Voices: Afghan women and girls deserve more than empty promises from the UK

·4-min read

“Work, bread, freedom” was the refrain shouted by 40 Afghan women as they marched in front of the education ministry in Kabul last weekend. The rally tells you everything you need to know about Afghanistan under the brutal Taliban regime.

Women cannot work to support their families or leave the house unaccompanied. Twenty million people are facing starvation. Women must wear the burqa and girls’ education is banned. The women outside the ministry were sending a message that they will not be broken or silenced. Is anyone in Britain listening?

The one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover is not something to watch in horror or dismiss as irrelevant. Afghanistan is not some distant outpost unconnected to the UK. British influence there goes as far back as the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-80, when it seized territory from Afghanistan and annexed it to British India.

Between 2001 and 2014, the UK was involved in the conflict in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. UK aid has supported women’s rights and empowerment for over 20 years. Are we simply to forget the generation of female talent that Britain encouraged, educated and trained?

There is a small window of opportunity now when we can save and protect lives while media attention turns back to Afghanistan. There are things we can all do to help. We can write to our MP, who can lobby the government on our behalf. We can amplify messages on social media and highlight the voices of Afghan women. Those able can donate to help feed a family in Afghanistan.

Most urgently, we can rally behind a call to the new incoming prime minister and their government to create a legal asylum and resettlement route for Afghan women at risk. Together we can urge them to commit to the expansion of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) so it prioritises women and girls. Despite many promises, this prioritisation still does not exist in law.

During the countdown to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, our group of friends assembled under the banner of Action for Afghanistan to help evacuate the most vulnerable women. It was hard work. Our struggles then and now are still hard to comprehend given that women and girls are stated as a key priority of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Many Afghan women face a direct, violent threat to their lives from the Taliban because of the jobs they once did, with the support and encouragement of the UK. Yet the UK Foreign Select Committee report on Afghanistan found that of 15,000 people evacuated in Operation Pitting by the British government, only 295 principals were from civilian “vulnerable groups”. Whilst there is no gender breakdown provided for these figures, only 11 were women’s rights activists.

The key players here have a history of ignoring women. The Doha Deal struck between the US and Taliban in February 2020 that paved the way for the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was the culmination of “peace” talks that excluded Afghan women leaders. Those women warned that a rushed US exit from the country by 11 September 2021 would undermine talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to achieve meaningful peace and turn back two decades of women’s empowerment. They repeatedly told Western politicians and journalists that the Taliban had not changed. Western leaders probably knew that but abandoned Afghan women nonetheless.

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Strength and defiance were coded into the DNA of Afghan women long before modern times or indeed the Taliban. Rabia Balkhi, Afghanistan’s famed 10th-century poet, and Malalai of Maiwand, a national folk hero who was said to rally fighters during the second Anglo-Afghan War, have built legacies of defiance and courage.

In these darkest of days under the Taliban, in every house, in every neighbourhood, in messages passed between friends, and across social media, there will be small acts of resistance. Women who are literally facing down the barrel of a gun, will show reserves of strength that few of us could imagine.

The least we can do is fight as hard for them as they are now fighting for themselves. British citizens can mobilise to make their voices heard to help to save and protect lives. That is what is at stake. We urgently need a specific legal route for Afghan women at risk.

Do not just be in awe of these brave women. Do not just be a passive onlooker as horrors unfold.

Zehra Zaidi is a lawyer and campaigner. Sign the petition calling on the government to create a UK asylum and resettlement route for at-risk Afghan women here