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INTERVIEW-Afghanistan's first female U.N. envoy warns over women's rights

24 Sep 2020 / 08:02 H.

    By Shadi Khan Saif

    KABUL, Sept 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Taliban's stance on women's rights should concern the world, one of Afghanistan's top female diplomats has warned, as the government holds power-sharing talks with the Islamist group that once banned girls from going to school.

    Afghanistan's first female ambassador to the United Nations Adela Raz said the world had invested heavily in empowering Afghan women after forcing the Taliban from power in 2001, and should pay heed to the hardline group's views on their future.

    The Taliban, who this month began power-sharing talks with the Afghan government, say they would allow girls to be educated and women to work outside the home, in some circumstances.

    But they have given little detail on which of the hard-won rights they would allow women to retain, saying only that this would be decided according to Islamic sharia. This week, they opposed a move to have mothers' names on identity documents.

    "Their definition of women's rights remains in the grey area," said Raz, speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the U.N. headquarters in New York, where she is based.

    "They have been saying the same thing about their version of the sharia without explaining any change and reforms.

    "This is a concern not only for Afghanistan, but for the international community who invested heavily in empowerment of the Afghan women," added Raz, 34, who this month oversaw Afghanistan's election to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

    It is the first time Afghanistan has won a seat on the Commission, which is dedicated to empowering women globally - a victory hailed as a sign of progress for a country once notorious for the oppression of women.

    Her focus at the U.N. will be to promote access to markets for women entrepreneurs, something she sees as key to their empowerment.

    "We have many refreshing stories of successful women entrepreneurs who stood by themselves, their contributions are immense toward creating a fair society," she said, pointing to progress in India and Pakistan.

    'LEGITIMATE FEARS'

    Raz spent her early childhood in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, leaving Kabul in 2004 to study in the United States after losing many close relatives and friends in the war.

    She returned in 2013 despite warnings that it was like going back to a "sinking" ship, with most foreign troops set to leave the country at the end of 2014.

    "I told myself, if I want to save this sinking boat, I need to be on board," she said.

    "This war has been so devastating, every single Afghan family has lost family members, it does not matter which sides they were... Everyone now wants it to end."

    Raz entered Afghan politics, becoming the first female director of communications for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later chief of staff for his successor, Ashraf Ghani.

    She sees the engagement of women in peace talks as key to enduring success, but said there had been "hesitancy" about making that happen.

    Last month one of the few female members of the Afghan government negotiating team, the former lawmaker Fawzia Koofi, was attacked by unknown gunmen, underscoring the dangers faced by women's rights advocates.

    Brought up by a single mother and now herself the mother of a baby daughter, Raz said there remained "legitimate fears" about the erosion of constitutional rights for women under even partial Taliban rule.

    But she remains positive, hailing her own progression - from a girl denied the right to an education to representing her country in the fight for the rights of women and girls worldwide - as a sign of how far her country has come.

    "The start of the direct talks with the Taliban gives us all hope," she said.

    "We do not want to lose the young democracy and power of vote we have earned. The majority and young population of Afghanistan is determined, progressive, wise and well-connected with rest of the world."

    (Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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