‘The Taliban don’t know how to govern’: the Afghan women shaping global policy from exile

Despite the upheaval of the Taliban takeover, the ‘group of six’ are finding ways to tackle the political and humanitarian crisis

It has been described as Afghanistan’s brain drain, after the Taliban’s return to power last year precipitated an exodus of politicians, academics and journalists who fled in anticipation of reprisals and censorship under the militant group’s draconian regime.

For a small group of Afghan women, however, the work of running the country has not stopped, even in exile.

Fawzia Koofi is a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament and was its first female deputy speaker. Despite moving several times since leaving the country in August last year, the 47-year-old has kept talking with her former colleagues and contacts in international governance, working to find solutions to the political and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

“They [the Taliban] don’t know how to govern and they don’t respect the social mosaic of Afghanistan, which makes them more fragile, but is also hurting Afghans,” says Koofi, who has been working in Europe and the US with member states across the UN for the past year. “I don’t believe they will last very long, but I am concerned over the damage they inflict on Afghanistan’s social and political fabric.”

The work of Koofi and fellow Afghan women has helped to fill the gulf that exists between the Taliban, which are operating under severe sanctions and are domestically consumed with an economic crisis and enforcing gender apartheid, and the international community.

“We call them the ‘group of six’,” says Sarah Douglas, of UN Women, referring to a core group of Afghan women who have been instrumental in steering international policy towards their country over the past year. The group also includes Asila Wardak, a former diplomat and one of the founders of the Afghan Women’s Network; Sofia Ramyar, the former executive director of the youth-led organisation Afghans for Progressive Thinking; and the journalist Anisa Shaheed.

Giving an example, Douglas says: “There were negotiations around the mandate renewal of the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan (Unama) – and concerns that the mandate would regress in terms of gender equality and human rights, and that this would be reflected in the budget. But the mandate remained intact, and central member states actually reached out to me and said that the advocacy by these women really made a difference in those negotiations.”

Mariken Bruusgaard Harbitz, part of the permanent mission of Norway to the UN, says: “Norway initiated closed-door dialogues for these women to present their priorities to key member states at a critical time. During the process of renewing Unama’s mandate, these women came with clear expectations to the wording of the mandate, which in turn contributed to a strong monitoring and reporting mechanism for Unama on the ground.”

Mariam Safi, director of the Afghan Organisation for Policy Research and Development Studies, has not allowed the chaos and shock of the last year to stop her continuing her work from Canada, collecting crucial data from Afghanistan, specifically from women. After a brief hiatus, Safi improvised and restarted her work a few months ago through a digital platform, with female researchers across Canada and Afghanistan working from home.

One of their key projects, called Bishnaw, which means “listen” in Dari, continues to hold surveys with women across Afghanistan. “There’s a narrative [in the media] right now that says Afghans are predominantly concerned with the humanitarian crisis,” says Safi. “But our data from women across nine provinces shows that right after that, women are most concerned about women’s rights and closure of girls’ schools.”

Bishnaw’s surveys have also revealed a pattern of women being excluded from receiving international aid. “Of about 295 women, 163 told us that no women in their household had access to aid, contrary to the Taliban claims that women-led households were being provided aid. Only about five women out of 532 surveyed said all women have access at all.”

“Such data can actually provide [the international community] with a lot more leverage in their discussions with the Taliban,” she says. “In every meeting they are always asking, ‘What do Afghans want? What do women want? What are their concerns?’ We want to be able to provide data to answer those questions,” she says.

Naheed Farid, one of the youngest Afghan parliamentarians when she was elected at 27, describes her work with the group of six as reviving her sense of mission after she left Kabul for the US last year. “I had lost all hope after the Taliban takeover. But watching Afghan women and youth marching across Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad demanding for their rights gave me the strength to reignite my advocacy,” she says.

Douglas says there is a danger of international focus drifting away from Afghanistan without the efforts of these women and others like them. “My assessment is that they are being extremely bold because they want to keep the momentum and the visibility, and the issue of Afghan women, high on the agenda. And especially with the situation in Ukraine, they’re very concerned that the international community is forgetting about that.”

One member state whom she highlights for their continued commitment to working with the group is Ireland. Their outgoing ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, says: “With my team, I meet with them on roughly a monthly basis. We cover the latest developments in Afghanistan as they affect ordinary people, and women in particular. I keep them abreast of developments at the UN and in particular, at the security council. I seek their views on the issues of the day as they relate to the council’s work on Afghanistan. We exchange views on how to use our respective leverage to make a difference.”

“Discussions of and decisions on peace and security in a conference room in midtown Manhattan can only be effective if they are informed by the voices of those directly impacted,” says Byrne.

‘The Taliban don’t know how to govern’: the Afghan women shaping global policy from exile