Sophie Walker: ‘We Promised Equality To Afghan Women and Girls: We Can’t Abandon Them Now’

The Grazia columnist and Women's Equality Party founding leader explains why it's so important we focus on women and children in Afghanistan.


by Sophie Walker |
Updated on

Securing women’s equality was at the heart of the US-led intervention into Afghanistan, we were told. As the UK announced its participation, journalists were briefed on the important human rights and civic work of the mission. Success would mean the freedom of women and girls.

Twenty years later, the troops are gone and the Taliban has taken back control of the country. The UK Parliament has broken off its summer holiday to debate what to do. But with every hour that passes, it becomes more difficult to find the most vulnerable in Afghanistan, and more difficult to get them out. Initial reports of a UK resettlement plan that will take just 20,000 and mobilise gradually over months have caused alarm among the feminist activists working tirelessly night and day to mobilise political support in the West while simultaneously bartering for the freedom of those trapped in the South Asian country.

“We encouraged and supported these women over 20 years. We provided them with assurances and promises that they could step into the light. And now we have pulled the rug out from them and shoved them back into darkness,” said Katherine Mulhern, founder of CEO Restitution, which funds governments fighting corruption and breaches of civil rights.

The female lawyers, activists and journalists who moved and participated more freely in society over the last two decades are top targets for the Islamist military organisation. Universities and schools where women were educated have been evacuated and their doors closed. Beauty parlours are boarded up. Burqa shops have re-opened, their prices sky-high for the all-enveloping robe a generation of women were reassured they would not be forced to wear. Reports say that men are making lists of women and girls between the ages of 12 and 45 to be enslaved in ‘marriage’ to Taliban fighters.

“I am haunted by the texts I am receiving,” said lawyer Zehra Zaidi, after another night of phone calls, emails and negotiations. “They are hit lists of the women who stand for everything the Taliban oppose.”

'The challenge is to mobilise people here to understand that in a month we won’t be able to find these people or reach them.”

The UK is in a good position as chair of the G7 and a key NATO ally to lead an ambitious international refugee plan with support from powerful allies.

The UK is in a good position as chair of the G7 and a key NATO ally to lead an ambitious international refugee plan with support from powerful allies. For years it has defended its relationship with Saudi Arabia to feminists – now is the time to show the worth of that work. Pakistan too is a friend, whose embassies in the region can help women and girls. There is currently very little to show for eighteen months’ planning time the US-led coalition had for its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Western feminists are routinely told by critics to focus their work where women ‘really’ need it. But an understanding at home of what a feminist foreign policy looks like starts with solidarity with all women – and listening to those who can advocate for best policy everywhere. The UK government must listen to the expert women here who know where to find the women currently being hunted by the Taliban. It should understand just how many entire groups of Afghan female organisations – from schoolgirls to musicians to NGO workers, currently in hiding – need to be able to leave and support each other together.

It’s not too late to act – and there are things you can do, says Mulhern. “Speak to your MPs, sign our petition and make sure you tell them that this is not done in your name. This is not acceptable behaviour. Tell everyone: We will not allow our sisters to be treated in this way.”

Women are equal nowhere in the world because the countries with the most power to do something about it fail time and again to engage with the relentless, strategic, structural work it requires. A debate of five hours, and a plan to help those who have already made it to a safe neighbouring country is a travesty of justice and responsibility to the people whose freedom and dignity we pledged as a country to protect.

Sign Sophie's petition to protect the freedom and safety of Afghan women and girls here.

READ MORE; As Violence Continues To Escalate In Afghanistan, Here's How You Can Support Women And Children

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