In early September, the New York Times reported that women in Afghanistan who were protesting against the regime were beaten by the members of the Taliban in Kabul. If media reports are to be believed, the Taliban has announced that all women who were holding leading positions in the previous government, ranks 1-3 have been fired. Women who were holding ranks 4-6 “can keep” their jobs after a “competitive” exam against Taliban candidates who will be given 20 bonus points for being males.
In an exclusive chat with Asian Voice, activist Zehra Zaidi discussed the UK’s report card of handling the Afghan crisis, especially women refugees.
Q- Please talk about your understanding of the situation in Afghanistan with respect to women. What is the need of the hour?
Vulnerable women and girls are simply not being able to get out of Afghanistan. This is despite being the third priority category for the UK Government after 1. British nationals and 2. those who worked for the British Government such as military interpreters.
For those trapped in the country, the situation is getting dire. Twenty years of freedom, dreams and achievements are being rolled back. Simple things we take for granted eg earning your own salary, or of freely travelling around your town or city are near impossible.
Women have become invisible from public life, stuck at home, or hidden safe house to safe house in the case of women MPs, judges, human rights defenders, journalists, police, military women, Government employees, NGO workers, musicians and sportswomen. Only doctors and medical staff have been allowed to work but only if they cover up completely.
This is despite the Taliban’s fake promises that there would be no discrimination against women and women would be allowed to continue their work and their jobs.
We know that despite another of the Taliban’s fake promises, it has banned girls and young women from going to school and getting further education.
Starvation is as much a threat to Afghan women as the Taliban. No money is coming into the country, they are not being allowed to work. We are about to see a humanitarian and health crisis unfold before our eyes.
Q- How do you think western countries like the US and UK can come forward to specifically ensure safety and a future for Afghan women? What kind of work is being done to your knowledge?
We need to ask about expediting visas or visa waivers for those vulnerable Afghans who need to travel. Because the minister for Afghan resettlement has said that whoever crossed the channel without paperwork would be rejected - but we encouraged Afghans to head to borders and we have been slow to read and process emails
We need detail on safe passage, step by step, how the FCDO is supporting a woman human rights defender trying to leave Kabul (are they providing documentation, advice on routes, money for escape, provision of support at the border, resettlement in the border country, and extraction to the UK.
The delivery of aid to women/girls will be even more highly dependent on female Afghan aid workers and local women-led civil society organizations. Yet these groups themselves are being targeted. We need an international humanitarian plan that ensures these groups are protected and used to properly access the most vulnerable.
Experts need to be enlisted to help the FCDO. We need a cross-departmental Afghanistan advisory group. Sir Simon Gass' negotiating team for the Taliban needs to be expanded to include women lawyers and negotiators with knowledge of the region.
There is a lot being done on resettlement once people get to the UK, but the problem is that they are not getting here.
Q - While it’s heartening to see Afghan women sharing their cultural heritage on social media as a mark of protest and solidarity, the majority of women in that country are probably living the biggest nightmare of their lives. In that context, how do you think Afghan culture will be revived especially when women, who are opinion leaders and potential manufacturers of consent about cultures, are in danger?
The Taliban may have taken control again, but it is a different country. A whole generation has had freedom and opportunity.
Despite the risks, women activists have taken to the streets to protest against the Taliban.
On social media, Afghan women are campaigning - the hashtag #DoNotTouchMyClothes is an online campaign from Afghan women around the world, sharing photos of themselves in traditional colourful clothing.
It is incumbent on the international community to uphold Afghan women’s right to choose their own means of clothing, studies, profession etc. We cannot endorse and financially enable the Taliban to oppress people in the name of culture or religion. Countries like Britain need to pressurise third countries like Qatar and Pakistan to get significant concessions in return for any international aid or opening up of the country and inflows of money transfers.
Q - Many women and girls who will take refuge in the UK, will perhaps end up marrying, starting a family or have their first rendezvous with education. Do you think we’re equipped to give them the right foster care without bringing in the difference in faith and cultures?
The UK Government has done quite well in move quickly to issues of resettlement with a dedicated minister in Vicky Atkins (One caveat – that minister now sits in the Justice Dept and not the Home Office, so it remains to be seen how that will work).
What’s missing is a lot of detail. We need the cross-departmental group working on this to put out information at speed and not only coordinating between themselves but ALSO between Government, refugee charities, and those more entrepreneurial minds offering innovative ideas to tackle housing needs, language training. Quite frankly, public sector provision will be insufficient but the Government needs to enable others to step up and coordinate. For example, how can the private sector help with housing provision?
We need to create peer networks to support women eg women’s charities are experienced in dealing with women facing trauma and upheaval, they have the tools and personnel to take a lot of care in that and even the people who volunteer with them are vetted and are experienced. We also need universities to offer scholarship schemes in the same way that Syrians were given opportunities.
We need the Government to offer educated military professionals, police officers, Government officials, judges, lawyers, journalists and others ways of gaining similar re-employment eg I would like one year fully paid placement scheme offered in the civil service and local government to some of these women in these professional groups. We need to retain and support the continued development of Afghanistan’s talent, particularly the female talent from the country that would be denied in the country, and not have them struggle to get jobs close to what they once could do.
Also, if we ever need to go back to that country, because of military intervention, this is a talent pool of knowledge and skills that we can use. They can also help our society and economy.
And we also need to guard against the issue of Afghan refugees falling into anti-immigrant sentiment. We need to say loudly that these are vulnerable people and it is our duty to protect them.
I don’t think the difference in faith and culture is an issue. There is a large Afghan diaspora and diasporas from the different religions and religions representing Afghanistan and so there will be and community groups ready to help.
But what I will say, there will be a period where they need our acute support and we need to ensure the support is there – that will especially be around trauma and we need to help them deal with that and to get on their feet.
One final word on this. Those who are coming, either worked for us or they are women who are highly qualified or are the most vulnerable of society fleeing the Taliban, there is not an integration issue. They will want to make Britain or the US their home. We need to give them a chance, the right support, and let them flourish. The Syria scheme shows the way forward as it did a lot of good.
Q - At a political and national level, how do you think the UK has fared in dealing with the Afghan crisis?
At this stage, the report card reads, COULD DO BETTER.
We will need to secure safe passage out of the country, women aren’t getting out and a humanitarian plan for those left in the country. Moving to resettlement must not set aside the former especially.
Many tweets on who is getting out seem focused on British citizens and those who worked for the UK Government, and even then so many remain behind. (1) Dominic Raab on Twitter: "We have joined with countries around the world to make clear that we expect the Taliban to stand by their commitment to allow safe passage to third countries for foreign nationals and Afghans who we have agreed to resettle.
But we MUST get more vulnerable women out. These are the future of the country, and if we can’t secure their safety, livelihoods and education in a country where they will be terrorised by the Taliban, we have to help some leave and continue to rebuild for their diaspora and nation from the outside.