Interview: German MEP Hanna Neumann Discusses Women’s Rights in Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule Features
© Ali Al-Baroodi for MEP Neumann // Published with permission
Interview: German MEP Hanna Neumann Discusses Women’s Rights in Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule

Hannah Neumann, a German member of the European Parliament (MEP) and an advocate for women’s rights, recently traveled to Afghanistan for the second consecutive year, gaining firsthand insights into the country’s devolution under Taliban rule. As a prominent figure in the European Parliament, her experiences on the ground and work within the legislative body shed light on the challenges faced by Afghan women and girls. To mark European Parliament Afghan Women Days Dr. Hannah Neumann led a workshop called “Solidarity with Afghan women parliamentarians.

It was in this context that a JURIST staff member — a legal scholar in Afghanistan, whose identity cannot be disclosed at present due to security risks — conducted the following interview with Dr. Neumann. 

Based on your visits to Afghanistan, how do you perceive the evolving situation of women and girls in the country?

The Taliban’s victory in the war has led to their seizure of power – and their handling of this power, to put it mildly, is far from responsible. The consequences have been alarming, with UN experts expressing deep concern over the systematic crackdown on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s press conference two days after the fall of Kabul, hardly any of their vague promises have become reality – be it regarding women being able to work and receive an education, or ensuring non-discrimination against women. Instead, what we are witnessing are alarming violations of women’s and girls’ rights, including restrictions on education, employment, and participation in public life that are unparalleled. An increasing number of decrees are designed to marginalize women from public life, confining them to the boundaries of the private sphere and limiting them to stereotypical domestic roles. This system can only be accurately described as gender apartheid.

Have you had the opportunity to engage in discussions with Taliban officials during your trips in both the current year and the previous year? If so, what have they told you?

During my visit this year in April, I did not meet up with Taliban officials. Nonetheless, during my talks with Taliban officials last year, I have come to understand that there are numerous contradictions in how they currently approach governance. While they express opposition to evacuations and express concerns about brain drain, they lack a vision for providing opportunities and livelihoods for women and minority groups in a future Afghanistan. Despite banning girls’ education, many Taliban members choose to home-school their own children. While asserting independence from international influences and emphasizing Afghan ownership, they at the same time complain about the decline in international funding for the national budget. It is also apparent that the Taliban may demonstrate proficiency as fighters, governing a country however requires a different set of skills. The transition from a violent insurgency to inclusive governance needs to occur swiftly, but currently, there is little to no visible plan in place. This is especially visible in cases where the population holds local Taliban accountable for things that do not work well under their responsibility. They simply lack a proper response – or even willingness to engage in such conversations. Compared to the situation last year, things are slowly progressing in some regions where individual Taliban on the ground have realised that they need to participate in exchanges and dialogues. Yet all of this is far from any form of sustainable or inclusive governance.

As a Member of the European Parliament, how will you continue to push for and highlight the need to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan under Taliban rule is a ticking time bomb, and the international community cannot afford to turn a blind eye, even if finding solutions is far from easy. In the European Parliament, we have consistently placed Afghanistan on our agenda since the Taliban takeover, including our recent resolution addressing the crackdown on education activists, which I actively supported. Additionally, I am heavily involved in ongoing discussions with colleagues from other EU institutions to leverage the collective strength of the European Union and develop a comprehensive approach. One of my key priorities is to provide a platform for Afghan women, both from within the country and in the diaspora, with the goal of making sure that their opinions, goals and concerns reach a wider audience and inform policy making in the key international fora. During my most recent trip to Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to talk to numerous women who shared their experiences and challenges, highlighting the importance of supporting women-led initiatives and projects. I am committed to fighting for more and flexible funding to support these organizations and ensure they have the resources they need to carry out their vital work.

Women in Afghanistan are bravely fighting for their rights, and some civil society activists are proposing aid suspension as a means to exert pressure on the Taliban. What is your stance on the matter?

Humanitarian aid is delivered based on internationally recognized principles, namely humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. These principles are crucial for its effective functioning. Given the growing and drastic poverty in Afghanistan, it is our responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance in accordance with these principles. It is important to emphasize that this assistance is directed towards the people of Afghanistan, to whom we are committed, and not to the Taliban. The UN estimates that 28 million individuals will require assistance in 2023 alone. Even a slight reduction in aid would be fatal, as it would result in numerous deaths; disproportionately affecting women and girls. The recent decrees by the Taliban stopping women from working in international NGOs aim to politicize humanitarian assistance. We need to clearly oppose any such attempts, but where we can continue to work in line with the humanitarian principles, we should do so. According to reports from most humanitarian organisations, they can continue to work in most regions of the country, also because certain sectors, such as healthcare, are being exempt from the Taliban’s restrictions. The approach needs to be: For women, by women – and wherever this is possible, aid delivery directly to the people should continue.

The response from the international feminist movement to this deplorable situation has been relatively muted. Why do you believe this is the case, and what actions can the feminist movement take to support Afghan women and girls?

Since the Taliban takeover, many feminist organizations, diaspora organizations, activists and politicians have continuously been denouncing the gender apartheid system imposed in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, in the last two years various crises have emerged, such as the war in Ukraine, the protests and their violent crack down in Iran, the global hunger crisis, or most recently the Sudan crisis. Frequently, the international focus has shifted to address these urgent issues, making it difficult to sustain attention on Afghanistan. The geographical distance, as well as the challenges faced by the Afghan people in speaking out against political injustice and raise global awareness, have contributed to this change. Additionally, there seems to be a growing fatalistic mindset that suggests there are no further actions we can take to support Afghan women. I strongly disagree with this notion. It is crucial that we redouble our efforts and stand in solidarity with Afghanistan, for as long as it takes. During my recent trip, I had a meaningful exchange with an Afghan women activist who articulated the role that the international feminist movement should play: „We want you to amplify the voices of Afghan women, to convey our message where we are unable to, and to support us in our domestic struggle for our rights.“ While we must continue to denounce the oppressive actions of the Taliban and their infringement on women’s and girls’ rights, we should also champion the empowerment of Afghan women by addressing their specific challenges and providing them with the necessary support and opportunities. Concrete actions include providing a platform and support for women who continue to work under Taliban rule, advocating for easier funding access and removing financial barriers for women-led organisations and projects. Additionally, facilitating visa access for women, particularly those in the business field, would enable them to make their voices heard internationally, for example by participating in trade fairs. As one woman put it: „Afghanistan is very black these days – but there is also some pink and it is our duty to make sure it stays.“