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Afghanistan: Women

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to work with the governments of Islamic countries to persuade the Taliban to allow women in Afghanistan to work with non-governmental organisations.

My Lords, the ban on Afghan women working for NGOs is totally unacceptable. I have spoken to my counterparts from across the Islamic world to agree that we must convince the Taliban that these edicts are un-Islamic and contravene all global norms and values. I am encouraged that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is considering initiatives to address this very problem. I shall of course continue to seek practical solutions and work with Muslim-country partners to ensure that Afghan women can continue to work and, importantly, benefit from lifesaving aid.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. When this issue was raised last week by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, the Minister suggested that there might be a way of bending the present rules to allow this to happen. Does he agree that it is essential that some long-term solution for this is found? Could he indicate what work is going on in relation to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—all countries that have, in the past, had good relationships with the Taliban? Would he use all his much-respected powers of persuasion in relation to these countries to get a long-term solution to this?

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord is right to raise this issue. As I alluded to, I find it unimaginable—I put it that way—that the Taliban, with their rigidity and coercion, will back-track on the edicts that they have issued. However, as reported by the Deputy Secretary-General to the UN, we have seen workarounds on ensuring that support on key issues such as health and education is being provided. The noble and right reverend Lord is correct that we are working on that. I assure him of my good offices and those of others. We are working closely with the Islamic countries. I was in Pakistan in October 2022 and I raised this issue directly when I met the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, in December. My colleague and right honourable friend Andrew Mitchell met the Pakistani Prime Minister recently at a conference in Geneva. I have recently engaged with Oman, Qatar, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan.

My Lords, I underline what the Minister said: banning women and girls from education and work has no place in Afghanistan or any other Islamic country. It is important that people understand that.

I want to take the Minister back to the meeting that the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, had directly with the Taliban when she led an important delegation last week. One of the outcomes is the prospect of a conference in March for Islamic countries to come together to raise these issues and try to influence the Taliban, because of course they do not speak with one voice. What has the UK’s engagement been with that? Would the United States engage with it as well, using its influence in the Middle East? What practical steps can the UK Government take to ensure that it happens?

I believe that that is a good idea. I have engaged directly with the Deputy Secretary-General on the concept. It will be held in the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women conferences that take place in New York. However, I also support, as does the Foreign Secretary, the strong suggestion that it be held within the region to allow for a greater focus on the rights of women and girls, not just in Afghanistan but across the Islamic world, including the issue that noble Lords have often rightly debated: the current plight of women and girls in Iran.

My Lords, this is the third time that we have discussed this issue in the last week, and I think that indicates how strongly your Lordships’ House feels about it. I take the opportunity to thank the Minister for his responses, which we broadly welcome; we are grateful that he is involved in this on behalf of the British Government.

The Minister has spoken about engagement with Islamic countries in south Asia and across the Middle East. He will understand how important it is that we work multilaterally across all countries to encourage the Taliban and do everything that we can to reverse this policy. He has mentioned that he has engaged with Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed regarding this conference. What more can we do to support her in her efforts? She could be a guiding light for all of us in trying to reverse this dreadful and appalling policy.

I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. This policy is draconian and has no basis in any society, and that includes the Islamic world; that has to be made clear. I assure her that it is not just the Islamic world that we have engaged with, but there has to be a particular focus there.

The Taliban have not budged an inch; if anything, they have gone into more aggressive and abhorrent territory. We have seen the ban on girls’ education, along with the recent ban on women’s participation in NGOs. At the moment they have not gone further than that, but the situation on the ground is very challenging and testing. We are of course working with the UN and with international partners, including the likes of the United States and the European Union. It is important that we send a comprehensive, multilateral message to the Taliban that their actions will be taken very seriously.

As I am being candid, although I think we will not see the Taliban pulling back any time soon, I think the importance of delivering humanitarian aid and of women’s health and education should be paramount, and we need to look at practical solutions. In that, the Islamic world is going to be key.

My Lords, I commend my noble friend on all the work he is doing in this area. I know how dedicated he is to trying to make improvements wherever he can. Will he join me in commending also the bravery of many of the women across the Middle East, and in other parts of the world, who are standing up and trying to protect the rights of women in those countries?

I absolutely join my noble friend in that. It is important that we see the representation of women across all parts of the world, including the Islamic world, coming to the fore. I am very much encouraged by seeing Ministers being appointed in Qatar and, more recently, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is important that their message is delivered as well, because their sheer presence demonstrably shows that the erroneous interpretation and narrative of the Taliban is fundamentally flawed—it is wrong.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a doubly persecuted group in Afghanistan, and among those who have fled Afghanistan, is Hazara women? Many of them have been judges, lawyers or journalists. They have suffered grievously at the hands of the Taliban and continue to do so. Yesterday, a new report was launched here in Parliament by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hazaras. I want to follow up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. The report includes a number of recommendations about what the UK can do. Will the Minister undertake to read that report and respond to the recommendations that have been made to the UK Government?

My Lords, perhaps I can go one step better. I am aware of the meeting that took place. First and foremost, I invite the noble Lord, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, who I know is also involved, to have a direct meeting with me. I have engaged with the Hazara community’s representatives here in the UK. While we talk about women’s rights, it is also important that we do not lose sight of minority rights within Afghanistan, which are also being suppressed by the draconian Taliban.

My Lords, is not the lesson we learned from both America’s humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam and, more recently, ours from Afghanistan that foreign interventions which seek to impose our will on others of a different cultural heritage rarely work, and that the wise man seeks a more subtle approach to intervention? In the case of Afghanistan, subtlety demands the use of interlocutors who seek to help, advise, understand, engage and influence but not chastise. Those are very Christian principles. Condemnation and isolation simply will not work.

My Lords, first and foremost, I do not think the Taliban will understand the language of gentle persuasion. They are an abhorrent stain on the Islamic world; that is not my assessment but the assessment of many countries across that part of the world. Where I agree with the noble Lord is that we should explore all avenues to ensure that, whatever levers are at our disposal, and working with key partners who have the necessary influence, we change the trajectory that is currently faced across Afghanistan, particularly given the plight of women and girls.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say what analysis the FCDO has done of the Taliban’s emerging or nascent and evolving foreign policy, if any, to be able to identify certain levers and pressure points that it could use to try to nudge the Taliban into solving this issue, which we want to be solved?

My Lords, that is why we are working closely with partners across the Islamic world to identify and use those levers effectively.

My Lords, the Taliban rely on a very extreme interpretation of dated Middle Eastern culture. Does the Minister agree that, if religion is to be a force for peace rather than the main cause of conflict, all religions must embrace the equality and dignity of women, and remove all attempts at propagating the superiority of some and negative attitudes to others?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord about those who follow a faith, whatever it is. To use just three examples, there is the status of mother Mary within the Christian faith, the status of Hazrat Khadija, the holy Prophet’s wife in Islam, and the status within the Hindu religion where you often hear the chant of “Jai mata ji ki” referring to mothers. The status of women is clear in every faith and it is important, as the noble Lord says, that it becomes pivotal to our discussions.