Last week, the people of Afghanistan were given a rare glimpse into the views of the Taliban when the Islamic Emirate’s acting minister of defence, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, sat down for a one-on-one interview with TOLO TV, the nation’s largest private broadcaster.
It was something of a landmark moment for Afghans: the first time a senior Taliban figure had deigned to speak directly to non-state-owned media – and this was the son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, no less, and in front of a studio audience.
The 80-minute interview covered everything from Mujahid’s relationship with his late father, to accusations of human rights abuses in the northern province of Panjshir, to the continued closure of secondary and university-level education for women and girls across the country.
Watching the interview, however, one glaring fact was hard for most viewers to ignore: the complete absence of women in the studio audience.
Both the presenter and audience members brought up the increasing limitations on women’s rights to recreation, work, and education, but not one woman was given the opportunity to ask Mujahid even a single question.
The status of women in the country has been a major bone of contention for the international community since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. Days before Mujahid’s interview aired, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights issued a report saying women and girls continue to face “widespread and systematic discrimination” in the Islamic Emirate, while the UN’s envoy to Afghanistan told the Security Council on 21 June that the restrictions made it “nearly impossible” for the international community to recognise the Taliban.
The New Humanitarian asked three Afghan women working with local and international NGOs in the country for their thoughts on the interview and for their takes on what Mujahid’s words – and demeanour – could portend for women living in the Islamic Emirate, which some critics accuse of creating a “gender apartheid” by imposing certain restrictive policies just on one sex.
Though all three have sat down with the Taliban on several occasions in order to secure workarounds to restrictions on Afghan women working for NGOs, they all requested anonymity given reports of the Islamic Emirate’s crackdown on dissent, particularly female protesters.
Wazhma*, who has been involved in women’s rights work for more than two decades, was less than impressed by Mujahid’s interview, saying he failed to answer any question about rights abuses directly.
“Everything he said was repetitive.”
“He just kept speaking under his breath,” she said by phone from Kabul, meaning she felt he tried to avoid answering many of the questions head-on.
Wazhma said the interview could have been an opportunity to open a door for increased dialogue between the people and the leadership of the Islamic Emirate, but sadly, for her, it was just more of the same.
“Everything he said was repetitive,” said Wazhma, who has been looking for ways to engage with the Islamic Emirate government since it took power in August 2021. “It was all the same answers we’ve been getting when we approach them about these very subjects.”
One example, she said, was Mujahid’s flat-out denial of any human rights abuses in the northern province of Panjshir, where the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), an armed opposition movement, has been launching attacks from for nearly two years.
“This is just based on incorrect reports and propaganda,” Mujahid told presenter Faridullah Mohammadi when asked about the raft of accusations – war crimes, collective punishment, and torture – being put forward by the UN, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.
Wazhma said Mujahid’s response was far too similar to the October statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which referred to a UN report on abuse of civilians in Panjshir as “baseless accusations”.
‘I’m so tired of that response’
The biggest disappointment for Wazhma came when two audience members, speaking both Dari and Pashto, asked Mujahid about his views on the Islamic Emirate’s restrictions on the rights of women.
They raised both the issue of women being cut off from employment in most of the government – the Ministry of Defense is one of several ministries that hasn’t allowed women back to work since the Taliban returned to power – and the fact that secondary schools and universities remain closed to women and girls across the country.
Mujahid skirted a question about whether he would want his own daughter to work as a teacher or a doctor – two professions still open to women – or as a government minister, something that is currently off limits to women under the Islamic Emirate.
“For almost two years now, they just keep saying, ‘ask those in charge’.”
And on the issue of the reopening of schools and universities, he said: “It should be asked of those officials, ministries, and institutes that are involved in [education]... There is a lot in terms of education I may not be aware of, [I could] give you wrong information.”
Wazhma described this as a “copy and paste” response that she and other women had heard time and time again from the Islamic Emirate officials they speak to.
What annoyed Wazhma was that while Mujahid was willing to talk about certain aspects of his own personal life – being 31 years old, living on the run during the Western-backed occupation of Afghanistan, his relationship to his deceased father, Mullah Omar, and the fact that he has only ever studied in religious seminaries — he wouldn’t address issues that would have a direct effect on the futures of his own children.
“I’m so tired of that response,” said Wazhma. “For almost two years now, they just keep saying, ‘ask those in charge’.”
And when they do ask education officials, Wazhma said they just keep getting vague responses that they will reopen one day but first need to change the curriculum, redesign school uniforms, and arrange transportation for girls to get to and from school.
Wazhma said she and her colleagues raised the issue yet again at a recent meeting with education officials but the only real response they got was one that placed the onus on groups like the one she runs: “They said, ‘Maybe the women-run NGOs can get funding and take on projects to address some of these issues quicker.’ That’s all.”
‘A powerful moment’
Tahmina, who recently returned to Afghanistan to work for an international NGO, said she understands the frustrations raised by women like Wazhma but the fact that the interview took place at all should not be downplayed.
When the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they had banned all forms of entertainment, including television, and only state-owned media outlets were allowed to operate.
“It was a powerful moment to see a senior Taliban official partaking in an interview of that format. It's something I never imagined happening,” Tahmina said.
“Everyone in my office was praising him. Not just the questions he asked, but the tone and the way that he asked them. And his insistence on repeating the ones that Yaqoob tried to avoid.”
Though she conceded that Mujahid dodged the questions around girls’ education, Tahmina suggested his reluctance to answer may not have been so different in other countries.
“Leaders all over the world avoid answering questions that aren't relevant to their field, so why are we holding the Talib leadership to another standard,” Tahmina said. “We wouldn't expect the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to answer a question on residential schools, [so] why do we expect the Taliban defence minister to answer about girls’ secondary education?”
She admitted to not being entirely satisfied with Mujahid’s response, but said the fact the questions were even allowed to be put to him in the first place was an important step: “He didn’t stop the questions, he just didn’t answer.”
Tahmina said she did find some hope when Mujahid’s said, “I hope that in five years, we will have progress in all areas… [including] the issue that has been raised by our countrymen now and that friends are asking about, regarding education.”
But Wazhma, the civil society activist, felt the fact that Mujahid had to word his response so carefully showed that even he isn’t confident enough to speak freely on such an important but sensitive issue. “He’s afraid of not upsetting the higher-ups,” she said.
Malal, who runs an NGO in Kabul, watched the interview with her sister. She said the entire thing was very “carefully worded” but it’s important to continue to have Islamic Emirate officials engage in open dialogue with the Afghan people.
That same sentiment was expressed by Madina Mahboobi, who also runs an NGO in Kabul, when she spoke before the UN earlier this week. “Engagement and dialogue is crucial for a peaceful solution” to the “crisis” in Afghanistan, she said.
While agreeing that Mujahid avoided direct answers to “sensitive questions”, Malal felt that, on the whole, he came off as truthful with his responses.
Addressing the lack of women in the audience, Malal said there would need to be more examples of dialogue between male Afghan citizens and the government first, so that trust could be built, adding that it’s “not impossible” women could be involved in similar public dialogues with high-level Islamic Emirate officials at some point in the future.
All three women praised the professionalism and bravery of the presenter, especially as the Taliban claimed responsibility for the 2016 suicide bombing that killed seven TOLO workers after it accused the network of broadcasting fake news.
“Everyone in my office was praising him,” Tahmina said of Mohammadi. “Not just the questions he asked, but the tone and the way that he asked them. And his insistence on repeating the ones that Yaqoob tried to avoid.”
At the end of the day, Wazhma said the Taliban’s repeated and ongoing crackdowns on activists, protesters, and journalists mean she can’t place too much faith in Mujahid just being willing to sit down and talk for a bit. “Now is just the time to be quiet and cautious,” she said. “I didn’t see anything in this interview to make me hopeful about the future.”
Edited by Andrew Gully.