16 August 2021

After the US exit, the UK must step into the breach to save Afghans from the Taliban

By Z Zaidi, K Mulhern & K Maltby

In one scene from Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to her global bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale, a woman remembers the last days of her previous existence. She remembers going to work one day, civil war raging around her – but men with guns, many of them boys years her junior, soon arrive at her workplace. She and all her female colleagues are marched out of the office. Some are ordered back home, to submit to their husbands and never enter the public sphere again. But those women are the lucky ones. 

In recent years, Western feminists have fetishised The Handmaid’s Tale, and its various spin-offs, as a totemic nightmare patriarchy. Their scoffing critics, by contrast, like to point out that the lives most women in the West live have nothing in common with such tortuous fantasies.

That may be so in the West, but for women in Afghanistan, Atwood’s dystopia has become all too real. Indeed, the scene she describes of women being forced from their jobs at gunpoint happened on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan, just last month; then again in Herat, where women working in two banks were ordered to send male relatives instead as their families needed the income. 

We know too that, as in Atwood’s tale, ritualised rape and sexual enslavement – some reports continue to describe this, on Taliban terms, as ‘marriage’ – await unmarried women in areas overrun by male Taliban fighters. We in the Western media have spent years debating whether horror stories like The Handmaid’s Tale do more harm than good, but what matters today is that this scenario is a reality for women trapped in Afghanistan. This is a real life Handmaid’s Tale that the West has co-authored.

In 2001, Afghan women’s rights and empowerment were placed at the heart of the fight against the Taliban and the US-led international military intervention. In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, George W Bush talked about state-sanctioned terrorism and the Taliban’s threat to Americans, but he also cited his horror at learning that under the Taliban, ‘women are not allowed to attend school’. In the tangle of murky motives behind the West’s shifting decisions in Afghanistan, women’s rights have been part of the conversation from the start. Yet on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban has overrun the country and the West’s legacy in Afghanistan hangs by a thread.

The question now is: what can the West salvage? And to our leaders, were female freedoms in Afghanistan ever anything more than a rhetorical tool? America may have walked away from Afghanistan’s women, but if Britain wants to show that its global leadership on gender equality still means something, there are a few ways we can help.

During the Taliban’s five-year rule, women were banned from working, attending school or leaving home without a male relative. They were invisible in public life and imprisoned in their homes. Kabul residents were ordered to cover their windows so women inside could not be seen from the street. But that was only how bad things were then. After the resentments of the last 20 years, many Afghan women are now even more at risk. We know that prominent female journalists, lawyers, members of parliament, activists and NGO workers have been the targets of assassinations. Not only will Afghan women be forced to give up their dreams, but the Taliban will have a list of people deemed to have betrayed its Islamist ideals by working under an ‘illegal’ Western occupation.

Stories have emerged of women in Herat being denied entry to university or told to leave their place of work. In areas taken over by the Taliban, women have been forced to marry fighters. We are about to see a whole generation of Afghan women forced into modern slavery. So, with Kabul closer to falling with every passing minute, and British representatives fleeing the country, what can we still do?

The UK is in a unique position as current chair of the G7 and key Nato ally to lead the humanitarian response. An urgent refugee plan needs to be coordinated to avoid a repeat of the Syrian migrant crisis. It would, of course, be naive to ignore the division of public and political opinion across Europe when it comes to asylum seekers. According to YouGov, 61% of Brits are in favour of blocking asylum for migrants who have arrived through a safe country. A clear strategy will be needed to stave off an anti-immigrant backlash.

However, the majority of the burden for refugee resettlement will not fall on Europe. Afghans are assembling on their own borders. So it is Afghanistan’s neighbours like Turkey, Pakistan and Iran – the countries which have hosted the vast majority of Afghan refugees so far – that now expect hundreds of thousands more in the coming days. Neighbouring countries like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan should be supported in taking in more refugees, not least because many of those fleeing will be from the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek minority groups. For the persecuted Hazara Shia community, seeking refuge with their co-religionists in Iran seem the obvious choice. Elsewhere, the Indian government is in constant touch with minority Sikh and Hindu communities and has said it will take in refugees (likely to be from those two groups).

Many of the British friends we have spoken to in the last few days have asked how on earth we still hope to help anyone leave Kabul, given how dire things already are? The answer is that now, we leverage our influence on the embassies of nations which do have relationships with the Taliban to help the people we can no longer help directly. For instance, the UK is well placed to use its historic relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to help secure safe passage for refugees via their embassies, which will remain fully functional. The FCO has often defended its relationship with Saudi Arabia against criticism from feminists. Now it is time to prove that all that ‘pragmatism’ on counter-terrorism and regional security means real leverage.

In terms of the UK’s own commitment on taking in Afghan refugees, it already has the means to do so by extending the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). For the Taliban, people such as the educators who worked for the British Council will be seen as collaborators with Western ‘infidels’. In recent days, we have been approached by former staff at the British Council who are particularly distressed that only Afghans on ‘staff’ contracts – effectively, those who worked in Kabul rather than in the provinces – have been helped to evacuate.

One Afghan, whom we will call X, has worked for the British Council since 2008. X saw their visa request denied by the UK Home Office on June 13 on the basis that they had held a ‘service’ contract – as a contractor, rather than staff. The last time their former British Council supervisor heard from X, Taliban fighters were circling their ‘safe house’, shouting that they were on their way to kill X and their family. Very few of this person’s colleagues managed to get to Kabul, but those who have should finally be given our help.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AICHR), one of the leading organisations promoting human rights throughout the country, has members who must be evacuated, in particular those 90 members deemed particularly vulnerable, including 60 women and their spouses and children. They have fled the provincial capitals where they undertook their human rights protection work, and are currently in Kabul.

ARAP needs to be extended to these human rights defenders and to all Afghans who worked on projects encouraged by, under or funded by the British Government, the British Council, British based NGOs or certain commercial companies (e.g. media) where affiliation could put them at exposed risk of persecution. 

Finally, certain Afghan women’s groups most at risk of being targeted by the Taliban, such as journalists, activists and lawyers, will need to be provided allocation in a mirror Home Office asylum scheme. Otherwise we risk losing a generation of female talent that the West encouraged, educated and trained. Given the Home Office’s Violence Against Women and Girls strategy and work on combatting modern slavery, this should surely receive cross-party consensus. 

Finally, there needs to be indefinite leave to remain for Afghan refugees already in the UK who have only limited leave to remain, and an amnesty for undocumented Afghans in the UK. It must be terrifying for families living under this cloud of uncertainty about their future.

The Taliban were overthrown 20 years ago amid a global rallying call to promote democracy, freedom and human rights. It was a summons heeded by Afghan activists and professionals who have worked tirelessly to promote and protect human rights in their country, often at great personal risk. By pulling out of Afghanistan and leaving it to its fate, we have exposed these individuals to horrific danger.

The UK has a chance to show that it holds these values dear and will not betray the Afghan people. It is a chance that Britain must waste no time in seizing, with the same leadership, resolve and compassion that the Government has shown towards Hong Kong. Fail to do so and we will send an awful message: that we care about atrocities against women – but only on the pages of a best-selling novel.

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Zehra Zaidi is founder of We Too Built Britain, a former lawyer and an innovation and development consultant.
Katherine Mulhern is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Restitution.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.