| ||How Britain betrayed female Afghan boxers|
By Felicity Arbuthnot
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It is former British prime minister Harold Wilson who is attributed with the quote “a week is a long time in politics,” referring to the speedy shifting sands of political priorities.
If a week is a while, approaching 12 years is a millennium. Remember the deluge of political concern over the subjugation of Afghan women at the time of the October 2001 invasion?
There was a plethora of documentaries, articles and books on their plight, which contributed to justifying another invasion. It is salutary to recap a few.
In November 2001 first lady Laura Bush gave the president’s weekly radio address and stated that the fight against terrorism was “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
The state department marked her broadcast with an 11-page document on the Taliban’s “war against women.”
Later, Hillary Clinton wrote of “a post-Taliban” country “where women’s rights are respected,” before then British prime minister Tony Blair talked of aid to Afghanistan being conditional on the restoration of rights to women and girls.
Eight years later British politicians still said publicly that women’s rights were a justification for war.
Former minister of state in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and subsequently the administrator of the UN Development Programme Mark Malloch Brown said in 2009: “The rights of women was one of the reasons the UK and many in the West threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan.
“It matters greatly to us and our public opinion.”
This sentiment was echoed later that year by the then foreign secretary David Miliband, who described Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan as a “partnership.”
Fast forward then to March 8 2013 and International Women’s Day, for which the UN had declared this year’s theme as the gender agenda gaining momentum.
On the eve of the event, three members of the Kabul girls’ boxing team, who were on their way to Britain to train and fight as guests of the foundation Women in Sport to mark International Women’s Day, were refused entry to the country by the UK Border Agency (UKBA).
It was the second time that Sadaf Rahimi, Fahima Mohammad and Shabnam Rahman had been turned down.
After presenting the appropriate documentation, identification and a letter of support from the Centre of Peace and Unity — their long-term supporters in Afghanistan — they had expected to be granted visas before heading off
to the airport and then London.
Instead they had to return to Kabul in dejection — so much for the aims of the “Olympic legacy.”
It is a supreme irony that it was not the mullahs in Afghanistan who curtailed the team’s movements but the mullahs in Whitehall — and even more so given that the supreme “mullah” at the UKBA is a woman, namely Home Secretary Theresa May.
Organisations that had long planned welcomes, events and raised funds for the visit of three remarkable young women, who had overcome the restrictions of the most conservative of Afghan culture, expressed their frustration.
The East London Fawcett Society, a branch of Britain’s leading equality campaign, wrote to those involved with the initiative.
Its correspondence read: “We are very sorry to be sending this email to update you that the three boxers on their way to the UK for Saturday’s event Fighting for Freedom — Afghanistan v UK have been refused entry visas and
will thus not be here for the bout with UK rivals on Saturday.
“This event is now cancelled.
“On the eve of International Women’s Day, we are thinking of our inspiring sisters in Afghanistan and around the world.”
Women in Sport founder Margaret Pope added: “We are made to believe that avenues, especially here in the UK, are opening up to people such as Sadaf Rahimi, Fahima Mohammad and Shabnam Rahman, who are trying to
pursue their sporting dreams.
“There has been much talk of the legacy of the Olympics and rights for women in sport, but today, it is not the case for these women.”
UKBA officials claimed the rejection was due to the trio being unable to illustrate their financial circumstances in Afghanistan, as well as concerns from the High Commission that they may not return to Afghanistan after their visit.
But it was made clear that the purpose of their visit to Britain was sport and that the women, who are all students, had financial support from Women In Sport for the duration of their trip.
Former aid worker Melanie Brown, who made the documentary Fighting for Peace based on the boxers, said: “I know how many challenges they have had to overcome in pursuit of their sport. They have continued boxing in the face of these, reaching excellence and representing their country internationally.
“However in the face of bureaucracy they are powerless. This visa refusal will come as a bitter disappointment to them.
“They may as well have a big tick box saying: ‘Are you from Afghanistan? Don’t bother.’”
Rahimi, Mohammad and Rahman had been scheduled for a training session with Britain’s first licensed female boxer Jane Couch and to attend a charity auction in London to raise money for their gym in Kabul.
Couch slammed the decision as “absolutely unbelievable. They are just trying to make a change.”
The Women in Sport Foundation is down, but definitely not out and “remains committed to bringing them here to the UK this year, fighting for freedom.”
Pope added: “One of the justifications for Britain’s military involvement in Afghanistan was to help improve the terrible situation for the country’s women.
“It is therefore a bitter irony that when there is a clear opportunity to assist some of the bravest, talented and most inspiring young Afghan women, bureaucratic delays are quashing their dreams.”
In September 2010 at the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Let’s be clear, you can’t build strong economies, open societies and inclusive political systems if you lock out women.”
He echoed former PM Blair, who just after the invasion vowed: “We will not walk away as the outside world has done so many times before.”
Between the former and current prime ministers, Britain has clearly walked away from Afghan women, slammed the door and locked them out.