By Jo Shelley, Masoud Popalzai, Ehsan Popalzai, Ahmet Mengli and Rob Picheta, CNN
A senior Taliban official has repeated the group’s as-yet-unfulfilled pledge to allow girls back into high school, saying there would be “good news soon,” but suggested that women who protested the regime’s restrictions on women rights should stay home.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister and the Taliban’s co-deputy leader since 2016, made the comments in an exclusive, first on-camera interview showing his face with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Kabul.
In March after many promises that girls would be able to attend secondary school, the Taliban reversed their decision, postponing the return indefinitely.
When asked about Afghan women who say they are afraid to leave their homes under Taliban rule, and those who have reported a chilling effect of the militant group’s leadership, Haqqani added with a laugh: “We keep naughty women at home.”
After being pressed to clarify his comment by Amanpour, he said: “By saying naughty women, it was a joke referring to those naughty women who are controlled by some other sides to bring the current government into question.”
Haqqani also set out some parameters for the future of women and work, which will be limited by the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law and “national, cultural and traditional principles.”
“They are allowed to work within their own framework,” he told Amanpour.
The Taliban minister was speaking in his first on-camera interview with a Western media outlet in years, just months after showing his face in public for the first time. The high-ranking and intensely secretive official is wanted by the FBI and has been classified by the US State Department as a “specially designated global terrorist.” He has a $10 million bounty on his head.
His comments on girls’ education and the rights of women punctuated a series of claims that “there is no one opposed to (girls’) education” in the Afghan government.
“Already girls are allowed to go to school up to grade 6, and above that grade, the work is continuing on a mechanism,” Haqqani said. “Very soon, you will hear very good news about this issue, God willing,” he added, without specifying a timeframe.
Afterwards, Haqqani’s aides said the interview was an effort to open a new chapter in relations with the US and the world.
But the Taliban have repeatedly made assurances to the international community that it will protect the rights of women and girls since seizing Afghanistan last August, while simultaneously stripping away many of their freedoms and protections.
Many school-age girls and women have already lost hope. “Their entire government [is] against girls’ education,” 19-year-old Maryam told CNN on Tuesday. “I don’t believe that the Taliban fulfil their promises … they don’t understand our feelings.”
“Step by step they are taking all our freedoms,” added Fatima, 17. “The Taliban now and the Taliban of the 90s are the same — I don’t see any change on their policy and rules.
“Our only hope is the international community brings extreme pressure on the Taliban to allow girls to go to school. Nothing else [will] work.”
Maryam and Fatima, like the other women CNN spoke to, did not provide their last names due to concerns about their security.
Haqqani’s comments will likely do little to encourage observers that the Taliban are serious about their commitments. “Everyone from the Taliban leadership has zero credibility on this issue,” Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at international watchdog Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
“They have made representations about their supposed respect for women and girls,” since taking power, Barr added. “Every day after that there was a new crackdown on women, and that’s continued to intensify over time.”
The G7 foreign ministers and the High Representative of the European Union last week expressed their “strongest opposition” against the growing restrictions imposed by the Taliban on women’s and girls’ rights. Haqqani told CNN the international community’s “judgements, research, and decision making are all one-sided,” adding: “We are still at the preliminary phase. It has barely been eight months since we took over the government … we are yet to bring the situation back to normal.”
After taking power, the Taliban have warned women to stay home and their fighters have used whips and sticks against those protesting. In the subsequent months, they have been banned from large swathes of public life — from appearing on television to taking long road trips alone. A new decree earlier this month said women must cover their faces in public.
When pressed by Amanpour on whether all women have to cover their faces, Haqqani responded: “We are not forcing women to wear [the] hijab, but we are advising them and preaching to them from time to time … [the] hijab is not compulsory but it is an Islamic order that everyone should implement.”
On the streets of Kabul, the growing isolation of women from society has left many in economic peril. “I have to work,” a woman named Khotima told CNN. “They should let us work because we have to become the men of the family so we can find bread for the children.”
“When you don’t have money, when you don’t have [a] job, you don’t have income, would you be able to eat proper food when there is no work?” added another woman named Farishta.
US not ‘currently’ enemy, Haqqani says
Haqqani was speaking with CNN two months after the Taliban released rare photographs of the minister at a ceremony for police officers. Prior to that, he had rarely been seen in public; his FBI “Most Wanted” poster features only a grainy picture showing part of his face.
He is wanted by the agency for questioning in connection with a 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people including a US citizen; the US government says Haqqani admitted to planning the attack in a previous media interview. He is part of the family that forms the Haqqani network, the Islamist militant organization founded by his father Jalaluddin Haqqani, which was designated as a terrorist group by the United States in 2012.
Haqqani told CNN that “In the future, we would like to have good relations with the United States and the international community,” adding: “currently we do not look at them as enemies.”
But he made repeated assurances about women’s rights and education for girls that were at odds with the observations of global watchdogs and governments.
“The international community is raising the issue of women’s rights a lot. Here in Afghanistan, there are Islamic, national, cultural, and traditional principles,” he said. “Within the limits of those principles, we are working to provide them with opportunities to work and that is our goal.”
The Taliban released a so-called “decree on women’s rights” in December that failed to mention access to education or work and was immediately criticized by Afghan women and experts, who said it was proof that the militant group was uninterested in upholding basic freedoms for millions of women.
Afghan girls above grade 6 were due to go back to school in March for the first time since the Taliban’s takeover, but were told to stay home until an appropriate school uniform according to Sharia and Afghan customs and culture is designed, the Taliban-run Bakhtar News Agency reported at the time.
Haqqani told CNN the delay was necessary while leaders design the “mechanism” through which girls can return to education. “There were some shortcomings within the preparations that were ongoing. Work is ongoing on those issues,” he said.
But experts expressed skepticism that their motives are different than was the case between 1996 and 2001, when the first Taliban regime barred girls from studying.
“They always said the conditions aren’t right now, [but they would] figure it out,” Barr said. “In those five years, that moment never came. So very clearly to women and girls, that was always a lie, and that’s how it feels this time as well.”
Haqqani was also questioned on the status of Mark Frerichs, a US veteran and contractor who was kidnapped in Kabul in late January 2020 and is believed to be held by the Haqqani network.
A proof of life video, apparently filmed in November 2021, emerged in April, in which Frerichs said: “I’d like to ask the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of fghanistan, please, release me. Release me so that I may be reunited with my family.”
Haqqani told CNN: “That is what they think, that he is with us … There is no obstacle from the Emirate side for his release. If the United States accepts the Islamic Emirate’s conditions, the issue of his release could be solved in a day.
“About the assumptions that he might be with us, I want to say that we are part of the Islamic Emirate, we are committed to obey the orders of Amirul Momineen, the Supreme Leader,” he added. “Efforts are ongoing at the government level, and a team is designated for negotiations with them.”
When reached for comment, a US State Department spokesperson told CNN: “The safe and immediate release of US citizen and Navy veteran Mark Frerichs is imperative. We have made that clear to the Taliban and called on them to release him immediately in practically every conversation over the past two years.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Jack Guy and Madalena Araujo contributed to this article.