Living Room Session: Zulaikha Aziz

afghanistan gemstone mining human rights jewelry living room sessions news responsible sourcing social issues Sep 30, 2021

During the September Living Room session, we had the opportunity and honor to host a very timely and vulnerable conversation with Zulaikha Aziz. Zulaikha is a human rights attorney and founder of jewelry brand, Mazahri. She is also Co-Director of the Afghanistan Project at Berkeley Law, an initiative focused on providing legal guidance and assistance to Afghans seeking refuge in response to the current humanitarian crisis, as well as advocating for the upholding of Afghans' human rights more broadly. From her perspective as a jewelry designer as well as a refugee from Afghanistan with enduring deep ties to the country through family and friends, Zulaikha shared with us an overview of the current political situation in Afghanistan. She also discussed with us how everyday people and artisanal gemstone miners are being impacted. We thank her for sharing her authentic and unique perspective, as well as her expert knowledge.

As an overview of the current situation, Zulaikha started off the conversation by making a couple of important points. The first one was that the Taliban takeover was not due to a lack of will of the Afghan people to fight it, but a lack of leadership. On August 15th, the Taliban entered Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The military remained but soldiers had not been paid in months; they lacked food and other resources to be able to continue to fight. This added to the quick devolution of power.

The second point was clearing up a common misconception that the Taliban is a homegrown movement in Afghanistan. It was in fact born out of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence in the 1990s and remains headquartered in Pakistan. Zulaikha noted that the people of Afghanistan are not a monolith - they are rather diverse culturally and linguistically and the fundamentalist ideology of the Taliban does not align with a majority of Afghans’ views and beliefs. Most Afghans don’t want this, or any, foreign power in control.

Historically, the government of Afghanistan was decentralized. Different provinces had a lot of control locally and this allowed the varied ethnicities within Afghanistan to live harmoniously and diverse cultures to thrive. Speaking to the The United States operations in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, Zulaikha noted that the U.S. worked to create a strong central government instead and that this did not make for a strong foundation as the centralized government didn't have good and honest ties with the different provincial rulers. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, there was a lot of hope for change and stability.

“So I think this idea of Afghans not wanting to live in a peaceful, stable government and just being used to death and destruction - I think that in and of itself is something we hear not just with Afghanistan, but with a lot of countries, particularly in the Middle East - there's this rhetoric that ‘those groups have just been fighting with each other forever.’ And I think it's important for us to really examine that and question it.”

Through her work within the Berkeley Law Afghanistan Project, Zulaikha has turned her focus to assisting people who are now at risk of persecution in Afghanistan. This may be people in minority religious groups, women who have spoken out about women’s rights, those speaking out in favor of democracy, anyone having worked with the U.S. government or organizations, and many other groups of people. The legal pathways for people to be allowed to flee to the United States are few. There are two visas (the Special Immigration Visa or SIV and the Priority-2 designation for Afghan Nationals or P2 program) that may be available to people who have worked with the U.S. government or any U.S. funded organizations, but people who are in one of the many other marginalized and persecuted groups are not eligible for these visas.

The Berkeley Law Afghanistan Project is helping these individuals apply for humanitarian parole, temporary entry that may be granted for emergency humanitarian reasons but which requires a sponsor within the United States and costs $575 per filing. (You can donate to the Berkeley Law Afghanistan Project to help cover the costs of these filing fees) However, as of our conversation, even those people who were granted visas had no sure way to leave the country as there were no flights out and borders with nearby countries were closed. Even the U.S. embassy in Kabul was closed, exacerbating the drastic situation.

Additionally, Zulaikha encouraged people who are looking for ways to help to donate to the organization Women for Afghan Women which has been working on the ground in Afghanistan for over twenty years and has now shifted their operations to serving the needs of refugees arriving in the United States. She also stressed the importance of supporting organizations that are providing humanitarian aid, like World Food Program and UNICEF, because they provide food and basic necessities for survival to people in rural areas. This is an important point as the banking system in Afghanistan has collapsed. The central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank, has had over $9 billion in U.S. backed reserves frozen. This is directly affecting everyday people who cannot access their money. This is a really challenging situation, as releasing the money could just benefit the Taliban instead of going back to the Afghan people, but it is a crucial situation to resolve. Zulaikha stressed that, “we need to hold our government accountable for continuing to provide not only humanitarian aid, but a pathway for folks to be able to access their money”.


Mazahri rings styled with lapis lazuli


This challenging scenario also relates to the jewelry industry in that artisanal miners in Afghanistan are in dire need of support and at the same time, responsible jewelry producers want to make sure that their money is not going to the Taliban. There is no simple answer for this complex issue and there is a lot of information to consider when making a choice about gemstone sourcing from Afghanistan.

To understand the lay of the land prior to August of this year, jewelers should know that there was mining activity in areas controlled by the Taliban as well as areas controlled by the Afghan government. The Jegdalek ruby mines and the lapis lazuli mine in Badakhshan, for example, were controlled by the Taliban. This means that the Taliban would collect a 10% tax on any gemstones exported from those areas. On the other hand, there were also the mining areas that were controlled by the government. There were a lot of barriers to mining legally in these areas - licensing fees, payments to middlemen, and rumored corruption within the Ministry of Mines - which made it very challenging for artisanal miners to legally sell their gemstones. In this case, it would mean that licensing fees may be going into the pockets of corrupt government officials. With neither option being an ideal choice ethically, the important thing to focus on is asking the questions of jewelry suppliers that can let us know if our purchase supports a family owned mine directly, if it benefits an artisanal mining community directly.

In a situation this complex, we cannot make a blanket statement about whether or not one should purchase gemstones from Afghanistan. One possibility Zulaikha mentioned is for folks who have established connections with gem suppliers in Afghanistan to “continue those conversations [since they may] have supplies from before....old stock, and [if] they know where their stones are coming from, if you built a relationship with them, and they're transparent and honest with you about where they're getting their stones from, then I would continue supporting them. [Especially] if those channels are beneficial for the people who are mining [the gems]”. However, if the U.S. government imposes sanctions, we will have a legal obligation to not purchase gemstones from Afghanistan at all until the sanctions are lifted. Aside from a sanction situation, “boycotts tend to hurt the poorest and most vulnerable people,” Zulaikha pointed out. Additionally, they can contribute to cultural erosion because products may just be labeled as being from a different country to evade the boycott.

It’s currently also important to highlight the emerald mines in Panjshir. This is an area where there is active conflict and reports that about 80% of the population has been displaced, that there have been mass killings, and that the Taliban is not allowing any food to enter the area - basically starving people living there. The situation is tragic and the future of that area and its people is especially uncertain. Most of the mines in this area have been family owned mines, operated by and benefiting the local Tajik communities. Following what continues to take place in this area will be very important for the concerned jewelry community.


Mazahri rings


In circling back to previous mentions of corruption in the government, we asked Zulaikha how jewelers wanting to source responsibly should consider corruption - how does it play out in Afghanistan?

“Corruption, at the base of it, I think of it as dishonest behavior for some sort of personal gain by people who are in positions of power...And then if you're looking at the government context, [it’s] taking money or taking some sort of resource from people in order to do something that [the government] should be doing for them anyway. And so I look at corruption in two different terms. One is grand corruption, and one is petty corruption. Grand corruption is corruption at the highest levels of power. So when you see the leadership of a government... taking large amounts of money in order to enact certain policies or in order to be involved in certain deals, [for example]. And then petty corruption we see more in bureaucracies, at the lower levels, like when you're trying to get a license, and, you know, you don't pay just the license fee that's charged to everybody, you have to pay something in addition to that, which goes into somebody's pocket.”

The levels of corruption in Afghanistan greatly increased with the added involvement of foreign actors, beginning in the 1980s. The continued corruption since that time has significantly contributed to the levels of poverty in the country.

While the situation is complicated, in having transparent conversations with trusted gem suppliers, we can continue to make ethical sourcing decisions. Just as we should search for and read diverse media sources to best understand the full context of a current event, we can do our research and seek out diverse sources for answers when it comes to gemstone suppliers. The mining industry is important to the Taliban, and it is likely that we will see Taliban controlled large scale mining taking over in many areas. This is a perpetuation of the current systems in the jewelry industry that were built upon colonialist systems of oppression. The onus is on the jewelry industry at large to create change, to create new, equitable systems. Where the value and benefit is placed along the supply chain needs to be reexamined and disparities abated.

Most of the power to change this is in the hands of major companies in the industry, but everyone can and should put pressure on them to change. Zulaikha suggested that another way individual jewelers can push for this kind of change is by being transparent about how we price our items - showing where the value is placed and who along the chain of production benefits, even if just in percentages. The more information consumers have, the more they care about making the more positive or ethical choice.

Thanks again to Zulaikha. Here are some resources she recommended during the session as well:
News media - BBC Farsi and Tolo News
For more in depth reading - The Afghanistan Analysts Network, the book Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid

Join Our Community

Stay up-to-date with our latest content, industry news, and more. Plus, you'll receive timely notifications about our upcoming Living Room Sessions!

Check your Inbox/Junk folder to confirm you want to receive emails from us. Don't worry, your information will not be shared.