Taliban Talks With U.N. Go On Despite Alarm Over Exclusion of Women

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

The New York Times

The meeting is the first between the Taliban and a United Nations-led conference of global envoys who are seeking to engage the Afghan government on critical issues.

Taliban officials attended a rare, United Nations-led conference of global envoys to Afghanistan on Sunday, the first such meeting Taliban representatives have agreed to engage in, after organizers said Afghan women would be excluded from the talks.

The two-day conference in Doha, Qatar, is the third of its kind. It is part of a United Nations-led effort, known as the “Doha process,” started in May 2023. It is meant to develop a unified approach for international engagement with Afghanistan. Envoys from around 25 countries and regional organizations, including the European Union, the United States, Russia and China, are attending.

Taliban officials were not invited to the first meeting and refused to attend the second meeting, held in February, after objecting to the inclusion of Afghan civil society groups that attended.

The conference has drawn a fierce backlash in recent days after U.N. officials announced that Afghan women would not participate in discussions with Taliban officials. Human rights groups and Afghan women’s groups have slammed the decision to exclude them as too severe a concession by the U.N. to persuade the Taliban to engage in the talks.

The decision to exclude women sets “a deeply damaging precedent” and risks “legitimatizing their gender-based institutional system of oppression,” Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement referring to the Taliban’s policies toward women. “The international community must adopt a clear and united stance: The rights of women and girls in Afghanistan are nonnegotiable.”

Since seizing power from the U.S.-backed government in 2021, Taliban authorities have systematically rolled back women’s rights, effectively erasing women from public life. Women and girls are barred from getting education beyond primary school and banned from most employment outside of education and health care, and they cannot travel significant distances without a male guardian.

Human rights monitors have described the government’s policies as akin to “gender apartheid” and suggested that the systematic oppression of women and girls could amount to crimes against humanity.

U.N. officials defended their decision to exclude Afghan women in the talks this week, insisting that the issue of women’s rights will be brought up in discussions with the Taliban. They also said that they will meet Afghan civil society representatives before and after the talks with Taliban officials.

“The issue of inclusive governance, women’s rights, human rights writ large, will be a part of every single session,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N. political chief who is chairing the meeting, said in a news conference on Thursday.

Many Afghan women also called on Afghan activists invited to attend the side talks in Doha to boycott the discussions in protest.

The meeting represents an effort by the international community “to normalize the Taliban,” Rokhshana Rezai, an Afghan woman activist, posted on X. “I ask all those who believe in freedom and humanity to boycott this meeting, because this meeting is neither for the benefit of the Afghan people nor for the benefit of Afghan women.”

The controversy around the conference underscores the heated tensions within the West over how to deal with Afghanistan’s new government.

Some groups have pushed to isolate the Taliban by using sticks, like sanctions, over carrots to persuade them to change their most controversial policies toward women. Others have sought to engage the new government, in the hope that fostering more dialogue would bring policy changes within Afghanistan to make the government more palatable to the West.

Officials who are seeking to engage the Taliban want to focus on critical issues like counterterrorism, given the presence of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State affiliate in the region, on Afghan soil. They also say that without greater dialogue, Afghanistan could become more closely allied with Russia and China, both of which have been willing to overlook the Taliban’s human rights record in engaging with their government.

U.N. officials emphasized last week that the conference with Taliban officials did not represent a step toward formally recognizing the group as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. To date, no country has done so.

The chief spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, who is leading the delegation, said in a news conference on Saturday that his government hopes to discuss economic issues and international sanctions affecting Afghanistan.

The Taliban authorities “acknowledge the issues about women,” he said. “But these issues are Afghanistan’s issues,” he added, suggesting that the Afghan government did not believe the international community should be involved in setting its domestic policy regarding women’s rights.

Najim Rahim contributed reporting from San Francisco.

Taliban Talks With U.N. Go On Despite Alarm Over Exclusion of Women