BARKER: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting with Tamana Ayazi, Palwasha Hassan and Linda Robinson on the Netflix documentary In Her Hands and the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan. My name is Kim Barker. I’m a reporter with the New York Times. And I have the privilege of moderating this discussion. Which means when it comes time for questions I’m going to ask for no speeches and only one question at a time per questioner. I want to keep this as a discussion and a flow, so not everybody is going to answer every single question either.
In Her Hands tells the story of Zarifa Ghafari who at twenty-six became Afghanistan's youngest mayor and only of its only female mayors in the entire country. It shows how she lived as a mayor, how she decided to leave, and everything that happened in between, especially when she decided to go back. And it also talks about the new reality of women in Afghanistan. And I think it talks about the reality of men, told through people like Massoum, who was Zarifa’s drive at the time.
With us today we’ve got obviously Taman, who’s the director of this fabulous film. We also have Palwasha, who co-founded the Afghan Women’s Network, and also is now a senior fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. And then we have Linda Robinson, who is the CFR senior fellow for women and foreign policy, who’s traveled extensively in Afghanistan and written a book about her time there. I was picked as moderator because I was in Afghanistan for about five years, wrote a book about my time there, and also was a CFR fellow for the press back in 2009-2010.
I wanted to start, Tamana, with you, and with the film. What made you decide to start trying to follow Zarifa? And what story did you think you were going to be telling from the very beginning?
AYAZI: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much, Kim, for the intro. We started thinking about making this film back in 2018. And then in 2019, it became serious. In 2020, we thought: This is the time we need to start filming In Her Hands, when there was peace negotiations going on between the U.S. government and the Taliban. And me, as an Afghan woman, and also so many other Afghan women from my generation and other women from other generations, we were worried about future of the country, our future, because in the past we were able—for the past twenty years we had freedoms, we had opportunities, and we were able to go to work, travel without a male family member. But we knew Taliban, because I was born between civil war and first Taliban period. So I had flashbacks from that time. So I knew that something will change. But we were not expecting to see this much change this quick.
BARKER: And you were living in Kabul at the time, when you decided to do this?
AYAZI: Yes. I was born and lived there until last August, and then I had to flee.
BARKER: And we’re going to get into that. But I’m wondering, how challenging was it to convince Zarifa and her family to participate in the documentary?
AYAZI: With Zarifa, it was quite easy because she was used to media. She was OK with it. In the beginning, it took us a few weeks to contact her because she was busy traveling, and also she was in Maidan Shar so it was a bit difficult to, yeah, get her to get back to us. But, yeah, once we met, we made a short film. And then we were like, we have this idea. We see the potential to make a feature film. What do you think about it? She was happy, and then, yeah, we moved forward.
BARKER: And how did you, like, deal with her father? Because he’s not in the film. Did you try to get him to talk?
AYAZI: Well, we tried a few times, but obviously we cannot push the humans, people, to be part of documentaries. They have the choice to take part or not. And he was not interested. We didn’t really push much.
BARKER: How about Musafer from the Taliban? Like, who handled interviewing him and reaching out to him? Because it seems like—obviously, it’s the Taliban. It seems like it could be quite dangerous for you.
AYAZI: I did almost all the interviews. So I was there with Musafer as well with the Taliban. We contacted the leadership at that time in January 2020. And then it was complicated. We waited for weeks and months until they got back to us. We sent them all the information needed. And then we were not the first filmmakers who visited Taliban territory before us. Some journalists, they went there, they made news piece, reportage, and they were back. And we were connected to all these other journalists, locals and also internationals. So that’s how we got a contact number, WhatsApp number, and we contacted them. And that’s how everything started.
We were allowed to film with them for two days but, of course, we wanted to make a feature film. So we needed to go back again and again to film them. So the first time we worked on the access. And then they got used to the camera, they got used to us, and the next time it was much easier to go back and film them.
BARKER: How did you find out he was killed?
AYAZI: I see messages from other Taliban members at that time, because once one of them have your contact number, all of them do. They will give it to each other. So this is what happened. And then one of his close friends, he wrote me that he’s not alive anymore.
BARKER: What is it like for you, as a filmmaker but also as an Afghan woman, to be filming what’s happening in front of you? You know, you’re filming the assassination, essentially, of Zarifa’s father. You’re filming the rise of the Taliban and the fall of Kabul. And you’re filming her leaving as, you know, you’re still there at this point?
AYAZI: Sometimes when I look back, I feel like that time I was too young for that. But also, I feel like I feel much older, more mature, more experienced. But also, very traumatized, to be honest, because I’m still trying to process whatever happened in front of me and the camera itself. When Zarifa’s father got killed, I was with her when she received the call from Massoum and her sister. When Massoum got killed—one of our fixers—he got killed. So there was a lot going on for the past two and a half years, from both sides. Taliban, government, and the people.
BARKER: And so you’re still there when she takes off. What happens next for you?
AYAZI: Oh, I will continue making films.
BARKER: No, no, no. You’re in Afghanistan, I mean. Like, so what happens next for you?
AYAZI: I was in Afghanistan. And I was filming. I didn’t want to leave. It was very complicated because we tell Taliban we will be there in September. But then everything has happened. I was the only person from the crew who was in Afghanistan. I was working with other DOPs (ph) when Taliban took control on the 15th of August 2021. I remember, I called the government in the morning. I took permission from them to be able to film. And then I called Taliban in the afternoon to be able to film. So even as a filmmaker, as a woman, as a human, it’s a lot to take in one day. You’re like, OK, the government collapsed. But it was not only one government. It was the country. It was people full of hopes and dreams. Yeah.
BARKER: It had to be very hard.
AYAZI: It’s difficult.
BARKER: Palwasha, I want to bring you in here. You were there at the time, right?
HASSAN: Yes. I’d been in Kabul when Taliban came and take over Kabul.
BARKER: First of all, I wanted to talk to you about that, about the fact that, as we were talking about earlier, the whole idea of how you repeatedly have had to leave Afghanistan. And if you could put that in context with what’s going on right now, and your decision to leave this last time.
HASSAN: Yes. As you said, this was not the first time in my life, and so is—the conflict is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan. We unfortunately are experiencing conflict for over four decades. And for some of us have been brought up in this conflict. Since I was in grade two of school when the first war has started. And since then, I am experiencing this kind of trauma over and over again and again. And at some point my family left Afghanistan. That was 1984. And my family decided—that was a big trauma to leave your home, your class fellow, your school, and everything, and go to a strange and new place. And then live there, try to build your networks, you friends, and all that.
And then in 2002, I had the chance, as a young woman, to return back to my country. And felt empowered and proud to start work for women. And I’ve been traveling all over the country. And that was a totally different feeling. Then I helped and contributed a lot in doing women organization around the country, to support them. And that was phenomenal in my personal life, and also for all other women who had this opportunity to have that possibility to grow themselves both as a woman and also as a citizen of the country who contributed to the constitution, who did work on different laws and all that.
And suddenly then it is August 2015—sorry—15 August 2021. And that was everything turned over. And suddenly we had no other way but to leave the country. Just to remind everyone, before Taliban take over in last two years while the peace talk—so-called the peace talk was going on, and there had been tremendous threats and warning against civil society, women organizations, and women—or, human right activists. Several of them had been killed in this process. And that made it so difficult for anybody to believe that they can survive under Taliban government.
So when they first arrive, I was still in my office. And I saw that my colleagues who—because I was leading a woman organization in Afghanistan. And at that time that they came with tears in their eyes that Taliban are already surrounding the place around us. That has been a tremendous situation, and it still make me feel so emotional when I remember all that—you know, like it reminded as horror movie, like Godzilla is taking over—(laughs)—maybe the city. And it was that kind of situation. And everybody was running towards their home.
I had been trying to insist on my colleagues, do not leave because it could be chaotic and difficult for them, they could be caught in conflict—in, you know, like, fighting and all that on the street. But they didn’t accept it because their family was insisting. And most of my staff were female. Anyhow, so that was the day. And the next day my office was searched. All the things were turned upside down. The Taliban are at my home. And I think that was the decision time for me to leave the country, because I felt like it’s difficult to live in a country where the (trust is so closed ?) that they haven’t even established themselves, they’re already in my home, in my office.
So I left. For two days I was in the airport. And after two days I came to this humanitarian flights, which took me to one of the—to Bahrain, and from there to U.S. And so I’m ending up here.
BARKER: So, and one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, to me, was when Zarifa grabbed the handful of Afghan soil before getting on the plane and leaving. Did you have any such moment when you were leaving?
HASSAN: No, I didn’t took anything like that. But I think it has been a lot of memory. Everything was shattering in front of me. And it was a moment that you don’t understand what you can decide, where you are going. I think, you know, I was not in my real—you know, I didn’t have control over myself, and I didn’t knew what I’m doing. But I knew one thing, that I have to save my immediate family and run towards the airport. But it was not easy. Two times there have been firing and everything. But finally, some people helped me and my family to get here.
BARKER: I know you co-founded the Afghan Women’s Network, which was a huge organization, and one of the places, I know, that was very seriously advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan. And I’m guessing you’re still talking to people on the ground, women on the ground, who were involved with that group. What are you hearing from them from on the ground now?
HASSAN: I think that’s very important, because for many of us before even international intervention in Afghanistan, we have worked a lot. And we survive under difficult circumstances. Under mujahideen it was not easy. The first round of Taliban, it was even worse. So there have been different things. And with those difficulty we were able to set up some organization, and women were able to do that. And one of it was Afghan Women Network, Afghan Women Education Center, several other organizations.
So my first thought after, like, being here was, like, to—how to help keep—and even before leaving Afghanistan—that we stick with whatever we have in hand to survive, because we cannot give our experience of thirty years, or more than that now, away. And that was the first thing, how we can still start back. And many of us start mentoring our colleagues, most of the young people in the organization who were left behind for long time, online and for months, to struggle with them to restart the work that we have left behind and to support them.
And obviously it is not in the same skill, in the same area, like human rights, gender-based violence, and a lot of fronts that we were fighting is no more possible. But on the humanitarian work, many of these organization has started back, and starting building that synergy that can help. And I think as we did at our time previously under mujahideen and other conservative groups, the women organization has proven to be the best spaces where women can develop their agency and can start back fighting for living as respected citizens, and also develop your own agencies as directors, managers of projects, and work with other women.
And for that reason, I’ve been advocating very strongly for support the women organization here in United States. And I’m glad that some support has been directed towards women organization inside Afghanistan, because with the Taliban we not only lost this whole momentum there, but also much of the international support, like 25 percent of economy was dependent on international support, that is cut off. And I guess the organization, like women groups, 25 percent of them were almost diminishing, aid cuts and everything else. And there have been no alternative support system established during this time.
Some ways now a few organization through U.N. is trying to support these organizations, but I think we need more robust support to women organization, who are between rocks and hard place in Afghanistan, to go back and work as they did before.
BARKER: So one of the more interesting scenes to me, in the movie, was when Zarifa does make the decision to go back to Afghanistan. And she’s talking to a room full of women. What have you heard about the reception to the movie and, like, have you heard anything about any sort of movement coming out of her visit home, or anything like that?
HASSAN: Many people—you know, like there is a lot of bitterness among Afghan women and Afghans in general. And sometime it’s not fair. Some people put themselves in judgmental position. And with Zarifa also there have been a lot of criticism that if she was in danger, why she went back? And I think that she took big risk for going back, but I think we should respect her decision for going back and maybe seeing what is possible. Because Taliban is promising every day that they will not harm people, while in reality many activists are still abducted, arrested inside Afghanistan, and some were even killed because of torture and other. If Zarifa is deciding that, to me we have to respect that.
And I think we cannot make change unless we find a way to engage in a more meaningful way, either with Taliban or inside Afghanistan, whatever community groups and others, to—we have to help our country, women there. And I think all of us have different strategy and thinking to do that. And that should be seen with more open mind, that what is possible and how each of us can contribute in different ways.
BARKER: Tamana, what are you hearing from women on the ground about what’s happening?
AYAZI: The situation is very, very intense. But I had a conversation with one of my close friends who is also focused on Afghanistan. We are the same age. And we were talking last night. And then we were like, it’s a mess. Girls and women, all committing suicide. Everyone is traumatized. They don’t have food to eat. Women cannot go back to work. A lot of men, they lost their jobs. Secondary school girls are not able to go back to school. So there is a lot going on. Every day there is a new restriction from Taliban relating to women, sometimes also men.
Like, the whole country is—I don’t know—I can’t even find words to define it, but it’s very frustrating to see Afghanistan—the Afghanistan—I had a dream when I was younger. For example, in 2004-2005 I wanted a different future for my people, for myself. But now I see that even my family, my own family, is in three different continent, not able to meet each other. The health sector is in a really bad situation. Doctors have left Afghanistan. So hospitals are not able to function properly. So there is a lot to talk about, but these are the highlights of what’s happening.
But women are still fighting. They go on the street. They protest for their basic human rights, which make—which gives me hope because I didn’t really have the courage to do that. And they are still fighting for what they believe. And I trust that change will come, but we all need solidarity. Like as Palwasha mentioned earlier, like, there is a lot of criticism. Could we just put all the differences aside and come together to make the change? It’s difficult because, of course, we are different, as humans. Even in one family if you are five people, we have five different point of view. But we need to communicate. We need to come together. We need to, you know, use that time because it’s urgent what’s happening in Afghanistan.
Like, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are not able to go to the schools. And Taliban are talking about closing universities. And we don’t know what will happen next. This is the time we need to take action. And we should work in Afghanistan.
BARKER: Linda, I wanted to bring you into the conversation. I know you’ve spent a lot of time on the ground in provinces that are controlled by the Taliban. Can you talk about what the film so expertly illustrates in terms of the divides you see between generations or between, you know, the rural and urban areas in Afghanistan?
ROBINSON: Yes. Thank you. And again, I want to congratulate Tamana for a remarkable film that does, I think, capture the reality of Afghanistan so incredibly well. And the—you know, the heroic commitment of Zarifa and the young women of Afghanistan are truly inspiring, and what all women achieve there in the recent past. Massoum, young man, represents what I found in many of the rural provinces. They want education and opportunity for their daughters. I saw them signing up with petitions to get teachers brought to the districts, because often there weren’t teachers in these insecure areas. And that was a source of hope.
And at the same time you see in the film, and I saw in so many places, male elders scoffing at the idea of women leaders, women playing these roles, and certainly a young woman as mayor. And I thought you just captured that so well, right off the bat, that they had that attitude. Of course, winning over the father was a very important generational story that Zarifa was actually able to persuade her father of the value and criticality of what she was doing.
The other thing that the film brought forward, which I guess has resonated most of all with me, and in light of the dramatic collapse of the government and the military, was the ever-present proximity of the Taliban. We saw that in Wardak, where Zarifa was the mayor in Maidan Shar, but also in all the Paktika, Kunar, Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabul—all of these provinces where the Taliban was the shadow government for a long time. And then as the so-called surge was drawn down, the drawdown of the coalition forces, the Taliban encroachment, you could just see it coming, and with great foreboding what that might mean. And then the events of the withdrawal really accelerated, I think, beyond anyone’s expectation.
And now where we are—and I know we’ll have much more discussion. You’ve already, I think, both Palwasha and Tamana, have captured the criticality, the heartbreaking current situation, but also how difficult it is to map a way ahead. And I’ll just leave that, Kim, for further Q&A. But I just want to say—
BARKER: I mean, that’s what I was going to ask you next, if you could sort of prognosticate, you know, and talk about what you see happening next.
ROBINSON: Yes. Well, and to take off from where my two colleagues have already said, you know, it’s a fight for survival. The difficult time of winter is upon us, so there are really basic humanitarian needs that are literally survival due to drought, the economic collapse, and the violence, and women are very much at the epicenter for that. Kicked out of schools, the closing of public spaces, the face covering. I watch TOLOnews and I follow a lot of what’s happening in Afghanistan, and see, you know, the women presenters have to cover their faces. It’s just like they’re being wiped out of the picture of Afghanistan.
So I think the humanitarian needs really come, in my view, the Maslow’s hierarchy is we have to keep people alive. And we need to try to accelerate what’s currently being done. There’s a lot of debate, and I think we’ll get into it, there’s certainly the need to facilitate the departure of those most at-risk. But I think it’s so critical to pay attention to the future—the seed corn of the future. All the people who must stay, can stay, want to stay. And why I really sympathize with Zarifa’s decision to go back, because someone has to help energize the activism that will preserve the space, create secret schools, virtual activism, ways that we can support them.
And then eventually—and I think we have a puzzle here with U.S. policy. The leverage that I think the administration had hoped to exert through the carrot of promised aid, of unfreezing funds, of delisting those on the various lists, sanctions being lifted, none of that that has had the desired effect. And I think we’re in this terrible moment where what other levers, whether they’re sticks or carrots, can put pressure on the Taliban, that seem willing, really, to sacrifice anyone and any life at whatever level to maintain their grip? And my heart goes out to the Afghan people, but I think we’ve got a tough policy problem here.
BARKER: Yeah. And it just sort of feels like that when Ukraine happened, any sort of attention that was on Afghanistan completely disappeared.
I’m going to open it up to questions right now. So if you have a question, I believe you’re supposed to raise your Zoom hand. And we’ll get to you in the order that we get to you in. So if there are any questions, please ask.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Ryan Crocker.
Q: Thanks very much. Ryan Crocker, a nonresident senior fellow, Carnegie. Former ambassador to Afghanistan.
Your comments, like the film itself, just left me breathless. You redefine, as does, of course, Zarifa itself, the real meaning of courage. So my question is, given where matters stand now, given the immense culpability, quite frankly, that the United States government bears through two administrations, Trump and Biden, for what women and girls are now facing, what would you like to see the United States government do, and also not do? Palwasha talked about support for NGOs in the U.S., but my question would be about the role of the U.S. government going forward. Thanks.
BARKER: Palwasha, do you want to take that?
HASSAN: Yeah. Thank you. I think this is a good question regarding how to react to the situation in Afghanistan. We all know about the humanitarian catastrophe. We know about what is the situation of the women there. I think we need, like, sort of twofold—two parallel way to engage or to react with the Afghanistan situation. One is, like, to still maintain pressure on Taliban to change their policy towards human rights, women rights, and how to deal with the general citizen of the country. We are a country of multiethnicity. We have to think of an inclusive governorship in the country. And that can only come through the pressure that the international community can build on Taliban.
But on another hand, we have to engage to support the people of Afghanistan. Almost 97 percent of people are living near to the poverty line. That is huge for any country to face under that kind of circumstances. And we have to look to all alternative ways to support the people, especially women who are not allowed to go to education. There are so many other parallel models that have been developed by locals or maybe international organization inside Afghanistan, like homeschooling, community-based schooling, or maybe online education. There could be maybe scholarship for the young girls to have that possibility to continue what they are losing because of Taliban’s rule inside Afghanistan.
So we have to, like, maintain maybe on two different levels. One is the political level. And I think there is no other way but to engage with Taliban. But for me, the engagement has special definition. It is not equal to recognition. That is something which we all are afraid of, that we can—a government like that cannot be recognized, where people are not treated as equal human beings, especially women of the country. But engaging could be like using that stick and carrots policy to pressure where it’s possible to make Taliban—after all, they took that position because of all the cooperation or sanctuaries that they had in neighborhood. And the way the peace talk was handled, that they found themselves the ultimate winner of the war.
And I think we—if we accept it or not, but there has been a mishandling of that by the international community. And I think now it is need for that international community to correct all those steps and put pressure enough on Taliban so they accept and make those changes come forward for an inclusive government. And also to respect human rights, particularly women’s rights, which has been destroyed in their first round. And now in the second round they have left some pockets of freedom here and there, but as a whole their policies are to take women away from the public scene.
BARKER: Linda, I know you work a lot on policy and on women’s policy. Do you have anything to add to Ambassador Crocker’s question?
ROBINSON: Well, I think that—and it’s so wonderful to have Ambassador Crocker joining us for this conversation. I think that there’s a very serious opportunity with the congressionally mandated Commission on Afghanistan to really look at the full history of policies and understand what worked and what didn’t. And not just, I would say, the last two administrations. There’s clearly, I think, a real need to try to understand how we devoted so much, and yet this horrible disaster has befallen Afghanistan. And with it, I think, really the record of failure of the so-called U.S. long wars.
I think that it’s important that we band together with like-minded countries. And already, Palwasha, I acknowledge you said the U.N. is appropriately the convening body. But I think keeping it constantly in the front pages and in the senior-most officials. I think that we should try to elevate the issue. I do think it’s a tough call on how much more pressure—what other levers of pressure do we have? And especially ones that will not cause even more suffering or death for the Afghan people. That, I think is a difficult problem. And maybe Tamana or Palwasha have more to say on that front. Back to you, Kim.
BARKER: I’m going to open it up to another question. I want to keep things moving.
OPERATOR: Sure. We’ll take our next question from Marissa Wesely.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. I’m Marissa Wesely. I’m a co-founder or a nonprofit organization called Win-Win Strategies, which builds cross-sector—is a bridge builder—cross-sector bridge builder, particularly between women’s funds, women’s rights organizations, and the corporate sector. Also an old and longstanding friend of Sakena Yacoobi and the Afghan Institute of Learning, and have followed the situation in Afghanistan through her and others for a number of years.
And I was deeply affected by the film. I thought it was amazing in its incredible honestly and courage in following all of the different subjects. So thank you so much for that. My question is simple, and switching focus, on looking at the organizations that are in Afghanistan today, and still working really hard. I know there have been a number of challenges getting funding there, whether directly from individuals, organizations, foundations, the government even. I’m curious if anyone has strategies or ways or how to—who to talk to about how to do that? And we don’t want to do that on the record, but I’m just very interested in that aspect of the challenges that Afghan women are now facing, humanitarian and otherwise. Thank you.
BARKER: I would guess that Palwasha might know more about this idea, or Linda, than—I actually don’t know how to get money there and how to get funds in there. Palwasha, do you have any thoughts?
HASSAN: I think there are different ways. A possible one is, like, U.N. Women. Afghanistan, as a part of U.N. bodies, is, like, on the international agency with the presence in Afghanistan. And I think through them. And they are putting some efforts to support women organization. But I also think, like, there should be a greater fund, maybe sort of, like, should be created that could directly support women organization. And this can come true involving a lot of women leadership now in exile out of Afghanistan, who still have contact. And they can come together. And in this way you can also help with transfer of the skills back to home, and strengthen that networking with young leaders inside the country.
So there are different possible ways. And I’ve been suggesting this kind of, like, creation of trust fund that could be run by Afghan women themselves. And they have the possibility of working with women, those who are inside Afghanistan. And they will be able to help with the capacity building and mentoring. So many different ways that they can do this. And this way, you keep that momentum on and help organization to survive under that. Yes. Also maybe some international organization, because they are inside Afghanistan and they are involved in humanitarian aid delivery inside the country.
I think for any aid that is going to Afghanistan, it should come through the partnership. It should encourage local international partnership inside the country. So in this way, you give change for the local and smaller organizations, and particularly with the women organization, they need that support to come as a pair of working with bigger organization to sustain, to learn, and to have the chance to work and reach out to the communities. They certainly have better access to women in particular in those areas.
I know when that thing happened in Paktika province, one of the main hub of the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups there, women organizations were the first one to go there and support other women there, and also the community, for the earthquake relief program. But the important aspect was that they didn’t use this only as a way to take the relief there. They also started negotiating about the women right to education. They were fighting for girls going back to school. And somehow the videos become viral, which become later on a problem for these women speaking directly to the government and arguing based on Islamic right of women to say girls in schools should not be closed.
But the important thing was, like, how these women knew how to negotiate and how to use that humanitarian space for, like, human rights and also maybe a longer-term vision for the development. So I think this whole paradigm of humanitarian and development aspect, how we can combine that with peace and everything else, I think there are different things exist, models, internationally like triple nexus, like so on and so forth. And we need those sort of models to be used in Afghanistan. To build the community, but also to keep women engaged.
BARKER: I also—I also know there are some NGOs based in America that are actually run by Afghan Americans who are doing sort of small-level, specific projects in Afghanistan that are still operating, whether it’s schools for disabled kids. And it seems like that’s a good way, if people are interested in working in Afghanistan, to go through these organizations that already have a path to actually help folks on the ground.
With that, I want to open it up to another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Matt Watters.
Q: Hey, how’s it going? Matt Watters. Kim, nice to see you again. I’m a board member with No One Left Behind.
And my question is really, aside from just saying Zarifa is my absolute hero and thank you for doing this moving, is given the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, what other countries—like, maybe Qatar—what other global governance bodies, like the U.N., would you like to lean in? And what specifically would you like them to do? What do you think is feasible?
BARKER: Linda, do you want to take that?
ROBINSON: Well, I will start, and certainly pick up on the comment with Qatar, which has played a critical role, and has come in for some criticism for being so vocal in trying to secure recognition for the Taliban, to normalize relations. But I think it first should be said they have done a yeoman’s job in facilitating departures and in hosting those who desperately needed to leave. So I think that—they’ve been first and foremost. And many of the senior officials, including very prominently Loural Hattar (ph), has been vocal in trying to keep the issue on the front pages and in attempting to persuade the Taliban to maintain some of these spaces and provide humanitarian aid.
I think they’re in a position possibly to push further on this. I think, as Palwasha said, that she was in favor of engaging Taliban, but without recognition. And so I think the one victory we can say is no country has recognized the Taliban. So there seems to be good solidarity around that. The question then is who may have leverage over the Taliban, already has channels that can begin pushing, along with that very inspiring story about the women of Paktika? And the idea that grassroots—the women who gained such strength over these years—are not going to just give up lightly. And, Tamana, you’ve also referred to that. I think if we can find more channels, and perhaps support the creation of a clearinghouse. At least, I don’t know of a clearing house that can funnel aid to grassroot groups.
Of course, Matt has done so much to try to help people and get people out who need to get out. I think the focus now should be help those who can stay there and fight.
BARKER: Tamana, do you have anything to add to that?
AYAZI: No, I’d just—I would like to add that we should not forget the ones left behind, because they are left with nothing but the Taliban. And it’s very frustrating to see the situation the way it is right now. Like, I know that leaving is painful. Being away from your friends, your home, your family is painful. But we should really focus on the ones who are still in Afghanistan and the ones who are still fighting no matter what in the villages, in the provinces. And it’s not only the women who are educated, even the ones who didn’t really have a lot of opportunities.
Because I was also working with Amnesty International for the past one year, whenever I did interviews with women from different parts, they all—(inaudible)—listen to me. We have nothing to lose. We lost everything since Taliban came to power the first time. Now we need to push. Now we need to work on this. So, yeah, there is hope. I know that we do cry every day. We are sad every day. We are traumatized. But there is hope for change. And we need to push it, you know, as much as we can.
BAKER: I’ll take another—or, we’ll take another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mansoor Shams.
Q: Hello. There has been some talk here about the Taliban not being recognized. And I feel like, to a certain extent, the Taliban was recognized when the United States, you know, went into negotiations, to a certain extent. And that that took place. I mean, that’s a reality. There was some level of recognition. You know, I don’t understand. Is it really practically possible to solve these problems without any recognition of the—of the Taliban? And just—Tamana, just on a side note, I was just curious. You know, when Zarifa came back to Afghanistan, can you just explain the process of it, how that got worked? Because that was really, really fascinating, how that happened. Thank you.
BAKER: OK, two different questions there. Tamana, I’m going to throw the one to you to you, and then we’ll come back on the other one afterwards.
AYAZI: So we shouldn’t forget that I’m not a politician. I’m a filmmaker. I’m quite younger than Linda and Palwasha. But I would like to say that we should know the difference between political crisis and humanitarian crisis. I don’t want my people to suffer. I don’t want my friends and family to suffer. So we need to focus on them first and then solve the political crisis we have in Afghanistan.
And then Zarifa, when she decided to go back, it was a bit complicated. To be honest, all of us were shocked. We were, like, are you serious? Do you want to go back to Afghanistan? And then Taliban, they had this committee. They invited the ones who left Afghanistan. And they wanted to bring more people back to Afghanistan. I don’t know what was the reason. Maybe they wanted to show the world that they are, you know, open to include everybody. And through them she contacted the Taliban. It’s in the film. She made a phone call asking them if it’s OK for her to go back. And as it was in the film, she was allowed to go back.
And that said, and also we should not forget that when she was in Afghanistan everybody knew her. She’s quite famous in Afghanistan, outside Afghanistan, on the media. So it was easier for her to go back because one could tell everybody that this thing happened to Zarifa. So she was accompanied with my co-director Marcel, and writer of—co-author of her book. Yeah. And it was the same when I was making the film. And Taliban turned to me, I was with Marcel, my co-director, who was a German filmmaker. So definitely it has its effect. If it was only an Afghan woman making the film, it was a different scenario.
BARKER: Great. And on the other question, which I think is a really interesting question and provocative. And it’s great if there’s some disagreement on this. Palwasha, do you want to take it first? And the whole idea of, you know, whether—have we de facto recognized the Taliban already? And whether I think that—like, if there is some recognition, there can be more aid delivered there to people who are starving, who are on the ground? Or whether we should just continue not to formally recognize the Taliban?
HASSAN: I think it’s important to see what is the reason of recognition and not recognition. If Taliban are not ready to recognize half of its own population, which is women, of the country, I think it would be the biggest fault that any country can make to recognize such a government, who don’t see—who see only under-human half of its population. So if that reason continue to stay, and if Taliban stays stubborn on their own position, so recognition will make no sense. I think for some windows, but they’re still not applied here—(inaudible)—although they slowly started. Like, for instance, lashing already being used in three provinces for maybe any false accusation against women being involved in some sort of relations with men. I don’t know how much proof they have and how—we know, taking everything out of context.
And then the Islamic interpretation is so much different. There has been such reforms in Islamic words. There is no other country, Islamic country, that stopped schools for girls, for instance. If they are using this, like, stone age, I don’t know from where they get even with these inspiration for how to rule the country, such government will be difficult to be recognized by anyone. I think it should be an issue of take and give. It should be proper benchmarking what they’re allowing for its citizen for any sort of recognition that should come.
And for these little opportunities which exist now, is because there may be some Taliban in between bigger groups that—who are willing to support or be more pragmatic on certain issues, be less harsh in their behavior, because they want some sort of recognition. If that is what they want, I think that is the only leverage that the world has against Taliban to have a proper government there in place, to treat its citizen like—more like a human, and respect their basic right, which is also Islamic right. Girls right to education is very much Islamic. And today, that is denied to women in Afghanistan. So there is no ground that can help their case made for that sort of recognition.
But the question whether they’re already not recognized, I think, no, they are not recognized. Yes, they have been given the opportunity to take over the country. Unfortunately, the peace talk was not handled in a proper way. The sanctuaries they had in neighboring country was not end of pressure at that time. Even now I think the rule of Islamic countries—and recently we had a visit of Pakistani state minister to Afghanistan, a woman there, which Taliban received with open—you know, like, very openly and greeting her. But they put their own women in boxes, and now allowing them to work in offices.
So those country—a letter has been written by Afghan Women Network International to ask Pakistan to not ignore the situation, what is going on with women in Afghanistan. And I think we need maybe more these Islamic countries to come forward and to get engaged with Taliban, and to make sure that they—because, for last fourteen years some of them has probably never even studied a proper—they haven’t been to a proper Islamic education either. Maybe they—some of them don’t have that knowledge. And they need to engage with Islamic scholars who already introduce so much reforms in their own countries.
Look at Saudi Arabia. They are starting giving women—
BARKER: Real quick, I just—I want to—
HASSAN: —to drive, and traveling without mahram to other places. And that is, let’s say, at the heart of Islam. We—
BARKER: I just wanted to—I just wanted to, like, keep it on the idea of, like—you know, the idea of recognition or not, just real briefly. We can come back to that at the end.
Linda, did you have any thoughts on that—on that question?
ROBINSON: Yes. What you rightly call this de facto recognition, which I think was implicitly given when the Trump administration began its talks with the priority of U.S. withdrawal. So delinking that from achieving a ceasefire or even a roadmap for the settlement with the Taliban was the fatal error there that really sacrificed the leverage of U.S. troops. I think those talks should have been held at the peak of the surge, frankly. I think it was coming late. But anyway, it was widely telegraphed the Taliban—the Trump administration just wanted out.
Now, since then, the discussions that have had taken place have borne no results in terms of the Taliban showing any sign of willingness to roll back the draconian measures they’ve imposed. So I think that should be clear. And I think that there should remain contacts to see if they are willing to come forward. But you can’t just offer recognition without any concessions from them, given all that has happened, period.
BARKER: So, with that, we’ll take another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Lynne Novack.
Q: Hi. Thank you for this panel. It’s been great. And congratulations on the film. It was very moving. I feel very sad that Palwasha and Tamana had to leave the country. Linda, it’s good to see you again. Last time was out here in Dallas at the SMU Center.
My question is about Pakistan, which seems to me to bear some responsibility here. And we don’t seem to be putting a lot of pressure on Pakistan to try to influence the Taliban. And I also had wondered how uniform the Taliban leadership is, and whether it actually has an ability to make decisions with others. One unilateral leader, or whether there’s a group of them, and the Haqqani Network, which is still based—you know, still one of the worst of the groups, and with all its ties in Pakistan. So Taliban have gone back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan all these years. And Pakistan just doesn’t seem to be helping a lot. Could you make any comments on that? And I suppose Linda would be somebody I would ask first.
BARKER: Yeah, Linda, can you take that?
ROBINSON: Yes, I will. I do want to leave our Afghan colleagues a space as well. But I would just say the current government is that Taliban hardliners are in charge now. So I think a longer-term play would be some kind of divide and conquer to try to put some of the other individuals, enable them to come to the fore. And certainly, over the years as we’ve talked about girls education, Taliban made statements of receptivity to that. So I think what you have is the hardest of the hardliners.
The second thing is Pakistan—well, as you know probably, Lynn, and good to see you too—there is so much turmoil in Pakistan right now. Of course, there were many comments made when the Taliban took over that Pakistan was probably, like, the dog that caught the school bus. After many, many years of supporting the Taliban, now that it’s in charge they may live to regret it. Imran Khan, of course, is no longer in power. You have a new government. I don’t think they are really in a position to make any strong overtures. But with a new army chief that could change because, of course, that—the power of the country is the army.
And so I think it would be interesting to see what discussions could be had, or maybe underway. Of course, Biden and Tony Blinken have a long history with Pakistan. So maybe they could put that higher up on the to-do list, to see what prospects there are there. Thank you.
BAKER: So I’m going to take the moderator’s prerogative. Everybody knows with CFR that we end and start promptly. And I wanted to end on Tamana because, after all, we are talking about her film. I wanted you to talk a little bit about Massoum, and his narrative arc, and what you thought it shows. And also whether you know what’s happening with him now.
AYAZI: When we met Massoum the first time we knew that he’s amazing. He’s a poet. He’s a writer. And he can represent the people of Afghanistan. He can represent my family and so many other families in provinces, in districts, in the villages. And he is the one who is paying for the price. He is—when there was war in Afghanistan, when people talked about peace, it was not the people themselves. It was people in power all the time. So, yeah, I strongly feel that—we strongly feel that he can represent the people. And we need him. And he was a strong character himself. There were times we were not sure between him and Zarifa, we were, like, both of them were very strong. But we need one main character not two. (Laughs.) Yeah, but also before Taliban, whatever he was talking about, he’s very—he’s not a follower. He himself can lead another group of people. So once the Taliban take over, he was left with—(inaudible).
BAKER: We’ve got to wrap up now, but does he have a job? Does he have a job right now?
AYAZI: He does not. Like so many other Afghans, he doesn’t have any job. He’s just—he’s just there, left with almost nothing but misery, unfortunately.
BAKER: Like so many people. So I really have to thank all of the panelists—Tamana, Palwasha, and Linda—for joining me here this afternoon. I apologize, there seems to be some sort of police event going outside of my apartment. (Laughs.) But thanks very much to CFR for hosting this amazing film. Thank you.