoom for its Women as Changemakers series, highlighting people who are using innovative ways to improve the human condition. The following conversation was edited for clarity and length. — ANASTASIIA CARRIER 

PassBlue: From the Afghan Red Crescent Society presidency to negotiating peace with the Taliban in Doha, what has it been like to take on these ambitions in a male-dominated society?

Gailani: I’m fortunate that I was born into a prominent religious family and that my name, most of the time, opened a door. If not, it was kept ajar for me to enter. The rest was up to me, but half of the problem was solved by my name. I was accepted into the Red Crescent, although I was a woman, by the governors and by the opposition, but they listened to me because of who I was. And I was in competition with men. I wanted to be better than men. Like most women in our part of the world, Afghan women have to unfortunately prove that they are at least equal to men in their work. In reality, they are more qualified most of the time.

PassBlue: In June, nearly two years after the unconditional withdrawal by the US from Afghanistan, the State Department released a report detailing the failings of the departure. What do you think about the US withdrawal in August 2021?

Gailani: It took them more than two years to know that? [The withdrawal] was immoral, irresponsible and horrible. No one would trust the Americans again. When I say this, I don’t mean their withdrawal — no country should stay forever in another country. The unconditional withdrawal was absolutely irresponsible.

PassBlue: How do you view the current state of human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women?

Gailani: The situation for women, the situation for the minorities, the lack of inclusivity — all that is terrible. But this can be solved only with engagement. What is happening to women today, it’s against my religion, but it is done in the name of my religion. If someone says that this is my tradition, then they should declare that my religion has failed in front of my tradition. Because if I have to choose between my religion and my tradition, I will choose my religion.

PassBlue: What do you think engagement with the Taliban should look like now, given its severe restrictions on women? Should the world engage with the Taliban?

Gailani: In my religion, in my national interest, you talk with people that you don’t agree with. What is the other option? War? Didn’t we have the whole of NATO and the US forces there, and what was the result? Isn’t that the time that we would go for a proper talk, sit and insist upon the values? We should not try to instill values through military force but through diplomacy.

I will approach the engagement from different angles. One is the international angle. For example, Japan has an embassy in Kabul. Japan has an ambassador [there]. Turkey is the same way. They haven’t recognized the Taliban, but they are there. The presence makes a huge difference. If there is no presence, how can messages about women’s education and other issues be repeated inside Afghanistan? They can demand a proper engagement between the people of Afghanistan and the government. When I say “engagement,” I don’t mean just engagement with the Taliban but engagement with the people of Afghanistan — heads of tribes, influential imams and people who can bring changes in Afghanistan. The Taliban or anyone [else] in Afghanistan cannot resist the request of people when it comes in an organized way. People can bring peace. It would take time, but they can bring peace and engagement. Also, in Afghanistan, we still need financial help from outside. This outside help should have a presence inside Afghanistan. They should say: “We will not recognize you. But we are here. And we want to insist and insist and repeat and repeat on those promises that you’ve made.”

PassBlue: What’s the Taliban’s incentive for accepting an arrangement in which foreign countries have a presence in Afghanistan but don’t recognize them?

Gailani: The Taliban would be over the moon to have ambassadors in Afghanistan. They think it would be a start of recognition. . . . Embassies that are still in Afghanistan in spite of a lack of recognition for [the Taliban] have a good engagement with Afghans.

PassBlue: What do you think the extent should be of the UN’s involvement with the Taliban?

Gailani: This is the UN’s job. Otherwise, what do we want the UN for? If every country is going to do their own work, then why do we have the UN? In Afghanistan, this is the job that the UN was created for. This is a place where they have to show that they can do it and that they are up to it.

PassBlue: Earlier in the year, some UN officials said the organization should consider pulling out of Afghanistan when the Taliban banned women from working for international nongovernmental organizations. What are your thoughts on it?

Gailani: Thankfully, we have very competent national NGOs that can carry on the work, but I would prefer to have the international NGOs stay. They have to continue to insist upon women working. I’ll give you an example of the Red Crescent. Our health dissemination and natural disaster dissemination to prepare and prevent natural disasters weren’t successful. Then, we took a few months to do a study and we realized that it was because women were not involved. So, we recruited women of a certain age to take [our] messages from house to house. It made a huge difference. Women are key to the households. Men cannot enter the households, and it is impossible to give humanitarian aid to families without a woman being involved in the work. And there is nothing in Islam against their involvement.

PassBlue: One condition of the US-Taliban peace agreement in 2020 was the reassurance that Afghanistan wouldn’t become a base for terrorist groups. ISIS is one such operation. Have the Taliban been reliable in the fight against terrorism?

Gailani: They have no choice. They have to be. Today, the biggest threat to them and to the country is Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS], and this is one thing which is a mutual interest between them and the rest of the world. Daesh is not in Afghanistan for the sake of Afghanistan. Daesh is in Afghanistan to take space to use it against the world. [The Taliban] are taking it seriously. And whether we like it or not, they are in the country, and neither can do it without the help of the international bodies nor vice versa. Daesh should not be allowed to take roots. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on engaging with the Taliban?

Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.

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The Only Way to Deal With the Taliban? Talk to Them, Says Activist Fatima Gailani
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