We Have to Help Women in Afghanistan Now Commentary
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We Have to Help Women in Afghanistan Now

We have a very narrow window in which we can assist women who want to leave Afghanistan, a window of a few days, at best, and we must take this opportunity. It is nearly impossible right now for an unaccompanied woman to leave her home in Kabul, let alone make her way to the airport. We need not only flights and immediate emergency humanitarian changes to the law, we need safe access to the airport. I am not going to place at risk anyone I am working to assist right now by trying to convince you with personal stories. You will have to trust that my pleas are based on real knowledge of real people who fear, rightly, that they are likely to imminently die without our assistance. We have to act today, or we will be sending thousands of women to their death and millions into legalized subordination.

I have many observations to make about the inevitability of this horrific situation—about the failures inherent in mixing neoliberalism with national security objectives, about the federal government giving human rights jobs to the military and billions of dollars to human rights-violating military contractors, and about the limitations to our current visas to assist loyal Afghan employees. For instance, I have worked on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for three years, denied because the applicant had to flee and didn’t receive a request for more evidence, and denied again because an employer failed to submit proof on letterhead. I have observations about how our xenophobic immigration bureaucracies fail us daily. I have many thoughts about the pile of problems we now face having limited refugee resettlement to zero and the violations of international law inherent in our decisions to deny asylum applications. But none of that is relevant today. The only relevant issue today is creating a real avenue for women to get out of Afghanistan. 

You may have seen photos or videos of people leaving or attempting to leave, horrific photos of people falling to their death, of stampedes at the airport in Kabul. What you did not see in those depictions were many women because women are effectively unable to leave. Not only are the vast majority of SIV and P eligible visa applicants male, it is simply too dangerous for a woman to attempt the airport. The Taliban are on all of the roads and at the airport, checking documents, and a woman unaccompanied by a male is visibly vulnerable. Even putting her identifying information on a roster for a hypothetical charter flight that is unlikely to come, and unlikely to leave with her on it if it does, is too high a risk, far too high given the unlikelihood that she will get out.

I want men to be able to leave, too. I have been working with SIV eligible men and their families for years and am still doing so today. But no one is currently advocating for the women in ways that are meaningful given the horrors of today—the women that we western nations have been encouraging to take public facing jobs as journalists, academics, mayors, police, university students. These are the women that are in danger, particularly single women, which is a status offensive to the Taliban. These are the women unable to leave without our immediate assistance, and who may well die without our immediate assistance. These are the women who believe they will die. 

You may be old enough to remember the video footage of public executions in the soccer stadium. The videos were taken by a brave woman who hid a camera under her burka. Women were shot in the head while attendees ate popcorn. Their offense was working, working to feed themselves and their children. We were told that they were executed because they were prostitutes, but the problem was that widows are unable to work, and thus unable to eat, and therefore must go out in public without a man to earn money and buy food.

The first UN post I was offered was in Kandahar in 1998, when the Taliban was formally in control. The mission was evacuated when the regional director from Pakistan, a woman, arrived to scout office space. She was unaccompanied by a male relative and was slapped in the face by the mayor for that offense.  

We are right back to the point in time when we are leaving an entire gender to be subjugated at best and, at worst, unemployed, hungry, trapped, enslaved, raped and killed. This is what the women I am working on getting out of Afghanistan fear, and it is a very valid fear, no matter what the Taliban is stating today about their new intention to be less misogynist and violent. The Taliban are using these women, depicting them as faces of their alleged new leniency (“look, here are women, they are working”) and at the same time sending them threats that they will be “cut to pieces” if they fail to dress appropriately. I have seen the threats myself. By doing nothing today, we are abandoning the Afghan women who embraced education and independence. And we do this even while we spend billions of dollars on bipartisan anti-human trafficking efforts.

Thousands of civilian volunteers are working tirelessly right now, pro bono, to help people. We are triaging the situation as best we can, without government resources and in spite of unnecessarily restrictive government policies. By next week our needs will be different. But right now, the window for women to depart, if it is indeed still open, is rapidly closing.

Please join me in calling on the Biden administration to immediately parole in Afghan women who wish to leave. More specifically, call on the administration 1) to initiate broad humanitarian parole, 2) to relax visa requirements for things that are now impossible to provide, 3) to supply the flights or enable others to land, and 4) to provide protected access, real protected access, to the airport or border.

We do not want to have to look back on this moment and say that we did nothing.


Dina Francesca Haynes is a law professor at New England Law in Boston, an international and immigration lawyer, and a humanitarian worker.


Suggested citation: Dina Haynes, We Have to Help Women in Afghanistan Now, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 22, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/08/Dina-Haynes-helping-Afghanistan-women/.

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