4 February 2023
By Hamza Saeed
The Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, Ambassador Munir Akram, caused controversy with his recent statements about Pashtun culture and women’s education. During a briefing on Afghanistan at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York, Akram suggested that the Taliban’s ban on women’s education was rooted in Pashtun culture, which led to a strong reaction from Pashtun communities on both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The comments were widely criticized on social media, with some accusing Akram of endorsing the Taliban’s discriminatory treatment of women.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021 by force, they have imposed a ban on girls’ education. This ban has been met with resistance from Afghan civil society, despite facing brutal crackdowns from the Taliban. Female students have specifically staged protests against the anti-women policies and have called on the international community to take action and pressure the Taliban to reverse the ban on education for girls.
Former senator Afrasiab Khattak called the statement an affront to Pashtun culture and questioned if Pakistan was now representing the Taliban. He cited the examples of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel laureate from Swat, KP, and the struggle of Bacha Khan for the education of Pashtuns.
On the other hand, the Afghan ambassador to Sri Lanka, Ashraf Haidari accused Akram of avoiding responsibility for the Taliban’s gender apartheid.
The remarks by Mr. Akram came at a time when just recently Afghan women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj has been recognized for her work, being shortlisted for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.
Maleeha Lodhi, who previously served as Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, has, unlike her successor consistently expressed her opposition to the Taliban’s oppressive actions. She had spoken out against the Taliban’s human rights violations and called for an end to their violent and repressive tactics. Lodhi’s stance highlighted the concern and condemnation of the international community towards the Taliban’s actions.
The Foreign Ministry sought more information about Akram’s comments and the context in which they were made. The spokesperson for the ministry emphasized that Pakistan is committed to equality and women’s rights, and upholds its obligations under international agreements and conventions.
After receiving a strong backlash, he issued a clarification, stating that his remarks were referring to a “peculiar perspective” of a small minority that has resulted in restrictions on women and that there was no disrespect meant to the highly progressive Pashtun culture. He added that the restrictions were not consistent with Islam and Sharia, which provide all rights to women, including work and education.