Resisting Modern Slavery in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan: Reflections from a grassroots network on their work–and why they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place
Justin, Vaania, Sadaf, Romilly, and Liz
Since August 2021, the Afghan Solidarity Coalition (ASC)–a loose network of universities, activists, and students in London–has been advocating for and supporting Afghans left behind in Afghanistan. These Afghans are at risk of being murdered by the Taliban as a result of their affilitation with Western organizations; however, Western governments have reneged on their promise and moral obligation to evacuate these allies. In many cases, these Afghans–and in particular women–are now experiencing a form of slavery at the hands of the Taliban: they have been deprived of their freedom of speech, freedom of movement, right to education, and right to envision and pursue the future they want for themselves and their families. This post comprises a series of reflections from a group of students within ASC on their work supporting Afghan women human rights activists. The students consider the impact of their grassroots work within the broader political context surrounding Afghanistan, the horrific stories they encountered during the course of their work, and the inevitable power dynamics that shape the contours of their experiences.
Since August 2021, the Afghan Solidarity Coalition (ASC)–a loose network of universities, activists, and students in London–has been advocating for and supporting Afghans left behind in Afghanistan. These Afghans are at risk of being murdered by the Taliban as a result of their affilitation with Western organizations; however, Western governments have reneged on their promise and moral obligation to evacuate these allies. In many cases, these Afghans–and in particular women–are now experiencing a form of slavery at the hands of the Taliban: they have been deprived of their freedom of speech, freedom of movement, right to education, and right to envision and pursue the future they want for themselves and their families. While this Journal is focused on modern slavery, we must point out that the forms of slavery implemented by the Taliban are not particularly modern. Early and forced marriage of girls, kidnapping and disappearance of those who speak out against the government, and deprivation of basic human rights and freedoms are in fact ancient forms of control and oppression.
This post comprises a series of reflections from a group of students within ASC on their work supporting Afghan women human rights activists. Several of their reflections mention the Urgent Action Fund, which is an NGO not affiliated with ASC that provides support to female human rights defenders around the world. Please see the website of their Asia-Pacific branch for more information on the support for which Afghan women may be eligible.
While working with various clients as part of the Afghan Solidarity Coalition, I was particularly struck by the level of desperation faced by many of our clients. Many of them face a new type of modern slavery as the Taliban force them to isolate in their homes and living their normal lives might lead to violent retaliation. Human rights activists–particularly those who advocated for womens’ rights–are critically in danger in Afghanistan and are forced to isolate themselves from the outside world as being caught by the Taliban could mean death for them and their families. I have had many conversations with my clients about needing to ration their food supplies and begging for monetary provisions that we are unable to adequately provide as strongly as governments theoretically could. The purpose of civil society should support government social work not completely replace it. Given cultural differences, I have only interacted with men who are communicating with us on their wives’ behalves, or men who work for government organisations. Oftentimes, these men served with western organisations and are now left without support from the organisations to which they committed themselves knowing the risk that it might entail in the form of violent retaliation from the Taliban. Learning about the daily hardships that these men and their families face is heartbreaking. These men and their families in Afghanistan are facing extreme deprivation of human rights they experience. No individual should have to suffer from lack of food and basic freedoms the way these activists suffer under the Taliban regime.
I am a 2nd year International Student from India, studying Politics and International Relations at University College London.
I think the best way to describe the work we do is this – “Civilians doing a Politician’s job”. It was evident that whilst the Taliban was taking over Afghanistan, governments around the world, decided, almost in unison, to turn their back on Afghan civilians, motivated by political and/or monetary reasons, prioritising their own political agenda over the basic right to life. As an international student from a developing country, it simply meant that compared to any well funded Western Government, the assistance I had to offer was insignificant. Yet, with civilians coming together to form the Afghan Solidarity Coalition and using whatever skills we have to offer – such as grant application skills, language skills etc., we were able to form a solid coalition of individuals. My experience has been both humbling and rewarding, where I have had to navigate several language and time zone barriers, to help clients write risk assessments and grant applications among others, as they seek to escape the penitentiary that Afghanistan has become, today. I have also seen a large number of video and photo proofs of several of our clients being physically abused by the Taliban, the experience of which has been traumatic. But knowing that our help in completing grant applications and the success achieved in supporting our clients to seek refuge, has kept me motivated. Many, in fact most, of our clients are women’s rights defenders and through their careers, have often risked their lives educating girls and creating more work opportunities for women – things that international governments have often spoken about. However, now that the lives of these crusaders of female empowerment are at a heightened risk, several international governments seem to have gone stone cold mute, with governments abjectly failing innocent people. We, as civilians, should not even be needed at a time like this! As individuals and as a like minded community, we are merely trying to fill these policy gaps.
Events like these often lead me to question why we alone as a species enjoy the tag ‘being’. Because frankly, what are we ‘being’? Or is it something that we believe we have a right to, just like any usurper? I believe that as humans, we need to continually prove to ourselves that we are Human Beings. From my experiences, I have been humbled and awestruck, after understanding the kind of women’s rights work a lot of our clients carry out, and I truly hope that they are able to escape Afghanistan and Pakistan by receiving grants and are able to continue their work elsewhere. That I have played a very small role in helping families, especially women of Afghanistan, is an experience I will always carry deeply.
I have come to adore these Afghani women who dared to actively serve as human rights’ defenders before the Taliban took over. They proudly share their experiences with me when I ask about their activism in defending human rights. I hear unique stories, each showcasing a different form of struggle and resistance against multiple forms of tyranny, either emanating from the age-old gender discriminatory traditions or resulting from women’s fight for their own basic human rights. I can’t help but hold these women in awe for how creatively they came to exercise their own agency, helped other women negotiate agency in their lives and, in solidarity, stood together against any odds in their way. It is their extraordinary courage which brings me to revere them for doing something which I can never even think of pursuing in my own life. Coming from a similar traditional, Pukhtun (Pashtun) background, I lack their strength, their resolve, and their determination for defending human rights because the thoughts of my own security and that of my family rush forth before anything else. Bravely, these women continued to fight for their fellow women, but sadly as a result they have now been stripped off their own right to live. They have no assurance of life and honour other than clinging onto a flimsy means of security–burqah. Yes, the same burqah, the so-called marker of their oppression–a shuttlecock-like arrangement of blue fabric, worn by women to remain hidden from the gaze of unrelated men. Their hijab/purdah has become the only tool to protect their life and security: the more they remain hidden, the more they have a chance to live. The moment they lose their purdah, they lose their security, revealing their identity to those who are fiercely hunting for them door to door.
The rushed pull-out of Kabul left many Afghans, whom the British Government had an obligation to protect, vulnerable and alone. Foreign politicians and civil servants offered their sympathies to the people of Afghanistan, who have now been enslaved by the Taliban and have had their freedoms stripped away almost overnight. These words meant very little to Afghans,considering the top British civil servant remained on holiday during the withdrawal from Kabul, as did the then-Foreign Defence Secretary, Dominic Raab. They were aware the Taliban was advancing on Kabul yet persisted in their idleness for the entirety of the evacuation. In response to this gap, the Afghan Solidarity Coalition has provided direct action-support to connect Afghan women activists with emergency funds, editing risk assessments (a necessary step to be considered for resettlement), advocacy before foreign governments, and supporting food drops. It has been an incredibly moving and eye-opening experience to be involved with such an inspiring group. I have had the opportunity to speak to women in Afghanistan and offer practical assistance with applying for a UAF grant. I have heard the tragic stories of brave Afghan women who now have to flee their home country because they fear for their lives and the lives of their families due to threats from the Taliban. These women have had to live in hiding for months and have sold all of their belongings to be able to feed themselves and their families, all while the Taliban are tracking them down to kill them. These women are isolated almost entirely, as they are not allowed to leave their house without a male relative; the women I have supported are widows because the Taliban executed their husbands. I have been privileged and humbled to work with these brave women, and I am dismayed that the government of my country (the UK) and many other governments have let them down so drastically.
??Throughout this initiative, I’ve often reflected on the degree to which our group and our work is perpetuating vs challenging the dependence of Afghans (but also the Global South more broadly) on the Global North (while some members of our group are from or have ties to the Global South, we are based in university in the Global North, and I myself am American). It is impossible to ignore parallels between our work and the “white saviour industrial complex.” Our group members do not have formal training in human rights or case management; only one of us has ever been to Afghanistan. And yet, we have taken up the mantle of providing potentially life-saving assistance to Afghan families. In most cases, the capacity of our clients to reach safety and apply for asylum is contingent on our power and privileges. Most of us, including myself, are being paid for this work.
The inescapable and blunt truth is that I, and our group, do have immense power in this context: power to make sure our clients’ applications are submitted successfully; to send families money for food; to organise our clients’ travel to a safe country. To the extent possible, my colleagues and I try to use our power on behalf of and in support of our clients–but many days it feels that the power we do have is dwarfed not only by the Taliban’s power and proclivity to cause violence and suffering, but also by foreign governments’ unwillingness to use their power in support of the Afghan people, as well as by the historical legacy of countries brutally exerting their power in and over Afghanistan. Of course, our clients also have power: if they didn’t, the Taliban would not exert so much of their own power to deprive Afghan women of theirs.
There is very little that we–or other similar groups–can do to change the broader system of power in which we operate. The most we can do, perhaps, is to remain acutely aware of this context, and use our collective weight to lean, ever so slightly, on the global balance of power, in the hope that one day the scales will tip in the other direction.
As the above reflections have noted, we at the ASC are only doing this work because governments have fallen short in their responsibilities towards Afghans, and have abandoned tens of thousands to the sisyphean maze of Western bureaucracies. Micro efforts such as ours have sprung up to fill the gaps (and there are many, more like us). On the one hand, we are aware our grassroots network is far more flexible and responsive than a government agency could ever be—and that governments need civil society partners to fill such gaps, especially in crisis contexts. At the same time, however, we have limited resources, extremely minimal reach relative to the need, and will not be able to sustain our efforts in the long run, as a government might theoretically do. By highlighting our own efforts in this post, the last thing we want is to implicitly absolve governments of what should be their responsibility. And yet, we are acutely and devastatingly aware that this will by no means be the last time civil society steps into the chasm left by government apathy and inaction.
To other groups and individuals on the same path, we urge you to centre empathy as an organising principle in your work. Be willing to deeply know and understand the inescapable histories and coveted futures of those you accompany—and be willing to share yours in turn. There is often an instinct to create distance between ourselves and those whose lives we cannot imagine ever being ours, but these contrived differences only serve to separate and isolate, when what we need is to connect in solace.