For the first time, Afghan leaders seem willing to make sincere attempts to improve the rights of women, according to the new British ambassador to Kabul.
Speaking at her Kabul residence, where she took up her post in May, Karen Pierce said the Afghan government has taken bold and important steps towards reconciliation with the Taliban following the drawdown of foreign troops last year.
Pierce sees peace and women’s rights as inseparable. In her previous job as the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, she spent two years trying to convince to find practical ways of including women in peace efforts in Syria.
It is fitting, then, that Pierce’s appointment to Kabul, where she succeeded , should coincide with this year’s 15th anniversary of , which urges member states to increase the role of women in peace building.
She arrived only weeks after the Taliban expressed support for the right of women to education and work during informal talks in Qatar with people close to the Afghan government. Shortly after that exchange, a Taliban delegation met with Afghan women’s rights defenders in Oslo.
“I think it was a sign of success for those of us in and outside who have been pushing the women’s agenda that the Taliban felt it would put them in a good light to meet these women and issue a statement about girl’s education. And even if the Taliban did that wholly cynically, it’s nevertheless a good sign,” said Pierce.
The Taliban’s cautious venture into diplomatic waters follows intensive efforts by the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to reboot relations with Pakistan, long seen as a protector of the militant movement.
Ghani and his wife Rula, , have been equally earnest with regard to women’s rights, said Pierce.
“What the Ghanis have brought is that they’re not afraid to discuss the problems. I think there was a little bit of a sense before that, because the world had a very negative view of Afghanistan and women’s rights, it was better not to discuss it,” Pierce said.
A security policy specialist, Pierce’s remit has included arms control as well as peace processes in the Balkans. Immediately after the September 11 attacks in New York, she also worked on Afghanistan while based in London.
The UK’s military role in Afghanistan is limited to about 470 troops who form part of Nato’s mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces. The first batch of UK-trained female cadets graduated from an officers’ academy in Kabul in June.
Annual assistance from the UK Foreign Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development also funds education and women’s rights projects, including women’s shelters and a forensics laboratory to detect rape.
Diplomatically, Pierce said, the UK lends technical assistance to potential peace talks, and lobbies for reform of the Afghan legal system, which is often skewed against women.
Pierce was last in Kabul four years ago. She said the city had developed dramatically since then, with widespread electricity, better food available and more economic activity.
In her new capacity she stands out as one of only three female western ambassadors appointed to Afghanistan since 2001. After 15 years of the international community impressing upon Afghan leaders the importance of equal participation in the labour force and politics, does she find that rate hypocritical?
“It’s a pity, but I don’t think it’s hypocritical,” she said. “There’s a global issue here with women getting to the top of any diplomatic service profession in their own country.”
Pierce agreed, however, that it was unwise to lecture Afghans. “Especially if you’re trying to influence and get the maximum number of people to buy into a progressive agenda … Leading by example is one way. But I wouldn’t say leading by example is about ambassadors.”
Pierce is an anomaly not just in Kabul’s diplomatic corps but also in the UK foreign service. In the 333-year history of the FCO, only six women with children have made it to director general level. Pierce, as the mother of two sons, is one of them. Her husband is a civil servant in the Treasury.
She said she doesn’t worry that Afghan counterparts won’t take her seriously because of her gender. Nevertheless, she has had brushes with prejudice in a country where so few women hold leadership positions. When the embassy marked the Queen’s birthday in June, Pierce and a few staff lined up to welcome guests, only to have male guests walk straight past her, assuming she was a spouse.
“So then you’ve got a dilemma. Do you do something that might be culturally insensitive and step forward and stick your hand out and say ‘I’m the British ambassador’?’ Or do you not do that and risk that you will be ignored?”
She tried both, and then went for handshakes.