Why Did the Taliban Welcome This Woman to Afghanistan With Big Smiles?

Analysts say Pakistan made a power move by sending a female minister to talk shop with the all-men government of Afghanistan.
Pakistan, Afghanistan, taliban, trade, politics, gender rights
Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's minister of state for foreign affairs, met her smiling counterpart Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban government's minister of foreign affairs, in Kabul on Nov 29. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Pakistan

The Taliban government in Afghanistan welcomed a woman-led delegation from Pakistan this Tuesday to talk about boosting their economy.

Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs Hina Rabbani Khar is one of Islamabad’s most seasoned diplomats, and while Afghan women can’t show their hair on Kabul’s streets and many girls are banned from school, Khar, and her windswept hair, was warmly welcomed by a Taliban delegation on the tarmac. They didn’t shake hands, but did make eye contact and smiled at one of Pakistan’s most powerful women.

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Experts say it was a power move to send a female minister from a Muslim country to talk shop with the all-men Taliban leadership that is denying women’s rights. 

The Taliban disagreed. “Whether it is led by a man or a woman, it’s bilateral cooperation. The result is more important,” the Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told VICE World News reacting to Khar’s visit. He denounced reports saying his administration restricts women’s rights as “exaggerated and distorted”. 

“The media only focuses on negativity and that is politically motivated,” Shaheen said. “We are committed to women’s rights,” he added. “The only thing is that we want to do all this in the framework of Islam.”

Pakistan, Afghanistan, taliban, trade, politics, gender rights

Pakistani minister Hina Rabbani Khan in a meeting with Afghanistan's deputy prime minister Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Pakistan

Since taking power in Afghanistan last year after US troop withdrawal, the Taliban regime has reversed hard-won gains by Afghan girls and women, who have long fought for the right to education and work. 

Yet this week the Taliban leadership met one-on-one with a woman-led delegation to further their own interests. Economic benefits were the cornerstone of the talks, said a Pakistan government press release. Khar met the Taliban government’s acting foreign minister, deputy prime minister, their commerce minister, and minister for mines.

Pakistan is the destination for more than half of Afghanistan’s $1.5 billion yearly exports; much of that is Afghan coal, and Pakistan wants more of it. In June, Reuters reported that Afghanistan had jacked coal prices from $90 a ton to $200, along with introducing a 10% increase in custom duties, to raise revenue from its mining sector. This was to take advantage of the increase in imports from neighboring Pakistan, as Kabul grapples with international economic isolation. 

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Pakistan’s Khar also met with the representatives of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce during her trip and told them Pakistan would prioritize imports from women-run businesses. In comments to VICE World News, Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson, maintained that women in Afghanistan are allowed to work and go to school, and that the leadership pays special attention to women entrepreneurs.

Dr Simbal Khan, a security analyst, concurred that Pakistan is still a main trade route for Taliban, but believed sending Khar wasn’t just the right move, but she was the right person for the job. 

Pakistan, Afghanistan, taliban, trade, politics, gender rights

Pakistani minister Hina Rabbani Khan with Afghanistan's Women Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Pakistan

“I am a little skeptical to take away from her [Khar’s] position as an eminent policy maker. She’s someone who’s very well versed on Afghanistan affairs, she has the right credentials,” she told VICE World News.

While the Taliban leadership does interact with female leaders from abroad, they have consistently ducked women’s rights talk at home. In October, it was reported that Taliban authorities beat and shot women protesting the suicide bombing of a school in Afghanistan, which killed 35 young Hazara women and girls. 

After the Taliban’s last stint in power from 1996 to 2001, fewer than 10 percent of girls were enrolled in primary schools and six percent in secondary school in 2003. By 2020, those numbers rose to 33 and 39 percent respectively, and 100,000 women were studying in universities. 

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That same year, 21 percent of Afghan civil servants were women, 16 percent of them in senior management positions, while 27 percent of Afghan members of parliament were women, according to the World Bank. Much of this progress has already been reversed under Taliban rule since August last year. 

Adam Weinstein, research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told VICE World News, that he doesn’t think “women-led delegations significantly alter the Taliban’s view on women’s rights.” 

“But they do uphold a norm, which is important,” he added. “Forcing the Taliban to meet with women leaders puts their hypocrisy on full display.”

Follow Kaukab Shairani on Twitter.