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Urgent Concerns Over Hijab Enforcement Highlight Afghanistan’s Critical Need for Direct Engagement – The Diplomat

In the complex tapestry of Afghanistan’s unfolding existence, a poignant new chapter emerged on January 11, as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed deep concern over the arbitrary arrests and detentions of women and girls for alleged non-compliance with the Islamic dress code. In its statement, UNAMA said that since the beginning of the month, it has documented campaigns enforcing hijab decrees in Kabul and various locations in Afghanistan. It unveiled a troubling turn in which the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Afghanistan, along with the police, have launched a crackdown targeting women allegedly not conforming to the Islamic dress code. The statement reports that an unspecified number of Afghan women and girls have received warnings and faced detention, vividly portraying the challenges they currently confront.

Islam encourages modesty in dressing. Women across the Muslim world practice wearing hijab in diverse ways, often drawing inspiration from or aligning with local customs and traditions in their own communities. Afghan women traditionally covered themselves from head to toe, but in ways reflecting the country’s cultural diversity and tradition. Scarves were commonly worn, even when paired with jeans and modern tops. It’s important to note that the Taliban have not explicitly outlined a dress code for women in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover and the promotion of Islamic hijab, female TV presenters and YouTubers have frequently donned face masks. Likewise, young women on the streets of Kabul are commonly observed wearing face masks, adding a new dimension to the diverse ways women traditionally dressed and covered themselves before the Taliban assumed control. In response to UNAMA’s statement, the spokesman of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate issued a swift statement of its own on X, formerly Twitter, refuting their concerns about the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan regarding their hijab. The statement asserted, “Afghan women wear hijab on their own; neither they have been forced to do so nor has the ministry of vice and virtue mistreated them. This is just propaganda and far from reality.” UNAMA’s statement said it would actively investigate allegations of ill-treatment and incommunicado detention of women and girls.

This narrative, however, extends beyond hijab enforcement, delving into the multi-faceted crises gripping Afghanistan. from education bans and severe hunger to the geopolitical shifts in the post-U.S. withdrawal era. Soon, it will be three years since the ban on girls’ education above the 6th grade in Afghanistan. The United Nations Children’s Agency notes that over 1 million girls in Afghanistan are currently barred from accessing secondary and higher education due to the Taliban’s imposed ban on girls’ education. This restrictive policy not only robs girls of immediate educational opportunities but also severely limits their prospects for the future, highlighting the distressing social and mental impact on the country’s young female population. According to a 2023 report by the World Health Organization, Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate eclipses the combined rates of its six neighboring countries.

As per the 2023 U.N. Food Program report, a staggering 19.9 million Afghans – nearly half of the population – are grappling with severe hunger, while an alarming 4 million children and women are severely malnourished. These alarming statistics underscore the urgent need for comprehensive aid and support in Afghanistan, given the multifaceted and entrenched nature of the crisis. A swift and accelerated approach is crucial to addressing the situation’s urgency. The international community is contemplating its role, via debates over U.N. resolutions and the appointment of special envoys. Meanwhile, the absence of direct engagement with Afghanistan’s new rulers, along with the rising influence of regional powers, amplify the challenges. On December 29, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution acknowledging a recently completed independent assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and urging the U.N. secretary-general to designate a Special Envoy for Afghanistan. Thirteen members supported the resolution. China and Russia abstained. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, along with many other Afghans, welcomed the U.N. resolution, emphasizing the crucial need for education for Afghan girls and boys and advocating for women’s participation in all aspects of life, though without vocally supporting the call to appoint a special representative for Afghanistan. In a brief message to X, Karzai stated that the key to prosperity and peace in Afghanistan lies in the unity of its people.

However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Emirate expressed “dismay” at the adoption of the resolution, emphasizing that it was passed without consulting them. The ministry, in a statement, deemed the appointment of an additional representative alongside UNAMA unnecessary. It asserted that Afghanistan is not a country at war and is currently governed by a central authority with the capacity to safeguard national interests, fulfill obligations, and manage affairs through both bilateral and multilateral channels. The U.N. Security Council resolution aligns with the ongoing presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which was established in 2002. UNAMA holds a comprehensive mandate that extends to promoting human rights and advancing peace efforts. Operating through multiple offices across diverse regions, UNAMA consistently provides reports, briefings, and firsthand updates on the ground situation to the U.N. Security Council. In light of UNAMA’s extensive presence and mandate, a pivotal question emerges: Does addressing the crisis necessitate a comprehensive approach that comprehends local dynamics, engages with Afghans in Afghanistan, enhances communication between key stakeholders – the international community and the Taliban – and involves stronger, more coordinated diplomatic efforts to bring about timely and tangible change?

A case can be made that the introduction of more special envoys will not effectively contribute to achieving tangible and timely change, particularly given that envoys often conduct meetings outside Afghanistan, limiting their access to firsthand realities on the ground. This approach overlooks the opportunity for direct engagement and dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the ruling authority over the Afghan population. The Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan materialized primarily through the agreement signed with the United States in Doha in 2020, which facilitated the complete withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops. Interestingly, and surprisingly to many, this move marked not only the end of its longest war in history but also a practical abandonment by the U.S. government of at least two decades of diplomatic and civil engagement in Afghanistan. Consequently, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul remains closed. The United States has refrained from officially recognizing the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and has since avoided direct engagement with the authorities in Kabul.

The absence of direct engagement between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s new rulers is perplexing. To many, it translates as the U.S. ignoring the nearly 40 million people living in a country whose previous government they supported immensely. The U.S. government has appointed two special envoys for Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover. Thomas West has been in his role as the State Department’s special representative and deputy assistant secretary for Afghanistan since October 2021. Similarly, Rina Amiri took on the position of the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights in January 2022. Neither has had the opportunity to visit the country in over two years to gain a direct understanding of the situation. Most of the discussions and meetings involving the two U.S. envoys appointed for Afghanistan have taken place outside the country’s borders. These interactions primarily involve former employees of the previous republic who were in communication with the U.S. government and the international community for years and Afghans living in the diaspora, both with limited to no direct access to the country. The void left by the United States, however, appears to be advantageous for other key regional actors, notably China and Russia. And it raises serious concerns, at least among many Afghans. China has maintained open communication with the new authorities in Kabul. Afghanistan’s shared border with China, Beijing’s assertive regional policies, and its treatment of millions of Uyghurs place Afghanistan on the edge.

Russia, through its own envoy, has actively engaged with Afghanistan since the Taliban assumed control of the country in August 2021. Russian Presidential Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov held discussions on bilateral relations during a visit to Kabul on December 20, marking one of several engagements. This ongoing diplomatic involvement suggests a deliberate effort by Russia to strengthen ties with Afghanistan. The historical backdrop of the Cold War and Russia’s own decade-long war in Afghanistan contributes to…

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