Coverstory: Manizha Bakhtari

Manizha Bakhtari, an Afghan diplomat and journalist, has been serving as the Afghan ambassador to Austria since 2020. Throughout her career, she has been a dedicated advocate for women's and human rights in Afghanistan. Since August 2021, she has taken on the role of a vocal advocate, raising awareness about the challenging situation faced by people living under Taliban rule.

How did the Taliban takeover in 2021 change your role as Afghan ambassador to Austria?

The Taliban's takeover on August 15, 2021, had a significant impact on my role as ambassador. With the collapse of the government and the Taliban lacking legitimacy as a governing body, my ability to function as the ambassador was politically affected. Since I am not in contact with the government, it has become challenging to carry out the traditional duties of an ambassador. Despite these obstacles, I have remained resilient. I tried to keep my team together in order to continue operating as the embassy of the Republic of Afghanistan, because I believe that, right now, I represent the people of Afghanistan and serve as their voice. Me and my embassy represent Afghanistan in bilateral diplomacy as well as at the international organisations based in Vienna. But the Taliban takeover has also impacted my embassy financially, because we haven't received any financial support from Afghanistan since then.

How would you describe the situation in Afghanistan at the moment, especially in regard to human and women’s rights?

After 20 years of progress in democracy, freedom of media and speech, and opportunities for women and girls to actively participate and represent themselves in society, the collapse of Afghanistan has had far-reaching consequences. Before this collapse, we had around 5 million girls attending school, and thousands of young women pursuing higher education. In parliament, 39 percent of representatives were women. It wasn’t perfect in respect to gender equality, but we were moving in the right direction. However, with the return of the Taliban to power, the situation changed drastically, affecting all aspects of life in Afghanistan – financially, politically, and with severe implications for human rights too. Afghanistan is the only country in the world that denies education to half of its population. Since August 15, 2021, girls have been unable to continue their education beyond the sixth grade. A complete ban on female students at universities has been enforced since November 2022. The Taliban’s actions violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), despite Afghanistan being a signatory to this convention.

Our women face significant obstacles to employment and are excluded from holding any official positions. Only a small fraction of women are still able to work, mainly in the health and education sectors. The Taliban's restrictions have extended to the point where female employees of the UN and NGOs are prohibited from working, which

impacts their ability to distribute aid to people in need. The Taliban have established a ministry dedicated to monitoring women's appearance and behaviour when they are outside their homes. Sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls is on the rise, with minimal support for the victims. They have arrested – and tortured – female protesters. Every day we hear news about family violence and forced child marriages. The current state of mental health, particularly among young women and girls, is a significant concern. It is disheartening to witness educated and accomplished young women being subjected to physical abuse and denied their fundamental rights.

How can the international community support women and girls in Afghanistan?

You know, the crisis in Afghanistan extends far beyond women’s rights violations. The women’s and human rights crisis coincides with various other crises, like the climate crisis, the drug crisis, ethnic cleansing and of course a security crisis, given that the Taliban are terrorists. So it's difficult. It's really difficult to know what we can do, individually or collectively, to support people in Afghanistan, because all these problems are intimately linked and connected to each other.

I believe we face a big political dilemma, because if you want to help people in Afghanistan, then you need to engage with the Taliban – and this might lead to normalisation. The most important thing, however, is to not recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The international community has to stay firm in their demands because human rights are a global value. We cannot dismiss the importance of human rights in one corner of the world by attributing it solely to cultural differences. efending such a perspective based on cultural relativism is not acceptable. Every individual has the right to education, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, the right to work or to just be a human in this world. The UN should uphold its principles, stay firm on their demands, and collaborate with civil society organisations. To move forward, we must continue to support grassroots organisations and activists inside the country.

Is there – democratic – opposition within Afghanistan and if so, how is it organised?

To answer this question I have to talk about the manner in which the international and US engagement ended in Afghanistan. I am grateful for the significant support we received from the international community, as it provided us with numerous opportunities. However, the withdrawal process was poorly managed. They have evacuated a lot of people from Afghanistan, and while this evacuation was necessary, it also led to a significant brain drain and the absence of key democratic forces within the country. There are still active parts of civil society operating within the country, but a considerable number of people now reside abroad. Like myself, these people are actively advocating for the people of Afghanistan from outside. We haven’t remained silent.

To turn to another one of the multiple crises facing Afghanistan today, I wanted to ask you how climate change is affecting the region, as droughts are becoming more severe and happening more often than in the past?

The climate crisis is kind of a forgotten topic in Afghanistan, unfortunately. Afghanistan is a landlocked country that has faced severe and recurrent droughts for several decades. These droughts have had a severe impact on agriculture and food supplies, especially as 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population resides in rural areas. Agriculture has collapsed in many parts of the country, which – apart from the war – is one of the main reasons there are 4.3 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan. Parts of the country are turning into deserts because of these climatic conditions. Temperatures in Afghanistan have increased by 1.8 degrees Celsius within the past 70 years, this is twice the global average. Spending time in the country in 2015, after years of working abroad, I witnessed the intensity of temperatures that I do not recall from my childhood. Another huge issue is that the country’s few natural water resources are shrinking. Inadequate infrastructure and poor management add to this problem. Even prior to the Taliban takeover, the previous government did not really tackle these issues, and now it is even worse. Unfortunately, the Taliban do not believe in climate change, which is of course a huge problem. The Taliban do not have any plan, strategy, understanding or the intellectual capacity to handle the situation. In order to handle a situation, you need to recognise the problem first.

When you think about Afghanistan’s future, are you hopeful that it might change for the better?

First of all, we should not lose hope. I remain hopeful and have great confidence in the younger generation, as I believe they will not remain silent. While it may seem like a significant amount of time has passed since the Taliban takeover, it has only been two years, which is relatively short in the context of my country's long history. Afghanistan has often found itself caught between the interests of various nations, which has contributed to many of the challenges faced today. However, I also see millions of individuals working tirelessly, both within and outside Afghanistan, to bring positive change, even if it is not in the media spotlight anymore. I really believe, not only for Afghanistan’s sake but also for international security, it is essential that policymakers take the situation more seriously. Afghanistan is currently becoming a significant hub for terrorism, with the Taliban providing shelter to terrorists from all around the world. The future of Afghanistan concerns all of us, not just the people who live there.